Gun laws vary state by state: CNBC Explains

Getty Images

In the United States, there are two different ways in which citizens can carry firearms: open carry, in which the weapon can be seen by a casual observer, and concealed carry, in which the weapon cannot.

Because there has never been a federal law that covers the issuance of concealed or open-carry permits, states determine the extent to which they can be issued. All 50 states allow, at some level, concealed carry, but some states are considerably more restrictive than others. California, Florida, Illinois, Texas, South Carolina and New York (as well as Washington, D.C.) are the only states to prohibit open carry of handguns in public.

Understanding concealed carry

There are three general categories into which state concealed-carry laws can be grouped: unrestricted (no permit or licensing required, but there may still be regulations on where guns can be taken in public), shall issue and may issue.

May-issue states require a permit for concealed carry. There, local authorities are given discretion as to whether to issue permits.

May-issue state laws vary, from largely permissive to permits being difficult to obtain, unless the applicant provides considerable justification.

In New Jersey, for example, all non-law-enforcement personnel must demonstrate "justifiable need," characterized by the state police as "urgent necessity for self-protection … that cannot be avoided by means other than by issuance of a permit to carry a handgun."

Shall-issue states require the issuance of a permit upon the fulfillment of a standardized set of criteria, which usually includes at least a minimum age and background check; some states require firearm safety training as well.

Understanding open carry

Three states (California, Florida and Illinois) and the District of Columbia prohibit the carrying of any firearm openly in public.

The restrictiveness of individual open-carry laws varies greatly by state. For instance, though both Hawaii and Georgia require licenses, Hawaii's process is more restrictive, while Georgia gives out permits on a shall-issue basis.

In some states, open carry for all nonprohibited citizens—those convicted of felonies, and noncitizens without plans to permanently immigrate—requires no specific permit.

Some states have no single, overarching open-carry law, which means that regulations are generally determined on the local level. In Oregon, Portland has an ordinance restricting open carry, though there is no general statewide law.

States such as New York and Illinois, which disallow open carry, sometimes have exceptions in certain circumstances (e.g. hunting in rural counties). Others, like Texas, disallow the open carry of handguns but not long guns.

Current trends in gun laws

In 1986, there were only eight shall-issue states and one state, Vermont, with no restriction; the rest of the country was more restrictive with concealed-carry gun laws. Today, the situation has loosened in terms of gun law; there are only nine may-issue states, and the rest have become shall-issue states, where law-enforcement discretion can be limited.

Battles continue within states over the place of guns in society, in the courts and at the level of state legislatures.

The District of Columbia's ban on all guns in public was declared unconstitutional in July, and D.C. enacted an emergency concealed-carry legislation banning open-carry but allowing concealed-carry and may-issue permitting.

Georgia resoundingly passed the Safe Carry Protection Act, which allows residents with a permit to bring concealed weapons into a number of public spaces, including bars and churches. A similar law was passed in North Carolina last year and another in Arizona in 2009.

In July 2013, Illinois adopted a shall-carry law, with significant law-enforcement discretion, after having previously disallowed the issuance of any concealed-carry permits.

Colorado has passed a comprehensive background check law. Washington state approved a ballot initiative in November 2014 for universal background checks. Connecticut passed a gun-control law in 2013, banning assault weapons and large-capacity magazines.

Understanding assault weapon laws

The 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act expired in 2004 and was not renewed by the federal government. Since then, there has been no federal law prohibiting or regulating the ownership or use of assault weapons.

That law defined "semiautomatic assault weapon" to mean one of 19 named weapons and their facsimiles, or a rifle, pistol or shotgun that fulfilled two of a list of certain characteristics. The law also banned the ownership or sale of large-capacity ammunition magazines.

Regulation of assault weapons now takes place at the state and local level. Seven states ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines outright: California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York, as well as the District of Columbia. These laws echo the expired 1994 Act, save for minor differences and generally more comprehensive lists of named, banned firearms.

Minnesota and Virginia regulate, but do not ban, the use and possession of assault weapons. Both prohibit ownership from anyone under 18. No other state either bans or regulates assault weapons. A number of counties and municipalities prohibit assault weapons, including Chicago's Cook County.

Colorado is the only state that bans high-capacity magazines but not assault weapons. Virginia and Maine restrict them to some degree, while they remain legal in all other states.

Not in our stores

There is a growing list of corporations requesting that customers not bring firearms into its retail locations.

Policies to discourage the open carry of guns in its stores have been implemented by other well-known nationwide chains within various segments of the retail industry—including supermarkets, restaurants, cafés and movie theaters. The policies have divided consumers and activists on both sides of the gun-control policy issue.

Panera Bread issued a policy in September 2014, though Panera had not had any serious issues with firearms at its stores.

"The request is, simply, we recognize everyone's rights," said Panera CEO Ron Shaich. "But we also recognize that we are building communities in our cafès, and [we] are where people come to catch a breath."

For some companies, the ban on firearms is explicit and more obvious based on business segment. Chuck E. Cheese's, the children's "birthday party" restaurant and arcade, has a policy posted at all of its locations, disallowing entry with weapons or firearms. The two largest movie theater chains—AMC Theatres and Regal Entertainment Group—disallow guns on its premises.

181392092AW00001_MAYORS_AGA
Getty Images

In July 2014, Target requested that people not bring firearms to Target locations, even where permissible by state law. CFO John Mulligan said bringing firearms into Target "creates an environment that is at odds with the family-friendly shopping and work experience we strive to create."

In May 2014, after saying that several guns rights advocates brought assault rifles into a Chipotle's location, Denver-based Chipotle Mexican Grill requested that its consumers no longer bring firearms.

In September 2013, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz announced that the company would disallow guns, similarly citing the use of Starbucks as a demonstration center for pro and antigun advocates. "Starbucks is not a policymaker, and we are not pro or antigun," Schultz told CNBC. "However, over the last few months or so, we have seen ourselves thrust into this debate in a way that is not consistent with the values and guiding principles of our company."

Other companies to adopt prohibitions on carry of guns include Sonic, Costco Wholesale, Chili's Grill & Bar and Jack in the Box.

Most chains—such as Starbucks and Target—do not actively bar firearms, but request that consumers not bring them in, partially because they fear staff having to confront armed customers. Ones that do issue stringent bans—for example, Chuck E. Cheese—treat violators as they would trespassers (legally similar to a "no shirt, no shoes, no service" policy).

Supermarkets have been targets of public campaigns in recent years—Kroger is currently the target of a high-profile campaign by gun law reform group Moms Demand Action. In addition to Target and Costco, Whole Foods, Giant Food Stores and Sprouts Farmers Market have adopted gun prohibitions.

For more information:

Companies that have been proactive on gun policy
(Source: Momsdemandaction.org)

Concealed carry state by state
(Source: Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence)

Open carry state by state
(Source: Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence)

NRA profile of state gun laws
(Source: NRA Institute for Legal Action)

Comparison of state gun laws
(Source: Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence)

By Nicholas Duva, special to CNBC.com