Could law enforcement, people’s rights influence the outcome of two controversial bills?

Safety and people’s rights at the center of permitless concealed carry, police buffer debate
Safety and people’s rights are at the center of a permitless concealed carry and police buffer debate in Baton Rouge.
Published: May. 24, 2023 at 8:32 PM CDT
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BATON ROUGE, La. (KALB) - Many bills are stirring up controversy in Louisiana’s 2023 Legislative Session. There are two issues that largely receive Republican support but have received mixed reactions from some lawmakers and even law enforcement.

May 24, 2023, marks one year since the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, where 19 children and two teachers were shot and killed by an 18-year-old who legally purchased a semi-automatic weapon. In the wake of that shooting, a concealed carry bill in the Louisiana Legislature stalled in the Senate despite House support. Now the author of that bill is trying again, his fourth attempt in his fourth term, and the burden again lies on the Senate.

“Do you trust the people of the United States with their rights? Or do you trust the government with their rights?” asked State Rep. Danny McCormick (R-District 1).

HB131, authored by McCormick, soared through the House in a 71-29 vote Tuesday, May 23, with lawmakers approving a measure to make concealed carry permitless for anyone 18 and older.

“There are two ways you can carry in Louisiana legally now. You can open carry, or you can conceal carry with a permit,” explained McCormick. “This is just a third way, which kind of mimics open carry. If you can legally open carry, you can legally conceal carry without a permit.”

McCormick’s bill would establish what has become known as ‘constitutional carry,’ meaning there are no training or background requirements.

“Constitutional carry would not be constitutional carry if it had to meet government requirements.”

- State Rep. Danny McCormick on HB131

As it now moves to the Senate, the lack of requirements could put its final passage in jeopardy.

“If you’re going to carry in a responsible way, you should go out to the range and learn how to shoot it, how to put it on safety,” said State Sen. Louie Bernard (R-District 31). “You should learn a lot of things that go hand in hand with the safe usage of a weapon.”

For Bernard, who represents Natchitoches, a simple background check is all he wants to see added on. That was not originally the case. In 2021, a similar proposal by State Sen. Jay Morris (R-District 35) made its way through the legislature. It was vetoed by Governor John Bel Edwards and went to a veto override session, where several senators who initially supported the bill reversed course, including Bernard.

“My phone started ringing off the wall with law enforcement people,” said Bernard.

Those phone calls came from law enforcement who felt like permitless concealed carry without any training or background checks added another layer of risk for their officers.

“I have backed the blue for as long as I have been in politics,” said Bernard. “But I felt like if that’s the way they felt, if they’re going to get up in the morning, put on the uniform and try to go back home at night, I should at least respect their viewpoint.”

One of those law enforcement officials who opposed the bill was Darrell Basco, the president of the Fraternal Order of Police, who also happens to be the chief of police in Pineville. Basco represents about 6,000 law enforcement officers through the FOP.

“I think with law enforcement, while we are supportive to a second amendment group, the blanket, ‘Let’s let everybody do it without any instruction,’ is where we have the problem,” explained Basco.

He said some of his street officers might not feel safe with the lack of requirements.

For Grant Parish Sheriff Steven McCain, if the bill is intended to be in alignment with the second amendment, he agrees with it at face value. For his officers, it will not change the way they approach safety.

“We have got to be ready for any situation at any time,” explained McCain. “And so, we’ve got to take every encounter that poses a danger very seriously. Just because we see a gun or we don’t see a gun, we still have to be ready to react and to take care of ourselves and everyone around us.”

McCain said the training for officers is already there, and Rapides Parish Sheriff Mark Wood said the same. Wood said criminals do not care about the laws and average citizens should be able to protect themselves.

“Why would you hinder an average citizen to do something a bad guy’s not going to do?” asked Wood.

The bill’s author and law enforcement officials all agree that the responsibility is on the person to respect the firearm and ensure safety. However, where there is mixed support from law enforcement over concealed carry and officer safety, that is not the case for one Central Louisiana lawmaker’s bill.

HB85 by State Rep. Mike Johnson (R-District 27) would require a 25 feet between an officer engaged in their official duties and a member of the public, if that person were asked to back up or retreat. It essentially creates a buffer. If the individual fails to comply, they could be charged with a misdemeanor.

The violation would be a misdemeanor with a fine of not more than $500, imprisonment for a maximum of 60 days or both.

“This bill simply tries to help our police officers do their job,” said Johnson.

Johnson calls his proposal a safety bill for the officers and the public. It passed the House on May 11 in a 67-32 vote, and Bernard is taking over and carrying it on the Senate side.

“I think they’re just trying to get a little space to do their work,” said Bernard. “It’s as simple as that.”

Unlike McCormick’s concealed carry bill, the FOP is backing HB85.

“We’re seeing an increase nationwide of people that are interacting, maybe not to the interference part, that they’re physically getting involved.”

Darrell Basco, president of the Fraternal Order of Police

Basco said training emphasizes that an officer can be cut with a knife by a person within 21 feet before they are able to draw their weapon.

“People were questioning, well, ‘Why 25, not 30? Why not 15, or why not 10?’ Well, that’s the reason,” explained Basco. “If we can get past 25 feet, creating another four-foot buffer zone on the side of that, that gets us in a safe place of where we want to be.”

Basco believes it will help with de-escalation efforts during police interactions, but opponents are concerned with the public’s rights, like videoing those interactions.

“You can still video. The phones nowadays, that’s no problem,” said Wood. “We’re not telling you not to video anybody. That’s your right.”

“I can see the whiskers on a kitty kat from 25 feet away. It’s not interfering with that at all,” said Johnson.

Opponents argue it is not just about the video, but audio too.

“You can’t hear what’s going on. You can film somewhat,” said State Rep. Wilford Carter (D-District 34), who described how he had tried filming from 25 feet away. “But, this bill would interfere with the citizen’s right to record what the officer is doing.”

Groups like the ACLU of Louisiana have alleged the same claim.

Both the conceal carry and buffer bill are now on the Senate side, where so far this session, Senate Republicans have not been on the same page with the House Republicans on a number of big issues. Both chambers have Republican super-majorities.

The legislative session must end by June 8.

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