LNP SPECIAL REPORT
How Mass Shootings and Other Crimes Have Convinced More People to Carry a Gun
Charlie Hample of Lititz doesn’t always pack heat.
But two years ago, after a lifetime of familiarity with guns as a hunter, Army reservist and federal prison guard,
Hample decided there were times he’d feel more comfortable with his gun on him — like when he goes hunting in rural Pennsylvania, where lots of people carry guns.
RELATED: Do Concealed Guns Make us Safer?
So the Lititz schoolteacher applied for a Pennsylvania license to carry a firearm, which lets him tuck his pistol beneath his coat, or transport the gun in his car.
“The last thing I would want is to use my weapon, or even pull it out,” said Hample, a special education teacher in the School District of Lancaster who’s running for a seat on the Warwick School Board.
“But I want to have the option.”
So do many other Lancaster Countians — more than ever before.
"The last thing I would want is to use my weapon, or even pull it out."
-Charlie Hample, Lititz gun owner
In Pennsylvania, gun owners can walk down any street with a gun in plain view. It’s called “open carrying,” and outside Philadelphia, no license is required. But to conceal a weapon or transport it in a car, you need a license to carry.
At the end of 2014, nearly 40,000 Lancaster County residents had one. That’s nearly twice as many as five years earlier, and amounts to one license for every 10 adults in the County.
And the number keeps growing: Lancaster County Sheriff Mark Reese, whose office issues the permits, said 25 to 40 people apply for a permit every day.
Experts say high-profile crimes like school shootings — and fear of new gun control laws — are sparking the surge here and around the country. What they can’t agree on is whether the rise in concealed carry permits makes the county and the country safer or more dangerous.
“The world certainly presents more threats than it did years ago and I have seen a number of horrific crimes which may well have been prevented if the victim had access to a firearm — so I fully understand the increase,” said Lancaster County District Attorney Craig Stedman.
“But simply buying and carrying a gun without any training or knowledge on how to use and safely secure it would be counter-productive.”
Once upon a time, said Phill Groff, Trop Gun Shop in Elizabethtown catered largely to hunters.
Now, said Groff, Trop’s chief strategy officer, four of five top-selling weapons are compact pistols — guns meant to be concealed.
“I don’t even have to see the statistics to tell you there’s more interest in concealed carry,” said Groff, a former police officer.
But those statistics are striking.
In 2005, 3,989 state licenses to carry a firearm were issued here, according to the Pennsylvania State Police. Statewide that year, 101,643 licenses were issued.
Licenses are valid for five years unless revoked.
The numbers remained static until 2009 — when President Barack Obama took office. That year, the number of permits issued in Lancaster County spiked to 6,263, and kept rising.
By 2013, the number of permits issued here peaked at 10,483; statewide 269,273 permits were issued. Though the numbers fell in 2014, by the end of that year 39,972 county residents were licensed to carry a concealed weapon — up 71 percent from five years earlier.
Other counties are even more heavily armed. York County issued 41,351 licenses between 2010-2014. In Westmoreland County, with 51,481 permits over the span, 18 percent of all residents over age 18 — nearly one in five adults — are licensed to carry a concealed gun.
Nationwide, concealed carry permits rose from 4.6 million in 2007 to more than 12.8 million this year, according to a July report by the Crime Prevention Resource Center.
Gun sales have also skyrocketed. According to State Police, 5,745 handguns were sold in Lancaster County in 2005; 151,891 were sold in Pennsylvania. In 2013, 21,949 handguns were sold here — nearly a fourfold increase — and 420,464 were sold statewide.
John Lott Jr., president of the Crime Prevention Research Center, is the author of “More Guns, Less Crime” and one of the nation’s foremost gun researchers. He said Obama’s election was a factor in the spike in both concealed carry permits and gun sales.
But the fact that concealed carry continues to increase suggests something else is going on.
“I don't think that Obama's election or re-election can explain the even faster increase over the last few years,” Lott said. “Polls show there has also been a change in people's perceptions about guns making them safer.”
In a 2014 poll, 57 percent of respondents told the Pew Research Center that gun ownership could “protect people from becoming victims of crime.” That’s up from 48 percent just two years earlier.
Lott noted that “the groups that have shown the greatest increase in concealed handgun permits are women and blacks, and those same groups have seen the largest changes in their favorable views towards guns keeping them safer.”
In its July report, the Crime Prevention Resource Center notes some evidence suggests that concealed carry permit-holding by minorities is increasing more than twice as fast as it is for whites.
In Pennsylvania, no details are available on who gets licenses to carry, or exactly where they live: Only the number of licenses issued is public information.
Sheriff Reese said not all licenses issued here go to local residents. “We are seeing a lot more non-residents, out-of-state requests for permits,” he said.
For example, “Delaware people may have a license to carry in their state but say they are doing a lot of traveling or work in Pennsylvania,” he said.
“To have a concealed weapon here they have get a permit here.”
Reese said high-profile crimes lead to a spike in the number of permit-seekers. One day shortly after the 2012 school shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, 84 people came in for a license.
The next day, 75 sought a license.
Sheriffs have 45 days to determine if an applicant is eligible for a license.
This includes a background check via the Pennsylvania Instant Check System, or PICS. By law, the sheriff can deny a license “if there is reason to believe that the character and reputation of the individual are such that they would be likely to act in a manner dangerous to public safety,” according to the Pa. State Police.
Carrying a concealed gun or transporting one in your car without a license can result in a third-degree felony charge.
Yet actual familiarity with the firearm a licensee intends to carry isn’t mandated. Reese said he’s not a big fan of regulations, but “I do believe you should be a responsible gun owner,” which includes training.
His office hosts safety courses, but “it’s strictly a classroom experience, hands-on with no ammunition,” he said.
Trop Gun Shop also holds classes; Groff he suggests every buyer enroll.
"Are my kids safer being around untrained people in the grocery store carrying a loaded firearm?"
- Charlie Hample, Lititz gun owner
“To be safe you need to make an informed purchase,” said Groff. “We encourage everyone to get training, and a lot of people take advantage of that offer.”
Hample, the Lititz gun owner, worries about those who don’t.
“Within 20 minutes (of applying) I had the legal paperwork allowing me to conceal a semi-automatic weapon on me,” said Hample. “Yes I am trained, but how many people are not? Are my kids safer being around untrained people in the grocery store carrying a loaded firearm?”
And that’s the great debate: Does the growth of concealed carry make Lancaster County — and America — a safer place?
“If you presume responsible ownership, then the increase makes the county a safer place in theory,” said District Attorney Stedman.
“But that will also really depend on how the individual handles themselves in any given situation.”
"I have seen a number of horrific crimes which may well have been prevented if the victim had access to a firearm."
- Lancaster County District Attorney Craig Stedman
Trop’s Groff said customers who buy weapons they want to conceal aren’t making a panic purchase: “This is something they’ve been thinking about for some time.” News of the latest mass shooting or other terrible crime may be the deciding factor.
And while researchers disagree on whether conceal carry rates affect crime, Groff said people who buy a gun for concealed carry aren’t interested in statistical certainty.
They want peace of mind.
“Helplessness,” said Groff, “is a horrible feeling.”