February 15, 2013

Changing attitudes toward gun control swamp police with concealed-weapons permit applications

By Michael Shepherd mshepherd@mainetoday.com
State House Bureau

AUGUSTA — If you want a concealed-weapons permit from the Maine State Police, be ready to wait three or four months. There’s a 2,500-application backlog.

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President Barack Obama, flanked by Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, gestures as he gives his State of the Union address during a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington on Tuesday. Obamas re-election and his urging of new restrictions on gun ownership have spurred a run on concealed-weapons permit applications in Maine, according to many.

AP file photo

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As gun sales nationwide and in Maine have skyrocketed in recent years, so has permit demand, said Lt. Scott Ireland, who runs the state police’s licensing division, which handles permit applications for more than 300 small, rural municipalities, along with unorganized territories and townships. Larger cities and towns handle their own.

With 100 to 150 applications coming to Ireland’s office daily, the four employees tasked with handling them — only one working on it full time — are stretched.

In 2008, Barack Obama was elected president. The Maine State Police issued 3,912 permits that year, Ireland said. In 2009, Obama took office. it issued 5,706 — nearly a 46 percent increase. And in 2012, the year of the president’s re-election, it issued 7,574. With that backlog, Ireland said, 2013 will be another record year.

To many, there’s no coincidence.

“I think it’s the political climate in the country,” Ireland said. “They feel they need it now.”

Since 2008 — and recently — federal background checks for gun sales by dealers and permit requests are up in Maine. Many conservatives have attributed that to fear that gun rights will be restricted during Obama’s administration. 

“People got scared and they went out and started buying ammunition,” said David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsmen’s Alliance of Maine. “I think Obama has woke up a sleeping giant.”

Focus on gun control

Since his re-election and a slew of mass shootings in 2012, including the December shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., which left 26 students and teachers dead, Obama has moved hard to back gun control.

In a recent proposal, he asked Congress to consider requiring background checks for all sales and reinstating a ban on military-style rifles. That’s caused a national run on guns and ammunition, and Trahan said those who feared Obama’s positions on guns were right.

“People are concerned that they’re going to lose some of their rights to own a firearm, and they want to get their permits,” said Robert Schwartz, executive director of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association, who said he’s been sending more blank applications to municipalities who handle their own permitting than before. Nationally, federal background checks on gun purchases from dealers skyrocketed by more than 1.3 million from 2008, the year of Obama’s election, to 2009, the year he took office.

Then, more than 14 million checks were performed nationally. In 2012, that rose to more than 16.8 million, a 32 percent increase from 2008.

The increase is far more pronounced in Maine. From 2008 to 2012, the number of federal checks went from 56,561 to 91,834 — a 62 percent increase.

That equates to one check for every 14 people in Maine last year. In 2000, there was one check for every 28.

Like Ireland’s permit numbers, early totals for the last two months suggest the state’s on pace for another banner background-check year.

In December 2012, there were 12,416 checks. This January, there were 10,538. Those are the only two times since 1998, when the federal program began, when Maine broke the 10,000 mark in a month.

Fort Kent police Chief Kenneth Michaud said he’s had trouble buying ammunition for a military-style rifle the department keeps. Many dealers say they’re out of stock because of the run. 

He also hears a common political sentiment when he talks to people applying for permits. Many have guns in the Aroostook County town of more than 4,000, but it wasn’t long ago when he handed out 20 weapon permits in a year. Now he gets a request a week. 

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