By Marilyn W. Thompson and Donna Smith
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Ryan Jerome took his .45-caliber Ruger with him to Manhattan last September and thought he understood the city's weapons laws when he carried his loaded handgun on a side trip to the Empire State Building.
But Jerome, who is from Indiana, soon found himself in a legal tangle that he said illustrates the confusing array of gun laws in the U.S. and the need for uniformity.
"How can the city of New York override your rights under the second amendment of the Constitution?" said Jerome, 29, who pleaded guilty last month to a misdemeanor weapons possession charge as part of a plea deal with the Manhattan District Attorney's office.
Jerome's case is one of several widely publicized gun arrests that have prompted a new push for federal legislation requiring states to honor one another's concealed weapons permits. Jerome's lifetime concealed weapons permit in Indiana carried no weight in New York, which does not recognize other states' licenses.
A similar Manhattan case involved a Tennessee woman who was arrested for carrying a gun near the World Trade Center memorial. Both she and Jerome were originally charged with felony gun offenses carrying prison terms of three and a half years.
Proposals for reciprocal arrangements among states, which are now percolating in Congress, would address a common complaint of gun advocates and their chief lobbying group, the National Rifle Association, which holds its annual conference in St Louis, Missouri, this week.
But they are sharply opposed by proponents of stricter gun laws.
The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence has branded the reciprocity proposals the "George Zimmerman Armed Vigilante Act," a reference to the incendiary Florida case in which neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman claimed self-defense when he shot dead an unarmed teenager, Trayvon Martin, last month.
"These proposals are an example of the dark mindset and agenda of the gun lobby," said the Brady Campaign's president Dan Gross. "If these laws passed, George Zimmerman would be able to carry his loaded weapon into Times Square or the streets of Los Angeles. They would force the entire country to live by the laws that killed Trayvon Martin."
In Jerome's case, a federal reciprocity law "would have helped him, clearly," said his attorney Mark A. Bederow.
Jerome, a jeweler in New York on business, was carrying $10,000 in gold with him when he made a previously unplanned visit to the Empire State Building.
He had tried to research gun laws before driving into the state and even alerted a building security guard that he had a weapon, his attorney said. He "came to New York with the best of intentions" and left it with a criminal record, Bederow said.
Currently, 49 states permit residents to carry concealed firearms outside their homes or businesses; only Illinois and the District of Columbia forbid the practice.
But problems arise when owners carry weapons into other jurisdictions. Many states have negotiated their own reciprocal agreements to allow permitted owners to travel more freely, but the arrangements are spotty.
Indiana, for example, gives gun owners from other states reciprocity; New York, whose Mayor Michael Bloomberg is one of the country's most prominent advocates for tighter gun laws, does not.
Adding another layer of confusion, some local governments and individual building owners have their own gun restrictions.
On its website, for example, the NRA has warned conventioneers attending the annual meeting that they cannot carry guns into the St Louis America's Center. The restriction is part of a longstanding policy forbidding firearms in the convention center and a nearby sports arena, a county official said.
The U.S. House of Representatives attempted to deal with some of the confusion in November when it approved bipartisan legislation allowing gun owners to carry concealed weapons to any state that permits the practice. The bill was one of the first gun measures to come before the chamber after the shooting of former Representative Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, Arizona last year.
Two reciprocity proposals have surfaced in the Senate, and the NRA says on its website that it supports both. In 2009, a similar measure failed in the Senate by just two votes.
"Congress should recognize that the right to self-defense does not end at state lines," said a web posting from Chris W. Cox, director of the NRA's Institute for Legislative Action.
A bill introduced by Republican Senators John Thune and David Vitter has 29 Republican backers. The proposal aims to balance constitutional rights and states' rights, since it would not impose a national standard or force Illinois or the District to change their laws.
Another proposal from Democratic Senators Joe Manchin and Mark Begich offers to "streamline and simplify" gun rules. The NRA's Cox called it a step toward improving "self-defense laws in this country."
Jerome, who has had a burglary at his store since returning from New York, said his experience has convinced him "this is something that needs to be addressed on a federal level. The cops can't always be there to protect you. You have to be prepared to protect yourself."
(Reporting by Marilyn W. Thompson and Donna Smith; Editing by David Storey)