Constitutional Carry vs. Shall Issue: What’s the Difference?

Concealed carry laws can sometimes be confusing. States do things in different ways, and even localities can have their own laws in some states. We can’t address local laws, but we can help you out with state licensing regimes. Keep in mind that these are basic definitions, and you are responsible for knowing each state’s nuances.

carry handgun and holster
Some states require a license to carry. Some don’t. What’s the difference? (Shutterstock)

Basic Firearm Carry Categories

States have different laws concerning publicly carrying firearms. These laws are broken down into two overarching categories: concealed carry and open carry. They are exactly what their names imply, and individual state laws can vary considerably. For instance, when I lived in Texas, I had a concealed carry permit that allowed me to carry concealed or openly. But only a few years ago, open carry was prohibited entirely. Seems weird for Texas, but whatever.

I now live in Virginia, where I need a permit to carry concealed. But anyone who can legally own firearms can open carry with no permit, subject to local laws, since we’re one of those states. Again, you should always be familiar with the laws of your state or any state in which you plan to carry.

State Licensing Regimes

States issue permits (or not) under one of two basic regimes: “Constitutional Carry” or “Shall Issue.” Many states formerly operated under the “May Issue” regime, but gun rights organizations changed many of those to Shall Issue, and the 2022 Bruen Decision finally declared May Issue regimes to be unconstitutional. Let’s look at each of those, so everyone is clear on what they are and how they work.

Handgun with the Constitution
May Issue states are unconstitutional, but several are trying to hang on to that notion. (Shutterstock)

May Issue States

We’ll just hit this one briefly since they aren’t a thing anymore, though some states like New York and New Jersey are still trying to hang on to its vestiges. May Issue means that those states were not required to issue a carry permit to applicants, even if they were not federally prohibited from owning a gun. State or local officials could use their discretion to deny those applicants for just about any reason they could concoct.

Such states usually required the applicant to show a special need to carry a gun for self-defense and/or to demonstrate “good moral character.” That’s not subjective at all, is it? The result was that most applications were denied. You usually had to be rich, famous, or know someone to get a permit. New York’s abuse of May Issue rules led directly to the Bruen Decision’s directive that all states become Shall Issue.

Shall Issue States

Shall Issue means that states must issue a carry permit to qualified applicants who are lawfully eligible to own a firearm. Now, that doesn’t mean those states won’t throw as many roadblocks as possible in your way. Every state-issued carry permitting scheme of which I’m aware includes some form of training requirement. Some are fairly basic, while others are quite extensive, and are deliberately designed to deter applicants. Maryland and New Jersey come to mind. They’re required to issue the permit, but only after you meet the sometimes-ridiculous requirements. New York was recently slapped down for that, and Maryland is being sued right now.

But, essentially, Shall Issue states must give you a permit. The current fight is over how many hoops they can require you to jump through beforehand.

Maryland handgun qualification license
Maryland is technically a “Shall Issue” state, but they have lots of hoops, like the Handgun Qualification License, which is a prerequisite for even possessing a handgun. The state is currently being sued over it.

Constitutional Carry States

Constitutional Carry means that the Second Amendment is your carry permit. Many of us believe that should be a nationwide policy. If you are lawfully able to own and possess a firearm, you can carry in a Constitutional Carry state. Constitutional Carry is also referred to as “permitless carry,” since no permit is required. There are currently 27 Constitutional Carry states in the US. *UPDATE* South Carolina and Louisiana have instituted Constitutional Carry regimes since this article was written, bringing the total to 29. The Louisiana law will not take effect until July 4, 2024.

Most, if not all, of those states still have a permitting program. You can choose to get that permit if you like. And there’s a good reason to consider doing that…

Carry Reciprocity

Reciprocity refers to states honoring one another’s carry permits. Most gun-friendly states have reciprocity with one another, while most anti-gun states do not honor any permit other than their own. After all, they don’t even want their own citizens to carry, why would they let you? Reciprocity maps are easily found online. Make sure you know the law if you’re traveling.

Constitutional Carry is great, but there is no reciprocity except with other Constitutional Carry states. That cuts down on your carry options. Until we get nationwide reciprocity (don’t hold your breath), having a carry permit is a good idea if you travel, even if your state doesn’t require one.

Current Constitutional Carry states
There are 27 Constitutional Carry states as of January 2024. (Author’s map)

Local Carry Restrictions

I said I wouldn’t go into local carry laws, and I can’t do anything specific because there are so many. But you need to understand that some states allow localities to trip up unsuspecting permit holders from other parts of the state. I live in the mountains of Southwest Virginia, for instance, but if I were to travel to the DC suburbs for some Godawful reason, I’d have to be on my toes. Those counties and cities are gun control central, and they don’t take kindly to people exercising their rights. I wish we could give them to Maryland, but that’s a rant for another day.

An easy way to tell whether a particular state allows local gun control is to look up whether they have a state gun control preemption law. Preemption laws prohibit localities from enacting gun control measures that are stricter than state law. We had that in Virginia until a few years back, when a certain political party grabbed control of the legislature. Elections have consequences, and we are still fighting against further infringements.

Know the Law

The Bruen Decision got rid of May Issue states, but each state has its own way of doing things. Even Constitutional Carry states will have nuances making them unique. Fortunately, there are organizations like USCCA and state level organizations like the Virginia Citizens Defense League that make it easy to read up on your state’s, and other states’, firearms laws.

We may not like gun laws, but not following them still has consequences. Be aware of your state’s permitting and carry requirements beforehand, and your path to legally carrying will be much smoother.

William "Bucky" Lawson is a self-described "typical Appalachian-American gun enthusiast". He is a military historian specializing in World War II and has written a few things, as he says, "here and there". A featured contributor for Strategy & Tactics, he likes dogs, range time, and a good cigar - preferably with an Old Fashioned that has an extra orange slice.

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