The number of concealed pistol licenses being issued in Thurston County has soared the past three years — from 2,888 in 2010, to 3,467 in 2011, up to 4,395 in 2012.
And during the nearly two months since the Dec. 14 elementary school massacre in Newtown, Conn, and President Barack Obama’s subsequent vow to reduce gun violence, the numbers of concealed pistol licenses issued in Thurston County spiked to their highest numbers in four years.
In December alone, the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office issued 570 concealed pistol permits. In January, it issued 635 permits. Going back to January 2009, the next-highest monthly total of concealed pistol permits issued in Thurston County was in April 2012, when it issued 376 permits.
Those who favor stronger gun control say there’s reason to worry about the growing number of people who are allowed to carry concealed weapons in Washington. Supporters of gun rights say they’re not bothered by the trend — nor should it bother anybody else.
The number of concealed pistol licenses had been rising fast even before the latest push for gun control. Statewide, according to the Department of Licensing, the number of license holders went from 239,000 in 2006 to 392,784 at the end of 2012, a 64 percent increase.
For perspective, that’s about 1 of every 12 adults in the state.
Meanwhile, gun buyers have stripped the shelves nearly bare at local gun shops in a rush to buy firearms and ammunition of all sorts.
Jeff Hursh, co-owner of Cascade Arms on Martin Way, said he is having trouble keeping guns and ammo in stock. He said any type of item that might be threatened with a ban, such as assault weapons — semi-automatic weapons with military-style characteristics — and high-capacity magazines, are particularly popular with customers.
“We’ve seen a huge increase in demand for product right now,” he said. “Manufacturers can’t keep up with the purchasing numbers.”
Hursh added, “Every time there’s a shooting there’s a political uproar, and the political uproar drives the purchasing.”
The rapid increase in the number of people buying firearms and applying for concealed weapon permits worries gun-control advocates, who are urging Congress to restrict assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines and require more thorough background checks.
Here in Washington, gun-control groups including the Brady Campaign to Reduce Gun Violence and Washington CeaseFire view with alarm the skyrocketing numbers of people allowed to carry concealed weapons.
They cite the state’s comparatively liberal licensing policies and the number of deaths and injuries caused by license holders.
“Right now you fill out a form and they basically have to give you a concealed weapons permit,” said Ralph Fascitelli, spokesman for Washington CeaseFire. “We want to make sure that people known to be dangerous don’t get permits.”
Gun-rights advocates, on the other hand, are unperturbed with the increasing number of people seeking concealed gun permits.
“I don’t think it’s anything to worry about, but I’m not jumping backflips either,” said Dave Workman, a Washington native who’s communications director for the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms.
“I’m kind of indifferent about it,” he said. “The fact that citizens are exercising their rights doesn’t alarm me, and it shouldn’t anybody else.”
‘SHALL ISSUE’ STATE
Washington’s concealed weapons law is among the country’s most relaxed. This is a “shall issue” state, which means that as long as minimum legal standards are met, the government can’t refuse a license.
There’s a background check and a 30-day waiting period. Applicants must be at least 21, have no history of serious mental illness and, with some exceptions, have no past felonies. Applicants don’t have to explain why they want the license, and local police have almost no discretion in granting them. Washington is one of a handful of states that issues licenses to nonresidents as well as residents.
Those are among the reasons the Brady Campaign gives Washington a score of 15 points out of a possible 100 in its most recent rankings of states based on laws aimed at curbing gun violence. The state loses most points in the categories of record retention, identifying guns used in crimes, reporting of lost or stolen guns, and background checks on gun sales.
Most disturbing to gun-control advocates such as Washington CeaseFire is that Washington requires no training or demonstration of proficiency by a person seeking a concealed pistol license. Only two other states — Georgia and Pennsylvania — have no competency or training requirements.
Tighter regulation of concealed weapon licenses is one of CeaseFire’s legislative goals for 2014, Fascitelli said.
Mick Mattson, a man who was recently waiting in line to renew his concealed pistol permit in Thurston County, said he doesn’t believe gun control is the answer.
“The people that are doing these mass shootings don’t have a concealed weapons permit,” he said.
Mattson said he has no problems with the safeguards currently in place for concealed pistol license holders — the background checks and the fingerprinting of license holders.
Thurston County sheriff’s Lt. Greg Elwin said that generally speaking, more guns, even in the hands of law-abiding citizens, can lead to more, not less, gun tragedies for law enforcement to investigate.
