Recently a man made national headlines when he traveled into the state of New Jersey for work and was arrested when he volunteered to an officer that he had a firearm in his vehicle. The man, from North Carolina was unfamiliar with New Jersey law and felt he was doing his duty by informing the officer and was unaware that he was in fact breaking New Jersey law by having the firearm in his vehicle in that way in the first place. Today’s article is not meant to focus on all the things wrong with New Jersey or any other state. I feel that the above story and many others like it make an American gun owner ask the question, “Should I inform law enforcement that I have my firearm or not?”
Before we go to much further let me also disclaim that in this conversation I’m assuming that you have a firearm and have it in the vehicle legally. The question we are debating today is not if you are obeying or breaking the law by having the firearm, but if you would be wise or foolish to inform law enforcement that you have it with you at all.
Know Your Own State Inside and Out
In your own state you should be fully fluent with the potential consequences. Here is what we suggest you research:
- Am I required to inform the officer that I have a permit and/or gun?
- Am I required to inform the officer if they ask?
- In my state will the officer likely find out that I have a permit despite me not telling them?
- What is the general local attitude of law enforcement in relation to private citizens carrying firearms?
If you have a hard time finding the answers we recommend you reach out to a local firearm instructor (or 2…) or a local criminal defense attorney. Once you have the answers to these questions you can exercise good judgement (see below).
Know What States Require You Inform the Officer
Some states have specific laws in place that require you inform an officer if you have a concealed carry permit and/or gun. As of this writing (August 2015) these are the states that have a requirement along those lines:
- California (depends on county)
- North Carolina
- South Carolina
There are other states who have laws that require you inform the officer if you are asked. We have excluded those from this list.
*Warning… you should to do your own research. We won’t be held liable for decisions you make based on the information on this website.
Use Your Best Judgement
If you live in a state that doesn’t require you inform the officer but in which the officer is likely to find out you have a permit when they access your driving record and/or registration then you may find it easiest to be the one who discloses the firearm up front instead of waiting for the officer to find out from a computer. Law enforcement officers hate surprises and the idea that you may have a gun and didn’t tell them about it is a not so fun surprise.
If you live in a state in which law enforcement doesn’t require you notify them and in which they would be unlikely to discover you have a permit in the course of a standard traffic stop, then you may decide that things will be far faster and more simple if you don’t bring up the topic of the firearm in the car. That could very well be the case.
Consider factors that can dramatically change the situation. Anything that may happen that will increase the suspicion of the officer during the confrontation could potentially escalate into a worse situation when they discover that you didn’t disclose the firearm in the car. For example, if you decide not to say anything, but the officer thinks that potentially you have been drinking and starts to question you about where you have been and what you have been doing… and requests you exit the car… you should recognize at this point that the firearm is going to dramatically impact the situation if the officer discovers it on their own versus you disclosing it up front. So, look for clues that this is more than just a simple traffic stop. If the partner also exits the vehicle, if the officer is unusually standoffish, or if they begin to ask questions beyond the standard “do you know how fast you were going,” that may be a good time to disclose the firearm.
It can be a difficult decision to make in the moment. You may say to yourself, if I don’t mention this gun I may get out of here in less than 10 minutes. If I do mention it I will likely drag this situation out to 15-20 minutes. However, if for some reason I don’t mention it and the officer finds out anyway that I have the firearm this may very well spin into a very uncomfortable 30 minutes.
Another Way of Thinking
While I would describe the above considerations as an industry best practice I will also disclaim that they are my own opinion and many in the industry disagree on this point. There are many who would recommend a very different approach. There are some who feel strongly that because you have rights to not submit to questioning, searches, or seizures, you shouldn’t do any of the above. If the law doesn’t require you to disclose the firearm you are carrying then you should under no circumstances disclose it. This line of thinking is naturally inclined to be more likely to ensure your rights are protected should something unusual happens that makes the confrontation go from normal to very unusual.
Those are my best thoughts on the subject… what do you think? Let me know in the comments below.