Hoosier lawmakers poised to possibly recommend eliminating handgun carry licenses

State Rep. Jim Lucas, R-Seymour, seeks recognition during a Thursday meeting of a legislative study committee that's reviewing Indiana's handgun carry license requirements.

Dan Carden, The Times

INDIANAPOLIS — Supporters and opponents of eliminating Indiana's license requirement to carry a handgun in public appear to have had little impact on the members of a legislative study committee examining the controversial issue.

For nearly 10 hours over two meetings, a variety of studies, statistics, reports and anecdotes were presented to lawmakers in an effort to persuade them of the benefits of permitless carry or the perils of removing state oversight of who can have a loaded weapon on the streets. The first meeting was held Aug. 22 and the second Thursday.

In the end, seemingly no research result remained uncontested or undisputed as pro- and anti-gun groups continuously directed state representatives and senators to competing data that reinforced their already existing policy preferences.

On one side were constitutional absolutists, including state Rep. Jim Lucas, R-Seymour, who believe that since the Indiana Constitution proscribes, "The people shall have a right to bear arms for the defense of themselves and the state," then any limitation of that right is inherently unconstitutional.

"I don't see why we're forcing innocent Hoosiers to get fingerprinted, pay the state a fee and jump through hoops to get a little pink card," Lucas said, referring to the state police license allowing adult Hoosiers to carry a handgun, openly or concealed, in most public places.

Under state law, Hoosiers are not required to obtain a permit to purchase a gun or ammunition, carry a rifle or shotgun in public or possess a handgun in their home or on property that they own.

Those favoring retention of the existing system, including Democratic Marion County Prosecutor Terry Curry, said Indiana already is plagued by gun crime and putting more handguns on the street with no oversight will endanger police and other public safety officials.

"In terms of the permit requirement it is simply not a burdensome requirement," Curry said. "It is a reasonable requirement that takes virtually no time to complete."

State police data show 134,290 carry permits were issued in 2016, including 7,534 new permits in Lake County, 2,902 in Porter County, 2,150 in LaPorte County, 294 in Newton County and 752 in Jasper County.

Altogether, there are 46,220 carry permit holders living in Lake County, 18,750 in Porter County, 12,054 in LaPorte County, 2,033 in Newton County and 4,337 in Jasper County, according to state police records.

A total of 4,802 carry permit applications were rejected by state police in 2016 for reasons including prior felony convictions, domestic violence convictions, known mental health issues or recent arrests for gun-related felonies.

Across the country, 13 states allow their residents and visitors to carry handguns in public without any kind of license or permit.

Lucas' proposal that Indiana do the same, House Bill 1159, did not receive a committee vote this year in the Republican-controlled House, in part to avoid becoming a distraction during a budget session and Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb's first year in office.

The study committee review that Lucas won instead is due to recommend on Oct. 12 whether the 2018 General Assembly should approve permitless carry for Indiana.

So far, the panel only tangentially has looked at how eliminating carry permits would affect other parts of the state's criminal code, such as how to charge a convicted felon banned from owning a handgun who nevertheless is found carrying one in public.

It also has not determined how the state will replace approximately $5 million in annual revenue generated by carry permit application fees, or whether the 800,000 past purchasers of lifetime carry permits would be entitled to a partial refund.

State Rep. Charlie Brown, D-Gary, doubts such practical questions will deter the Republican-dominated study committee from endorsing permitless carry if the chairman, state Sen. Rod Bray, R-Martinsville, allows a vote on a policy recommendation.

"This is really a waste of time because if there is a vote it's going to pass out of here," Brown said.

He suggested the Republican legislative supermajorities then would be under significant pressure, in an election year, from the National Rifle Association and other pro-gun groups to follow through and enact permitless carry, even if most Hoosiers don't necessarily want it.

"I appreciate some of my colleagues being rabid about the ability to carry a weapon," Brown said, "but there are many that feel just the opposite — they are, I think, the silent majority."

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Dan is Statehouse Bureau Chief for The Times. Since 2009, he's reported on Indiana government and politics — and how both impact the Region — from the state capital in Indianapolis. He originally is from Orland Park, Ill.