Concealed-gun applications spike

Posted: January 21, 2013

They came after the shootings in Aurora, Colo. They came just after the presidential election.

But it was after the school shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary that they began showing up at sheriff's offices in droves: thousands of Philadelphia-area residents, all seeking permits to carry a concealed firearm.

In the weeks since Adam Lanza walked into a Connecticut elementary school and killed 20 students, six teachers, and himself - and since politicians from Mayor Nutter to President Obama have called for stricter gun regulations - local sheriff's offices, which process and issue concealed-carry permits, say they have been swamped with requests for the permits.

"People are afraid they're going to ban gun sales," Montgomery County Sheriff Eileen Behr said. "People are afraid they're not going to be able to get guns anymore."

Bucks County has issued 1,300 permits in the last 21/2 weeks. Chester County fielded 766 applications between Dec. 17 - three days after the shootings - and Jan. 14. During the same period in 2011, it processed 344.

Montgomery County saw a 14 percent increase - from 363 to 414 - in permits issued from December 2011 to December 2012. In Delaware County, applications rose 17 percent. The county has 19,934 active concealed-gun permits.

Behr and other sheriffs say a number of factors are contributing to the rise in applications for concealed-carry permits, which allow owners to carry a concealed handgun in public and in their car.

Some gun owners may be simply renewing an old permit, or obtaining a license to carry because they want to protect their family at home, Behr said.

But concealed-carry permit requests typically spike after mass shootings, when concerns about potential gun restrictions run high. And the Sandy Hook shootings have sparked a particularly intense national conversation about gun control, culminating last week in Obama's calling for tough background checks and a ban on assault weapons.

"The increase here has been more substantial than I've ever seen it before [in] my time in the Sheriff's Office," Chester County Sheriff Carolyn Welsh said. "And I've been sheriff for 13 years."

In Pennsylvania, getting a license to carry a concealed weapon is not particularly difficult. Applicants fill out a form at the Sheriff's Office and show ID; provided they pass required background checks, they should receive their permit within two weeks. Permits are not required to simply own a handgun or a rifle, although the state does keep tabs on those who own assault weapons like the AR-15 rifle used in the Sandy Hook shootings.

These days, however, it can take more than a month to obtain a license to carry. The state database that counties use to carry out background checks has been backed up for weeks, with sheriff's deputies sitting on hold for hours as counties from around the state phone in background-check requests.

In New Jersey, those requesting permits to carry a concealed weapon must apply through the local police department, and the permit must be approved by a state judge.

"New Jersey is such a strict state that we just don't get them. People don't even apply," Camden Police Chief Scott Thomson said. "I bet you I don't get one permit a year."

In the Chester County Sheriff's Office on Thursday afternoon, three deputies worked the phones as a steady stream of residents asked at the front desk for applications for concealed-carry licenses.

Many said they were concerned about potential gun regulations after Sandy Hook. Most wouldn't give their names as they filled out forms and smiled for ID photos.

"The background checks are quick but very thorough," Deputy Jeff DiVito said, entering a new application into a computer database. "We look at crime history, mental health - if they've been involuntarily committed, or if they've committed a first-degree misdemeanor or a felony."

The office also checks in with an individual's local police department, DiVito said.

"Some people could be flying under the radar and just don't have a criminal background," he said.

Stacks of applications sat on a shelf behind his desk.

"The lack of education [about potential gun regulation] is causing unnecessary panic," Deputy David Jackson said. "It's more hype than it is knowledge."


INSIDE

Thousands rally against stricter gun laws. A2

Local GOP leaders soften gun stance. B1


Contact Aubrey Whelan

at 610-313-8112, at awhelan@philly.com or on Twitter

at @aubreyjwhelan.

Staff writer Barbara Boyer contributed to this article.

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