Gun permits surge in state

Worries on crime, stricter laws cited

By Peter Schworm and Matt Carroll
Globe Staff / December 20, 2009

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The number of gun permits issued in Massachusetts surged by more than 15 percent over the past two years, reversing nearly a decade of steady declines and marking a pronounced departure for a state known for its antigun sentiment.

The magnitude of the rise, evident in nearly every corner of the state, surprised law enforcement officials, and gun advocates and opponents alike.

Some saw it as an echo of similar spikes across the country after President Obama’s election, when heavy gun sales were attributed to fears that he would impose strict new gun laws. But with more women and elderly residents signing up for gun classes in Massachusetts, many said the increase here has also been driven by worries about crime and a growing sense of vulnerability in the wake of the financial collapse and lingering fallout of the damaged economy.

“I think it’s a sign of the times,’’ said Mike Burchman, who teaches gun courses in Hop kinton, where the number of permits rose 25 percent. “There’s a general insecurity, and people are looking for personal protection. In the past two years, I’ve seen a real shift.’’

The increase in Class A permits - the largest and broadest category of gun license - amounted to a jump of more than 28,000 statewide to about 224,000 as of last month, according to data provided by the state Executive Office of Public Safety and Security.

The number had previously been dropping, from about 239,000 in 2001 to 192,000 in 2007. Class A permits, commonly called “a license to carry,’’ are the only permits that allow individuals to carry concealed guns and own all types of legal firearms.

Among those who recently got a permit was Ryan Fairbanks, a 23-year-old National Guardsman from Haverhill. Guns were anathema in his childhood home, he said, but a few weeks ago he got a permit and bought a gun to protect himself.

“We grew up with the mentality that only criminals own guns,’’ said Fairbanks. “I brought my gun to mom’s house to show her the safety features, and it wasn’t the end of the world to have a gun.’’

Chris Haynes acquired a license last year after moving to the quiet town of Ashby. He was worried about crime, a fear that seemed to be confirmed recently when someone stole the tires off his car. “I thought it would be a good thing to have around the house,’’ he said.

Permits rose in all but a handful of very small towns, and appeared to increase more or less evenly across the state - in small towns and larger cities and in wealthy areas as well as poorer ones. Towns including Andover, Beverly, and Newton saw increases at or slightly above the state average, as did Medford, Weymouth, and Woburn. Boston was up 18 percent, Cambridge 25 percent, Somerville 26 percent, Brockton 13 percent.

In some cases, the increases were striking. Permits climbed 31 percent in Falmouth, 30 percent in Duxbury.

Massachusetts gun ownership laws are among the strictest in the country. Local police departments grant licenses and have broad leeway to deny applications.

To receive a permit, applicants must complete a certified firearms safety course and cannot have a record of a felony or misdemeanor conviction with a sentence longer than two years.

Law enforcement officials said that, while the sharp increase in permits is unexpected, it does not portend any increase in gun violence.

“We’re concerned about criminals with guns, not law-abiding citizens,’’ said John A. Grossman, undersecretary of forensic science and technology for the state Office of Public Safety and Security. “It’s the illegal gun trafficking we’re really focused on.’’

Police chiefs and district attorneys echoed that, saying they see few crimes committed with legally licensed firearms.

Many people apply for Class A licenses because it allows them to own any legal firearm, but the vast majority do not regularly carry firearms in public, they said.

Still, antigun groups worry that any growth in gun ownership will mean more bloodshed. They point to incidents such as the increasing number of road rage shootings.

“I think the more guns, the more gun violence,’’ said John Rosenthal, founder of Stop Handgun Violence, which led the push for the state’s groundbreaking Gun Control Act of 1998, widely seen as the nation’s most comprehensive gun legislation.

Gun sales increased across the country last year when the National Rifle Association ran an aggressive campaign warning that Obama would tighten gun restrictions.

In May, the administration of Governor Deval Patrick proposed limiting Massachusetts residents to one handgun purchase per month to reduce gun trafficking by “straw purchasers’’ who buy in bulk to sell to people who can’t legally buy guns.

The bill is now before the state’s joint judiciary committee. Such proposals have fed beliefs that more regulation could be on the way.

“People feel new gun laws may come down the pike,’’ said Steve Hathaway, owner of Mass Firearms School in Framingham, where permits rose 20 percent. “They want to get into the system before the system closes.’’

Many are also purchasing weapons for home defense, frightened by high-profile crimes such as a fatal home invasion in New Hamsphire this fall. A growing number have lost faith in the government’s ability to protect them, gun rights advocates said.

“Katrina changed a lot of minds,’’ said James L. Wallace, who directs the Gun Owners’ Action League, the state’s largest gun-rights group, referring to crime and looting in New Orleans after the hurricane.

Gun clubs and firing ranges that offer instruction say that an increasing number of women and the elderly are enrolling in classes.

In June, the Nenameseck Sportsmen’s Club in Palmer held a class in June for 30 women. The Mass Firearms School also has seen enrollment increases among women and older men.

“Two years ago, the demographic was mostly young men, often off-duty or former military,’’ Hathaway said. “Now it’s a complete cross section. There’s no stereotype.’’

Nationwide, public support for gun restrictions has declined, and nearly half of states have relaxed handgun restrictions amid aggressive lobbying from gun-rights groups, according to a recent review.

More than 30 states allow a person to openly carry a loaded handgun without a permit, according to the Legal Community Against Violence, a public interest law center focused on gun control issues.

In a recent report, the center argued against expanded concealed-carry laws, saying that “much of what is claimed to be self-defense is actually criminal gun use that creates or exacerbates interpersonal conflicts.’’

Kristen Rand, legislative director at the Violence Policy Center in Washington, pointed to troad-rage shootings as cautionary tales.

“People may feel safer with a handgun, but all the evidence points to the opposite,’’ she said. “We see it happen across the country. They are not enhancing public safety; they are a public safety problem.’’

But others said the gun violence that ravages cities usually stems from the illegal market.

“How many gun deaths are really attributable to law-abiding citizens?’’ asked Nancy Robinson, of Citizens for Safety, a Boston coalition fighting gun trafficking. “The problem is the guns that wind up in the hands of young kids, gang leaders, and criminals.’’