People who may legally possess and even openly carry weapons can't always place those weapons in their pockets or otherwise conceal them, unless they have a "concealed carry" permit. The law imposes this obstacle because legislators have acknowledged a common and tragic scenario: Participants in an argument or fight escalate the level of hostility, assuming that the worst that can happen is a thrown punch or chair and that they can always walk away. Then, someone pulls a gun from a pocket, and tragedy results. By limiting the number of people and situations in which concealed weapons may be carried, the potential number of such incidents will be lower.
In an attempt to prevent conflicts from escalating in this way, most if not all states have made it a crime to carry a concealed weapon, though the strictness of those laws varies from state to state.
A conviction for carrying a concealed weapon requires proof of three things, or "elements": (1) the person had a weapon; (2) the person carried the weapon; and (3) the weapon was concealed.
Only weapons listed in a state's criminal concealed weapon laws are prohibited, and the types of weapons listed in each state's laws can vary widely. Some states list each weapon, such as Florida, which doesn't allow people to carry "any dirk, metallic knuckles, billie, tear gas gun, chemical weapon or device, or other deadly weapon." Arizona, on the other hand, simply prohibits carrying a "deadly weapon," meaning anything "designed for lethal use," but makes an exception for pocket knives. Some states allow people to carry knives with blades less than a certain number of inches. One particularly permissive state, Alaska, allows people over 21 to conceal deadly weapons so long as they don't carry them in certain places and they tell officers they have them during contact with the police. As these different laws demonstrate, whether a weapon is prohibited will depend on the laws of each state.
A weapon is carried if it moves with you, or if you have it in your possession. Having a knife hidden in your pocket, for example, constitutes carrying a weapon because whenever you move, the weapon moves with you. But movement isn't required: Under the law, if you were asleep with a knife in your pocket, you'd still be carrying it. Even when the weapon isn't physically in your possession (held, pocketed, or worn), it's considered "carried" if it's within easy reach or control. So, a weapon hidden under a car seat is considered carried if it's available for immediate use by someone in the car.
A weapon is concealed when another person would ordinarily be unable to view it if the person met you on the street, or had an ordinary interaction with you. Having a weapon that's only partially concealed, or that's concealed from only a particular angle, is usually not enough to be convicted of carrying a concealed weapon. But in some states, if the entire weapon is not visible, the weapon is considered concealed.
The U.S. Supreme Court has held that ordinary, law-abiding citizens have a Second Amendment right to keep a gun at home for self-defense and to carry a handgun in public for that purpose. (District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570 (2008); New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen, 597 U.S. __ (2022).) States may be able to restrict who can be licensed to carry based on objective criteria like age, criminal history, and firearms training, but they can't require someone to show a special need to carry a gun. The laws that criminalize carrying concealed weapons have to take these rights into consideration.
Most state laws that prohibit carrying a concealed weapon allow an exception for people who are at home or at their place of business. Your home can be anywhere you live, whether you own or rent the property. And the place-of-business exception applies to people who own a business but doesn't necessarily extend to the business owner's employees.
Carrying a concealed firearm isn't a crime when you have a license to carry, so long as you don't carry it in a prohibited place. (More on concealed-carry licenses below.)
States have varying requirements for getting a concealed-carry license (and states like Vermont don't require one, so long as the gun is legally owned).
Most states have the following kinds of conditions:
If you're granted a concealed-carry license, you must carry it with you whenever you have the weapon. You'll also have to present the license when an officer demands it or asks if you have a weapon. In some states, if you're carrying a lawfully concealed weapon and come into contact with an officer, you must identify yourself as a concealed weapon carrier.
States can restrict guns in "sensitive places," which often include schools, courthouses, government buildings, polling places, and other similar locations. Even a person with a license to carry in public can't legally bring a gun into a sensitive place. Each state has its own rules about what kinds of places are considered "sensitive."
Defendants convicted of carrying a concealed weapon can face significant penalties. The crime can be either a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the state's laws and the circumstances. A conviction for either type of offense can result in the following consequences:
Anytime you're facing a charge for carrying a concealed weapon, or want to know what your state's laws allow you to carry, you should talk to an experienced criminal defense lawyer in your area. A lot of statements about concealed-carry laws are on the internet, and not all of what you encounter is reliable. The laws about weapons and the right to carry them are often complicated and can change rapidly with new legislation or court rulings. An experienced attorney who knows the law and can advise you about your rights is the best way to ensure that you're protected at every stage of the criminal justice process.