Your basic training course was probably deficient
Many states require some level of basic training before issuing a concealed handgun permit, though this is not universal. Whether training should be mandated, or even whether permitting should be required at all, is a valid and ongoing debate. As more and more states adopt “permitless carry” or “constitutional carry” legislation, the question of what training those who carry should pursue, even if they are not required to do so, is only becoming more relevant.
Anyone who has been through a state-mandated training course to qualify for a concealed handgun permit is likely to have had the same general experiences I did when first making my application. The training usually feels like it is just a formality, and there is only so much that can even be covered in the allotted time anyway. Most of the time is devoted to very basic gun handling material that anyone considering carrying a handgun should probably already know.
Those who may benefit from the beginner level information often don’t, because it is generally possible to zone out completely during the course and still pass. Those students may not be there because they have a genuine interest in learning, but just because they have to. Maybe a spouse, significant other, or other family member is encouraging them to carry when they otherwise wouldn’t have the desire to. Maybe they just want to have a permit “in case they need it” without planning on full engagement in what really amounts to a full-time concealed carry lifestyle. No matter how interested you are in the training, or how much attention you pay, you will have unanswered questions. These questions may not even come to mind until much later, when you’ve been carrying regularly and dealing with the day-to-day of it.
But what can sometimes be more dangerous than disinterested ignorance is well-meaning misinformation. In my first concealed handgun training course, I was told some things that I later found out were just wrong regarding prohibited carry locations. I’ve met many other permit holders that have the wrong ideas about the applicable law, and a lot of the same myths continually resurface. When I became an attorney, I gained some insight into why this happens: laws are confusing, inconsistent, and constantly subject to change and interpretation. They are, by design, the product of design by committee. It is no wonder that laypersons have a hard time keeping it straight. I know I do.
One of my primary motivations in becoming an instructor was to do my part to remedy these problems. During the process of becoming certified I met many other instructors, and found that the issue goes deeper than I thought. Many instructors themselves would make incorrect pronouncements of the law. I witnessed a fellow Louisiana instructor confidently announce the Texas legal standard on carrying in bars as if it were our own. This isn’t necessarily the fault of the instructors as much as it is the legislators. The Louisiana rule is confusing and affected by more than one statute, which themselves leave a pretty significant gray area as written. Even so, regardless of where the fault may lie, the responsibility is ultimately with the concealed carriers themselves to make their best effort to keep themselves within the law. Where these gray areas exist, the best an instructor can do is to point them out. A bright line rule isn’t always possible to give, and you may have to take a calculated risk with your conduct here and there. You can’t rely on arguing “misinformation by an instructor” as a defense in your criminal proceeding.
Steps you can take and missteps you can make
Most concealed carry circles, whether they be websites like this one, message boards, instructors, gun clubs, et cetera, will encourage everyone to seek further training beyond the minimum requirements. This is great advice, and training should be continued and ongoing. You can always get better. However, most of these further training recommendations revolve around shooting or other self-defense skills. While it is never bad to get even better at shooting, drawing, or martial arts, these skills are only part of the equation for concealed carry. Good shooting skills in a legally “bad shoot” might just make you guilty of murder instead of aggravated assault.
Beyond concerns for the lawful use of force, the fact is you spend the vast majority of your time just carrying, and you may never actually end up drawing or shooting. This means that you’re probably more likely to have a run-in with the law than with a dangerous criminal. Even minor criminal or concealed carry offenses can significantly impact your life, or at least get your permit suspended or revoked.
Ensuring that your conduct stays within the law is equally (if not more) important than ensuring your rounds stay within the target. In addition to legal training on the lawful use of force, you also need to keep up with your training on lawful carrying. As mentioned above, there are many nuances and gray areas in concealed carry law, the laws vary wildly between the states, and the laws are frequently updated. Even if the law was taught to you correctly in a training course, it may have changed before your next required renewal course. There are almost certainly other relevant laws that didn’t make the cut in your training course, or were simply glossed over, that you would do well to learn.
I came out of law school not really knowing the first thing about practicing law, despite meeting the “minimum necessary qualifications,” and I am required to seek a certain number of continuing legal education hours each year. As a concealed carrier, you should consider doing something similar. Chances are, a concealed carrier with a newly minted permit only has a tenuous grasp on all the new laws that suddenly apply to them, and keeping up with those laws is a continuing responsibility.
I often see people recommending different books on the law of deadly force, which is fine, at least from a perspective of academic interest. Reading books like this can help, but you need to keep the limitations in mind. Always remember that state laws differ. It is not sufficient to read books on the law of self-defense generally without a study of any idiosyncrasies of your specific state. As they say, the devil is in the details. You don’t want to learn about the minor differences between your state’s laws and the general trend of the nation after you’ve been charged with murder. Even a summary of your specific state’s law (for example: X state has “no duty to retreat”) is not necessarily sufficient on its own. There may be some subtle exceptions or limitations that could make all the difference.
