More than 20 million Americans currently hold a permit to carry a concealed weapon, a historically high number that comes ahead of what will likely be a landmark Supreme Court ruling regarding carry rights under the Second Amendment.
The court last month said it would take up an appeal by two U.S. gun owners on the question of whether or not the Second Amendment protects an American's right to carry a concealed firearm. Previous court rulings have affirmed that the amendment protects the individual right of American citizens to own guns.
The concealed carry question has eluded constitutional scrutiny thus far, even as the number of Americans possessing concealed permits has soared to historic levels.
The latest concealed carry permit data, compiled by the Second Amendment-friendly nonprofit Crime Prevention Research Center, showed about 19.5 million concealed carriers in the U.S. in October of last year. Updated data from several states through March of this year added over 750,000 permit-holders, placing the number well above twenty million.
The CPRC releases an annual report on the number of concealed carriers in the U.S. In its 2020 rundown, the group noted that concealed permits had soared under President Donald Trump's administration, jumping by 34% over the course of his four years in office.
The report noted that the growth in concealed carry permits slowed down throughout 2020 due to many states having shut down their issuance of new permits amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Still, the number of permits clearly surged throughout 2020, much of that driven by notable demographic trends: Permits for women and nonwhite Americans "continue[d] to increase at a much faster rate than for either men or whites," according to the report.
John Lott, the president of the CPRC, said that "at least 7.8% of the adult population" currently has a concealed carry permit.
"We have seen the largest increases in permits among women and minorities (Asians and blacks)," he said. "It has changed as those groups of people have come to recognize that it is people who are relatively weaker physically and those who are the most likely victims of violent crime who benefit the most from carrying concealed."
"I think a lot of the reason that people get concealed handgun permits is the same reason that people buy guns," he continued. "This past year we saw situations where large percentages of inmates were [released early from] jails and prisons, police were being ordered to stand down or had their budgets cut, and prosecutors in heavily Democratic cities were refusing to prosecute criminals."
"People want the police to be able to protect them, but they see that police haven't been able to do their job so that they have to be able to protect themselves."
Overall gun data across the U.S. can be notoriously difficult to wrangle. The CPRC notes that gun ownership surveys can be skewed by "people's unwillingness to answer personal questions" about their firearm purchases. Concealed carry data, on the other hand, are generally more concrete and less subject to uncertainty.
Even that data, however, does not capture the entire landscape of U.S. concealed carry habits. The CPRC notes that well over a dozen states in recent years have passed what is called "constitutional carry" provisions, which allow citizens to carry firearms without first needing to seek a permit.
"Because of these constitutional carry states, the nationwide growth in permits does not paint a full picture of the overall increase in concealed carry," the group says.
Lott said the upcoming Supreme Court decision, if it rules in favor of Second Amendment rights, may cause that number to explode.
"Depending on how the Supreme Court rules in the New York concealed carry case there could be a massive increase in permits in states such as California and New York," he said.
Long regarded by many scholars as little more than a curious historical artifact, the Second Amendment received renewed attention starting in 2008, when the Supreme Court affirmed that the amendment protects an individual right to own a firearm.
Gun control advocates had for years insisted that the right codified by the Second Amendment was dependent upon service in a state militia, with some activists claiming that the National Guard effectively serves that role in the modern U.S.
A narrow Supreme Court majority rejected that interpretation, holding that the federal government may not absolutely restrict an individual's right to own a firearm. The court later applied that reading to state governments as well.