published Sunday, July 22nd, 2012

Walker County, Ga., is packing weapons

Range Master Les Stover helps Wanda Scates with her aim during a gun permit carry class Saturday at Sportsman's Indoor Shooting.
Range Master Les Stover helps Wanda Scates with her aim during a gun permit carry class Saturday at Sportsman's Indoor Shooting.
Photo by Angela Lewis.
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Should requirements for firearms carry permits be stiffened?

If it were up to Jason Spencer, law-abiding Georgia residents would be able to carry a handgun concealed beneath their clothes or worn openly on the hip -- without a permit.

Fellow lawmakers didn't pass the "Georgia Constitutional Carry Act of 2012" spearheaded by Spencer, a Republican state representative from coastal Camden County on the Florida border.

Still, it has gotten easier in recent years for Georgia residents to carry a concealed firearm. And there's been a corresponding spike in permits issued by probate courts near Chattanooga and elsewhere in the state.

"I thought everybody in Walker County had one of those by now," joked Walker County Probate Judge Christy Anderson during a recent candidate's forum. Anderson is running for re-election to her post.

Her office has issued 7,455 concealed-carry permits since 2001. Considering that Walker County has an estimated population of 69,000, that means up to 11 percent of its residents have a permit to carry -- nearly three times the state average. That estimate could be high because some of those 7,455 permits are renewals required every five years.

Yet a prominent concealed-weapons advocate felt that percentage rang true.

"My guess is that, for that corner of Georgia, that's about right," said Jerry Henry, executive director of the nonprofit organization GeorgiaCarry.Org.

Statewide, roughly 4.4 percent of the population has a Georgia Weapons Carry License. That's based on 436,739 licensees in Georgia, according to figures compiled by GeorgiaCarry.com. And the state had an estimated population of 9,815,210 last year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Changes in laws

The number of Georgians with carry permits shot up after the state Legislature passed House Bill 89 in 2008, allowing people to take their guns to more places, including parks, on public transit and inside restaurants that serve alcohol.

"Prior to that, you couldn't hardly carry it out of your house without being arrested," Henry said.

In the four-year period prior to HB 89's passage, Georgia's probate judges issued an average of 57,900 licenses annually. Afterward, that increased by 84 percent to an average of 106,300 new and renewed licenses annually from 2008 to 2010, according to figures compiled by GeorgiaCarry.org.

In 2010, Georgia Senate Bill 308 further reduced locations off-limits to guns to a defined list including bars, government buildings, courthouses, jails and prisons, and nuclear power plants.

Another factor that apparently caused concealed-carry permits to spike was the election in 2008 of President Barack Obama.

"Right after the last presidential election, there was a big bump," Whitfield County Probate Court Judge Sherri Blevins said. "I think people were concerned about whether the presidential election was going to affect people's right to bear arms."

County probate courts keep track of the number of permits they issue, but there's no central, statewide database, said Ashley Stollar, spokeswoman for the Administrative Office of the Courts of Georgia.

"In order to know [county figures], you might have to call every county in the state," Stollar said.

But based on some back-of-the-envelope calculations, Northwest Georgia seems to be above the state average for concealed-carry permits.

Whitfield County keeps track of the number of people who apply for permits. In 2008, 1,230 people asked for permits. That climbed in 2009, when 1,402 applied, then dipped to 904 applications in 2010, 693 in 2011 and 621 so far this year, Blevins said.

"It peaked in 2009, at least in Whitfield County," she said.

Whitfield has an estimated population of about 103,000, so the 4,850 people who applied during the past five years, including the current partial year, is about 4.7 percent of the population. And that doesn't include those who had gotten permits earlier.

Catoosa County saw a similar spike.

Probate Court Judge Gene Lowery said that his office issued 1,366 concealed-carry permits in 2009, 1,223 in 2010, 1,058 in 2011 and 799 through June 30 of this year. He said demand for carry permits spiked after Obama's election "because there was a lot of talk about gun control."

The Census Bureau's most recent population estimate for Catoosa County is 64,530, so just tallying the past 31/2 years of applicants brings its percentage to 6.8 percent of residents with concealed-carry permits. And that doesn't factor in those who already had permits.

Higher in Volunteer State

While the number of concealed-carry permits is increasing in Georgia, overall, the state lags behind Tennessee in the percentage of people carrying firearms.

As of early June, there were 363,499 active handgun carry permits in Tennessee, according to LegallyArmed.com, a pro-carry website that compiles figures for every Tennessee county. That means roughly 5.7 percent of the Volunteer State's population is packing.

The website ranks Hamilton County fourth in the state for handgun permits, at 16,134, or 4.7 percent, which is below the state average. Bradley County is ranked 14th, with 5,902 permits, or 5.9 percent, slightly above average.

Applicants for concealed-carry permits in Georgia and Tennessee must be fingerprinted and pass a background check. Permits cost $115 in Tennessee and are in the $70 to $80 range in Georgia, depending on the county.

One difference between the states' permitting processes is that Tennessee requires people to take an eight-hour handgun safety course. Georgia and Alabama don't have such a requirement.

Tennessee's handgun safety class has become a model for other states, said Carl Poston, an owner of Sportsman's Indoor Shooting in Hixson. He estimates 10,000 to 12,000 people have taken the class at the indoor shooting range since it was first required by the state in 1996.

Tennessee has "got a very good program that they've come up with," Poston said.

about Tim Omarzu...

Tim Omarzu covers education for the Times Free Press. Omarzu is a longtime journalist who has worked as a reporter and editor at daily and weekly newspapers in Michigan, Nevada and California.

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