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Josette Severson, right, demonstrates gripping a handgun using a fake firearm during a concealed weapon class Saturday, July 29, 2017, in Bismarck. John Hageman / Forum News Service

As permitless carry law takes effect, ND gun debate flares up

BISMARCK—As four men lined up at a Bismarck gun range, Josette Severson gave firm instructions.

"Please load and make ready," she said.

With the sound an electronic beep, they began firing handguns at pieces of paper a few yards away. Severson swept up shell casings that littered the floor between rounds.

Wearing matching shirts bearing the logo of their business, Prairie Patriot Firearms Training, Severson and her husband Robert guided students through gun safety fundamentals and state law governing firearms. It was their last concealed weapons class before the state's new permitless carry law takes effect Tuesday, Aug. 1.

The so-called "constitutional carry" bill sailed through the Republican-controlled Legislature this year with less than two dozen dissenting votes. And with the stroke of Gov. Doug Burgum's pen, North Dakota joined a growing list of states that allow law-abiding people to carry a concealed firearm without a permit.

While proponents say the legislation helps uphold gun rights enshrined in the Constitution and doesn't turn its adoptive states into the "Wild West," some worry that loosening requirements will endanger the public.

"I think it's going to create a lot of issues for law enforcement," Grand Forks County Sheriff Bob Rost said. "There's going to be people carrying who shouldn't be carrying because there's no background (check) or anything done on them. There's going to be people shooting firearms who don't know how to shoot them."

It's unclear how many people will take advantage of the new law. There were 48,700 active North Dakota concealed weapons licenses as of Dec. 31, and the state Bureau of Criminal Investigation issued 12,246 licenses last year.

"I'm sure there will be" more people carrying concealed weapons, said Bismarck Republican Rep. Rick Becker, the bill's primary sponsor. "I don't think it's going to be a dramatic increase, but it'll be some. And it won't change anything about how we go about our business in North Dakota."

'A right and a responsibility'

North Dakota offers two classes of concealed weapons licenses that will remain in place after Tuesday. A Class 1 permit includes more training requirements but has reciprocity with more states than the Class 2 license. A criminal background check is conducted on every new and renewal applicant, according to the attorney general's office.

The new "constitutional carry" provisions only apply within the state's borders and to North Dakotans who are at least 18 years old and have been a resident of the state for one year. People carrying under the new law can't be prohibited by state or federal law from possessing a firearm and must inform law enforcement that they have a gun when they have "any in-person contact" with an officer, according to the attorney general's office.

Twelve states, including North Dakota, allow permitless carry, while Montana allows it in areas outside of city limits, according to the National Rifle Association. The proliferation of such laws has accelerated in the past two years, with eight states enacting permitless carry since April 2015.

That trend appears to go against public opinion.

Eighty-one percent of Americans are opposed to allowing people to carry concealed guns without a permit, according to a recent Pew Research Center poll. Two-thirds strongly oppose the idea.

South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard, a Republican, vetoed a permitless carry bill in March. Arguing that existing laws were effective in "screening people who are not eligible to carry a concealed weapon," he said the state's two most populous counties turned down almost 600 permit applicants over the last three years because of mental illness or criminal history.

Less than a week later, Burgum signed House Bill 1169. The first-term Republican governor noted the existing Class 2 license requirements don't include firearms training but rather just an open-book test.

Burgum, who had a Class 1 license as of March, still encouraged those considering carrying a concealed weapon to enroll in a gun safety course.

"Gun ownership is both a right and a responsibility, and that responsibility begins with individuals and families," Burgum said in a statement after signing the bill.

Still, Burgum asked lawmakers and law enforcement to "closely monitor this new law with a continual focus on public safety." The governor's office said Burgum wasn't available for an interview.

Bismarck Rep. Vernon Laning, one of only two House Republicans to vote against the bill, said he's surprised to see how many people come into the hunter education classes he teaches without any experience handling a gun.

"I think people should have some familiarity with firearms before they start carrying concealed guns," he said, although he wasn't sure that should necessarily require a permit. "I think it could be a danger to themselves and others."

Safety nets

For Cathy Lee, guns come up in seemingly the most benign of tasks.

"Nowadays when you're making playdates for kids it's, 'Do you have a gun in your home? Is it properly secured and stored away?'" she said.

Lee, a volunteer for the North Dakota chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, joined the group out of general concern for her son's safety. She said she's not against guns, but she worries the change will make it easier for "unvetted people" to carry a concealed weapon. Proponents, meanwhile, argue that criminals will ignore the licensure requirements anyway.

"It's taking away all of our safety nets," Lee said. "There will always be people who break the law, but we have laws in place to protect us and keep us safe."

Chris Kopacki, state liaison for the NRA, said the law doesn't change the eligibility requirements for carrying a weapon, and the attorney general's office said restrictions on places a firearm may be carried still apply. Responding to a common argument from opponents, Kopacki drew a distinction between requiring a license to drive a car and the constitutional right to bear arms.

Still, Kopacki said the organization encourages firearms training.

"We definitely don't advocate for anything less than responsible carry," he said. "But we definitely don't think that law-abiding individuals with no proven history should be penalized and have to pay to use a constitutional right."

Josette Severson said the new law could be a "great thing ... as long as citizens take it seriously and responsibly" by training with a firearm and maintaining proficiency. In a small classroom next to the indoor range, she demonstrated how to safely handle a firearm, from properly gripping a handgun to the importance of breathing while shooting.

"I wish that people still had to take some type of a safety training," Severson said. "There's so much more that happens behind the scenes that people need to realize."

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