The number of concealed weapons permits issued in Cowlitz County has surged by 300 percent in the last six years, keeping pace with a statewide trend seemingly fueled by a rising fear of criminals and gun control legislation.
Last year, 1,097 more permits were issued in Cowlitz County than in 2006, according to the state Department of Licensing. Statewide, the number of permits has jumped by nearly 64,000. These figures include renewals of the five-year permits. Many other states are reporting a sharp uptick in concealed weapons permits, among them Ohio, Iowa, Florida and Texas.
A spike in concealed weapons permits and handgun sales is common after presidential elections, said Dave Sinkler, who works at the Bob's Sporting Goods gun counter in Longview. But the numbers haven't tapered off the way they usually do.
"I honestly think you will not see this go down for many years. It's a trend that will keep going up," Sinkler said earlier this month.
One explanation is that the continuing bad economy is making criminals more brazen, while at the same time, cuts in law enforcement budgets mean fewer cops on the street and slower police response times.
"I would say people have been awakened to something. Something's clicking right now that they feel the need to protect themselves," said 45-year-old Kelly Vernon of Longview, who got his concealed weapons permit when he was 21 but let it lapse until about five years ago.
Vernon, who thinks graphic crime shows on TV add to the public's fears about victimization, said he wants to protect his family.
"There's comfort in knowing I'm able to do that if I'm needed to," he said last week. "The police aren't going to be there until after it's over."
Longview resident Bob Crisman Jr., 36, got his concealed weapons permit four years ago at the urging of his wife, who'd had one for a decade. Having the permit makes it simpler to transport guns in his car for shooting sports, he said. Without a permit, the gun must be in a locked box in a compartment not accessible from the car's interior.
Also, "There's a lot of riffraff in our neighborhood and it's scary to go out after dark," said Crisman, who resides near the Fred Meyer store. "You hear about hatchet attacks, sword attacks. We had a guy who was nearly beat to death in our alley this winter. ... I don't carry very often, but it's nice to know that I can have that available option. ... I'd just rather have a fighting chance."
Kelso Mayor David Futcher said he obtained a permit and bought a .45-caliber pistol four years ago after seeing news coverage of an angry citizen opening fire at a 2008 city council meeting in Kirkwood, Mo. Two council members, the mayor, the public works director, a police officer and a reporter were killed in the attack.
"I figure my main job is to get home after the meeting to my family, and I wanted to do anything I could to give myself a better chance of doing that," Futcher said earlier this month. "I figure, better safe than sorry."
Only a small percentage of gun owners apply for concealed weapons permits, and not all intend to carry a loaded pistol on their hip or in their vehicle, Longview police Sgt. Mike Hallowell said in April. A permit in Washington — where it's called a concealed pistol license — requires meeting eligibility requirements (such as being at least age 21, with no felony convictions) and passing a background check.
An advantage of having the permit is the ability to buy a gun at a gun shop without a waiting period, Hallowell said. Also, some gun owners want to be able to transport a loaded gun in their vehicle when they hunt or go to the shooting range, he said.
Pinning down the number of gun owners in Cowlitz County is difficult because, by law, police must destroy gun purchase records within 24 hours of approving them, Hallowell said. Dick Miller, president of the Cowlitz Game & Anglers, said his group has determined the county has at least 20,000 gun owners, and he thinks the number may be as high as 40,000.
Not only are more men carrying pistols for self defense, but a growing number of women are, too. Sinkler said sales of pink-colored guns at Bob's Sporting Goods have increased in the last three or four years. Women often come in with their husbands to buy their first pistol, he said.
National Rifle Association instructor Larry Raglione, who teaches classes on obtaining concealed firearm permits, said he often has between 8 and 12 women in one class of 25 students. The women realize they can level the playing field against a physically stronger male if they're armed, he said.
"A lot more (women) are taking charge," he said. "They don't want to be a victim,"
Raglione, who was a police officer in Oregon for 32 years and now works as a Clark County policeman, believes the increase in permits is due to people becoming aware of threats to their safety. For instance, he said, gang-driven home invasion robberies are on the rise nationwide. And while police are great at investigating crimes, he noted they aren't often able to protect citizens during crimes in progress.
"We can't be everywhere all the time," he said.
The Obama factor
Fears that President Barack Obama will attempt to tighten gun ownership laws are also part of the picture, Miller said.
"A lot of people don't seem to understand the platform of the Democratic party is to reduce gun ownership, like England or Australia," Miller said. "There's all kinds of anti-hunting and anti-gun-owning legal trapeze work going on all the time."
Sinkler doesn't believe Obama's election was the cause of the concealed weapons permit surge. The biggest increase happened between 2006 and 2007, when George W. Bush was still president, he noted. During that time period, Cowlitz County and state numbers of permits more than doubled. Then they continued to climb in ensuing years.
"The (permit) bulge is not because of Obama," he said. "It's because people want to be safe, people want to protect."
Crisman speculated that the 2006 to 2007 increase happened because Bush's second term was wrapping up and people thought Hillary Clinton would be the next president.
People thought "she was going to take our guns, take our kids, take our cars and give 'em to all the poor people. Maybe that played into it," Crisman said.
In the end, they got Obama, but even though he has yet to ask for any gun-control legislation, his Democratic affiliation made him suspect in the eyes of conservative gun owners. Crisman went to a gun shop the day after the 2008 presidential election and said the mood was like a day-after-Thanksgiving sale. The shop was packed.
"Everybody was buying. They were stocking up," he recalled.
Daniel Byrne of Seattle, board president of Washington CeaseFire, a gun-control advocacy group, attributed the sharply rising number of concealed weapons permits to fearmongering by the NRA. The goal is to sell guns — a big chunk of the NRA's funding comes from gun manufacturers, said Byrne, 60.
"They're spreading fear and the sale of guns," he said last week. "It's a vicious circle."
Are gun-carriers really safer?
Is society safer or more dangerous with more people legally packing heat?
According to Byrne, it's more dangerous. The average man or woman doesn't react with Dirty Harry-like reflexes when under attack or facing a burglar, he said.
"They freeze. They get confused. They end up killing their friends or themselves 22 more times than the other person," said Byrne, who thinks the state should make it tougher to get a concealed weapons permit. "If a gun's not around, the odds of people getting killed are much lower."
On the flip side, Raglione said he hasn't observed any problems as a police officer or in the news as a result of people legally carrying guns for a legal purpose. People holding concealed weapons permits are generally law abiding and careful, he said.
Wally Wentz, owner of Gator's Custom Guns in Kelso, contended last week that people becoming aware and responsible for themselves by carrying a gun is good for society. It's also a good deterrent for bad guys, he said.
"There are no jackals that are going to break into the henhouse if they know the hens have all got a rifle," he said.
Editor's note: Bob Crisman Jr. is an employee of The Daily News.