HELENA – Gun owners worried that a bad economy could lead to increased violence and suspicious that new stricter gun laws are on the horizon are rushing in record numbers to get concealed weapons permits.
From Washington state to Florida, state officials say more people are deciding to pack heat. In some cases, states are reporting a near doubling in the number of concealed carry permits.
The firearms industry has seen a big jump in sales and interest following last fall’s elections, driven by a fear that Democrats could dig up old gun control policies. But the economy is also on the mind of many getting new permits to carry a hidden gun. Some worry the recession will get worse, leaving people to resort to theft and violence.
“I do think there are going to be people who have very little, and they are going to decide you have too much and come get it,” said Rochelle Haughton of Billings, who described herself as a middle-aged housewife who likes to bring a gun when she travels on the open highway.
In Montana, authorities are on pace to issue twice as many concealed weapons permits than last year — and this is in a state that only requires such permits if you go into an incorporated city. They are unnecessary everywhere else.
Gary Marbut, president of the Montana Shooting Sports Association, said students taking his gun training classes report underlying worries on gun control and violence. He said the economy is prompting anxiety over what could happen next — to the point some think social order could start to break down.
“People are making decisions based on some anxiety, rather than having thought it totally through entirely,” he said.
Police in states around the country are unable to keep up with the pace of concealed weapons permits.
The Texas Department of Public Safety says it is hiring temporary workers to help process a surge in applications. Oklahoma also reports a near doubling in concealed carry permit applications. North Dakota officials say concealed weapons permit applications are up a third over last year.
The trend stretches from Washington state to Florida, where police expect to process at least 50 percent more applications than a year ago. That state is also turning to temporary workers to help deal with the work.
Florida was one of the first states two decades ago to pass a concealed-carry law. Interest blossomed quickly, and now nearly all states have such a law. Gun advocates call the program wildly successful, pointing to the increased popularity of such permits.
Critics say the laws — and interest in packing a hidden gun — are a result of senseless paranoia. Those closest to the big jump in permits this year cite the well-documented interest in buying guns and ammunition ever since the President Barack Obama’s election — along with the unsettling nature of the recession.
Others point out that Obama and Democrats have not moved to restrict guns in any way — and in fact they have done the opposite. The president signed a bill in May that permits licensed gun owners to bring firearms into national parks — undoing rules that, ironically, came from the Reagan administration adored by many gun advocates.
“The notion that there is some great threat looming on the horizon is horse manure,” said Peter Hamm, spokesman for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. Hamm said he is mystified by people getting concealed weapons permits and buying new handguns over economic fears.
“I know in a tight economy, I think of things not to spend money on rather than on things I need to spend money on right away,” he said. “If your response to anxiety is to buy a firearm, you should probably take a deep breath.”
The National Rifle Association fell just short of persuading Congress earlier this summer to force states to recognize the concealed weapons permits from other states. Some states voluntarily accept such “reciprocity,” but the proposal would have forced all to do so on a widespread basis.
Edward Avilla, who runs a gun Web site called AR-15.com, lives in Rochester, N.Y., but got a new permit from Utah this year even though he already holds one in his home state. The Utah permits are popular with aficionados because nonresidents can get one through a distance class and because it is accepted in 17 other states.
“The fall in the economy does make people feel insecure and want to defend their home,” said Avilla. “I do know that it is motivation for a lot of people.”
Avilla runs a forum popular with assault rifle fans. But he also says he practices with his handguns very frequently — and self defense is on his mind.
“I carry concealed basically for preservation of life. I value my life and that of others around me,” said Avilla. “I do hope, however, I never have to use it in my entire life.”
Longtime holders of permits are not surprised by the big surge in interest. “The reason is simple: People are afraid of what’s going to happen,” said Bart Bonney, a retiree living in Anaconda who recently renewed his own permit.
Leslie Strangford of Baker said he primarily uses his permit so he can bring a gun when he travels with his wife. The rancher said he doesn’t feel like he needs a concealed handgun around the small agricultural community where he lives, where guns are a common part of life and often hang in the back of pickup trucks.
“I guess it’s a sign of the times, every so often you hear about someone that is traveling and gets threatened,” he said. “Being as I was traveling all over, I thought it was time to get a permit.”
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