“We respond to and investigate more accidental discharges of a firearm in a house than we do someone who has successfully used a firearm to defend his or her family or property,” Elwin said.
Elwin pointed to several recent examples of accidental firearm discharges leading to injury, including one where a man shooting fish in October had a bullet ricochet off a rock and hit him in temple. He also cited an investigation of a boy accidentally shooting himself in the arm near Rochester last year after climbing up on a shelf to reach his parent’s firearm.
“There needs to be responsible gun ownership and gun training,” he said. “The potential for tragedy exists.”
Thurston County Sheriff John Snaza said he will try to curb gun violence. In a written statement, he stated:
“As we hear about terrible tragedies such as Newtown, Conn., and most recently at the Clackamas, Ore., mall, we continue to ponder and discuss highly volatile topics such as violence and gun control across our nation. I am committed and I will focus on every strategy to ensure the best possible methods are in place to curb the violence that haunts our communities.”
Lack of training can lead to trouble, gun-control advocates note. The Brady Campaign keeps a running tally of unintentional shootings and close calls on its website.
One other local example: A Poulsbo man who legally carried his loaded .38-caliber pistol into the Kitsap Mall last month has become a case in point for those who argue that at least minimal training standards should be established.
When the 58-year-old man bent over in the Silverdale CostPlus World Market, his gun fell out of his coat pocket. It went off when it hit the floor, sending a shot that ricocheted off a bed frame and into a stack of rope baskets. No one was hurt, but the store manager evacuated the store as a precaution.
There are far more serious examples of gun accidents and crimes committed by concealed license holders.
A driver left a loaded 9 mm pistol — with a round in the chamber — under a car seat when he got out to pay for fuel at a Tacoma gas station last March. A 3-year-old passenger picked up the gun and accidentally shot himself in the head. He died at Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital and Health Center.
Making the case that armed amateurs can be an effective force against crime became more difficult to make in Pierce County in 2005.
That was the year Dan McKown, a local comedian and holder of a concealed pistol license, tried to stop an attempted mass murderer in the Tacoma Mall. After taking out his gun to confront the shooter, McKown was shot five times and ended up permanently paralyzed without ever firing his weapon.
In the war of anecdotes, gun-rights advocates have ammunition, too.
They cite a situation in December at a mall in Clackamas County, Ore., in which a 22-year-old man armed with an AR-15 rifle began firing at Christmas shoppers in the mall’s food court. An armed citizen drew his weapon and aimed it at the gunman. The gunman retreated and then shot himself.
In another case, in 2007 at a church in Colorado, a gunman who killed a church member was killed himself by another armed congregant.
Workman knows those stories, but he doesn’t like to play the game of dueling anecdotes.
“I’m not sure there’s any evidence one way or another that it has been a detriment to society to have a lot of armed citizens,” he said. “If you take a fair look at the evidence, you’re not going to win an argument either way.”
“I will make this observation, though,” Workman said. “We have seen a decline in violent crime in this country in the past several years, when at the same time there’s been a increase in the number of private citizens carrying guns. That does tend to fly in the face of all the gloom and doom of the gun-control lobby.”
Few expect changes in Washington’s concealed weapons law anytime soon. With regard to getting concealed weapons permits, there’s been a clear trend toward leniency in recent years.
Ten years ago, seven states had laws that prohibited carrying concealed handguns. Now, after lobbying by gun-rights groups, no states have such laws. In December, a federal appeals court struck down the last such ban, in Illinois.
Since 2002, three states — Alaska, Arizona and Wyoming — joined Vermont in allowing concealed weapons without permits, and in 2010 Congress made it legal to carry loaded, concealed weapons in national parks.
In the Washington Legislature, one proposed bill would tangentially affect the concealed pistol law.
Senate Bill 5282, proposed by Sen. Mike Carrell, R-Lakewood, would create a more complete database of mental health commitment information to improve the quality of background checks related to firearm purchases and concealed carry permits.
If his bill passes, Carrell says, it would help track serious mental health problems that he believes are sometimes not revealed in the state’s current system.
“There’s a lack of coordination in record-keeping,” Carrell said. “The left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing.”
No serious opposition to the bill emerged at a Feb. 5 hearing in the Senate Committee on Human Services and Corrections.
Carrell believes his bill is an example of finding common ground between extremes in the gun violence debate.
“This is the sort of stuff people on both sides of the aisle can agree on,” Carrell said. “It’s part of an overall public safety thing — making sure people don’t fall through the cracks.”