The Wild West is about to get wilder - on Thursday, Arizona will join Alaska and Vermont as one of the states with the country's most liberal gun laws.
Senate Bill 1108 removes the requirement that gun owners must be trained and licensed to carry a concealed weapon.
Arizona already allows for "open carry" - anyone not legally prohibited from possessing a firearm, such as convicted felons or those adjudicated mentally incompetent, can carry firearms in public as long as they are clearly visible. After Thursday, the requirement that weapons be displayed openly will be dropped, and anyone who is not a "prohibited possessor" will be able to carry concealed weapons.
The new law will not remove restrictions on places where it is forbidden to carry weapons, including schools, hydroelectric or nuclear power plants, polling places, federal buildings or businesses that have posted specific signs prohibiting weapons. Establishments that serve alcohol will still be "no-carry" zones for those without a concealed-weapons permit, and gun owners will not be allowed to drink alcohol while carrying a weapon.
Also, anyone who carries a concealed firearm over the state line will need a concealed-weapons permit to avoid violating other states' handgun laws.
Despite the caveats, the new law enhances Arizonans' freedom, said Charles Heller, a radio talk-show host.
Heller is a concealed-weapons course instructor and secretary of the Arizona Citizen's Defense League, a group whose efforts are directed at "expanding the rights of law-abiding gun owners." He says the freedom to carry weapons and defend oneself from attackers is at the heart of the law.
Once the law takes effect, he said, "Innocent people aren't going to be harassed because their purse got set down on a car seat (and accidentally covered an openly displayed weapon) or their shirttail came out" and covered an openly carried weapon.
Heller said the law also removes a barrier to people who might want to carry concealed weapons but don't have the time or money to invest in a training course. Currently, a CCW - carrying a concealed weapon - course costs about $80 plus another $60 to the Department of Public Safety to issue the permit.
There are nearly 160,000 active concealed weapons permits in Arizona, DPS statistics show. About 26,000 of them - 16 percent - are held in Pima County.
DPS spokesman Bart Graves said the agency expects a decrease in applications for concealed-weapons permits once the law goes into effect. But he, along with many supporters of the new law, said he hopes people who want to carry weapons will still seek out some form of training.
Josh Katz, owner of The Armory on Pima, says he supports the new law because it strengthens the Second Amendment. But he urges people to get education and training in the use of their guns and their rights and legal responsibilities as gun owners.
"Let me be clear - I'm not opposed," he said. "The law passing is good, but people need to have some of the education involved in training for the license to carry concealed."
Local gun owner Dan Demer is licensed to carry a concealed weapon, and said he wouldn't mind more regulations on the process.
"I would feel safer if everyone was required to take courses," he said. "Most people that have gone through the classes are conscientious about handling weapons - it's a big responsibility."
Part of that responsibility is knowing what the law says about self-defense, Heller said. For example, the threat or use of force is not justified "in response to verbal provocation alone" or "if the person provoked the other's use or attempted use of unlawful physical force" in most cases.
The state laws that address the justifications for use of deadly force in Arizona can be found in ARS 13-401 through ARS 13-421 at www.azleg.state.az.us/ArizonaRevisedStatutes.asp?Title=13
Brian Malte, state legislation director at the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said easing the prerequisites for carrying concealed weapons is a risky proposition. He's especially concerned about population density. Vermont and Alaska, the other two states that allow concealed weapons without a permit, each has fewer than 700,000 people. Arizona's population is about 6.5 million.
"Having loaded guns in crowded situations - on public transit or on crowded streets - is not a good idea," he said.
Tucsonan Mark Reinl-Bautista said he fired guns as a child but prefers not to own one now. He said he is concerned about the presence of guns in the community in general.
"I don't know if it makes them (people who carry guns) feel safer," he said, "but it doesn't make me feel safer."
Contact reporter Clayton R. Norman at email@example.com or 573-4142.