To best prepare yourself, the first thing that I would encourage every concealed carrier to do is to track down their state’s specific statutes regulating concealed carry and the use of deadly force. This can be a daunting task, as they are not always organized clearly or cross-referenced, and you may not even realize you’ve missed something. There are a variety of websites out there, including this one, that provide state-specific summaries of the relevant laws, and that is a good place to start. However, beware of relying on excerpts and summaries. You should take the time to track down and read the full text of all referenced statutes, any other statutes or regulations referenced by them (or even just near them in their respective bodies of law), or even search key words to the best of your ability. Generally, all of your state’s laws can be accessed via your state legislature’s website, though it may or may not be particularly user friendly.
You will certainly have questions, and many things may not make sense. You should write those questions down, and make a list of any concerns you have. Armed with your newfound confusion, you should seek out the advice of a local attorney. If you can find any attorneys who are also concealed carry instructors, that would be great, but any competent criminal defense attorney should be fine. This may cost you a small consultation fee, but this fee is likely not more than any training course would cost anyway. You may also find an attorney willing to talk to you for free, as many law practices are based on client loyalty – helping you with your questions today could mean you bring that lawyer your car wreck case tomorrow.
There are other benefits of establishing a relationship with a criminal defense attorney as well. The attorney can advise you on how to behave and what to say to police if you have to use your gun. Additionally, If you found yourself in handcuffs after a self-defense shooting today, trying to assert your constitutional right to an attorney, do you know who that attorney is? It is much better to know in advance who you plan to call if you find yourself in trouble. You don’t want to have to start shopping around for an attorney after you’ve got pending criminal charges. You might be stuck in jail and relying on your family to choose an attorney for you. It could be one of the most important decisions you make, so you will want the benefit of time and sober-minded reflection.
Even if you’ve done all of this, and feel like you have a firm grasp on all the relevant laws, you can’t just rest on your laurels. Any given legislative session could result in changes to these laws. While it would be best for you to keep up with this by getting involved in your own government, fighting for pro-carry bills and opposing anti-carry measures, I know that this is a difficult thing for most people to do. Even so, you should make it your practice to check once a year and see if any of the laws that apply to carrying and using a gun have been changed, and if so, to familiarize yourself with those changes.
Be wary of strangers on the internet
I frequently see people asking questions online about specific legal issues related to carrying a gun. This can be helpful, but you have to keep the right mindset. You can’t conclusively rely on the advice of strangers on the internet, and most websites (including this one) and communities will have disclaimers to this effect.
While there is a lot of good advice online, you are still ultimately responsible for any decisions you make. I see lots of discussion, for example, on topics such as whether “No Guns Allowed” signs carry the force of law. The differences from state to state can be very stark, with answers from yes to no to maybe so. Even when signs don’t have the force of law, you have to ask yourself what other laws may. Even if you are only subject to “removal from the premises” or “being asked to leave,” this could become a crime if you decide to be fussy about it, or even if there is some kind of misunderstanding, depending on circumstances and the way trespassing law is written in that state. Even if the concealed handgun law says it isn’t a crime, the police can always figure out something to charge you with if they get called out to a disturbance. Even being 100% in the right, there are costs associated with getting any case dismissed and arrests expunged.
I know what you’re thinking. You’re reading this on the internet, and I’m a stranger to you, so you shouldn’t listen to what I say. Well done! You’re doing it right! You should be skeptical of anything you read or hear. You absolutely should not rely conclusively on anything you’ve read in this article. I’m not your attorney. The whole point is for you to seek specialized advice from a competent, local attorney. And even if you do, no lawyer, however knowledgeable, can guarantee that their interpretation of the law is correct. You can never have complete confidence that even what is plainly stated in the law is what it will actually mean to any given court. Even decisions of the United States Supreme Court are subject to change, little by little, or even all at once. Life is full of risk. You carry a gun to mitigate some of the risk of violent attack, but you know that it can never be eliminated. It works the same way with the law. You need to learn the necessary laws to mitigate the risk of criminal liability, but that risk can never be completely avoided.
As exciting as guns and shooting can be, especially compared to how dry studying the law can be, no amount of concealed carry training is complete without being familiar with all applicable laws. Having an established relationship with a criminal defense attorney can help with this, and is a very important consideration for anyone packing a pistol in their pants. You should be equally enthusiastic about exercising your 6th Amendment right to counsel as you are your 2nd Amendment right to bear arms. There are lots of great resources available for you to keep up with changes in the law, provided you are cautious and take everything with a grain of salt. No matter what, you are ultimately responsible for your conduct, but it is incumbent upon you to make your best effort to protect yourself from threats both illegal and legal.