Packing Pistols and Pulling Pints

More states are allowing patrons to bring guns into bars, but what effect will the laws actually have?
by | February 2011

For years, many states have allowed citizens to carry firearms into places that sell alcohol. But a series of gun laws passed last year raised new questions about where gun-toting citizens are allowed to go. The controversy centered mostly on the definition of "bars" versus "restaurants." In the past, most states banned guns in establishments that earned more than half their money from alcohol (although what counts as a "bar" can vary state to state). Now that’s changing, as a handful of states have recently expanded gun rights to include bars as well as restaurants.

That’s a risky move, according to gun control advocates. Alcohol and firearms make for a bad combination, they say, and allowing guns in bars puts principle above personal safety. "The issue here seems to be more symbolic, and also very dangerous," says Laura Cutilletta, senior staff attorney for the Legal Community Against Violence, a legal-aid group focused on preventing gun violence. Cutilletta and her peers say that permitting handguns in bars creates a potentially hazardous environment for patrons and workers.

Gun rights advocates say these laws are merely an extension of their existing Second Amendment rights -- that they should be able to protect themselves no matter where they are. Furthermore, they say, forcing bar-going gun owners to leave their firearms in their cars could potentially be dangerous.

For years, the only state where bar patrons could carry firearms was Maine, which has allowed firearms in bars since 1989. Other states, however, have been hesitant to adopt similar legislation -- until recently. In 2009, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed legislation allowing guns in bars and restaurants that serve alcohol. Last year, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue supported similar legislation in their states, signing the bills into law after their state legislatures approved them. And although Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen vetoed his state’s legislation, saying that "guns and alcohol don’t mix," the state House overrode his veto.

South Carolina and Ohio also debated guns-in-bars bills last year, and are expected to reintroduce legislation this year. Many states, however, have remained neutral on the issue, while others -- including Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York -- simply let local jurisdictions regulate these policies.

But will the new laws really make much of a difference? In the five states that now allow firearms in drinking establishments, individual bar owners still reserve the right to ban guns in their bars. Even Cutilletta, who opposes these laws, says they probably won’t have much of an effect. "I think in the end, the laws won’t have that much of an impact, because property owners want to protect their customers and make good business decisions."

A simple "No guns allowed" sign, however, doesn’t always suffice. "As a business owner, you must now take a prohibitive step to prevent guns in bars," says Cutilletta. Arizona’s law, for example, requires the establishment owner to put up a sign that is in a visible location, contains a crossed-out firearm image and reads, "No firearms allowed pursuant to A.R.S. section 4-229."

Andy Kim
Andy Kim | Former Staff Writer