So far in 2009, the number of South Carolinians wanting to pack heat nearly has doubled over the previous year as people worry about violent crime and feel threatened by partisan politics.
As of mid-October, 28,197 new concealed weapons permits have been issued this year by South Carolina's State Law Enforcement Division.
It's an annual record that already has surpassed the 14,630 new permits issued in all of 2008 and by far outstrips all previous years, according to SLED statistics.
The demand for permits is being driven, in part, over people's belief that President Barack Obama and a Democrat-controlled Congress are a threat to their Second Amendment rights.
"People are thinking, 'I want to get it and get it now,'" said Tom Thompson, president of the Mid-Carolina Rifle Club in Gaston, in Lexington County. "In case the Democrats try to pull something on us, we're going to have it."
Others increasingly worry that a sinister crime may happen to them.
"I very truly believe there are bad people out there," said Patty Clark, a 49yearold Gilbert resident with a concealed weapons permit. "Not that every time you walk out the door you're in danger of being attacked, but there are bad people out there who can hurt you."
The increasing number of people carrying concealed weapons is just one sign of South Carolina's shifting gun culture. The permit allows people to hide guns beneath their clothes or in their purses, briefcases and backpacks.
Besides applying for concealed weapons permits in record numbers, South Carolinians also are:
Buying more handguns
Buying fewer rifles and shotguns
Seeing more women buy guns and participate in shootings sports.
Between 2005 and 2008, the number of concealed weapons permits rose nearly equally among men and women and black and white residents.
As concealed weapons permits and handgun sales increase, the number of hunters is on the decline. And sales of rifles and shotguns traditional hunting weapons have slipped.
In 1999, the FBI conducted 80,786 background checks for sales of rifles and shotguns. Last year, the agency performed 65,954 of those checks. While FBI background checks do not account for every gun sold in the state, they are the best available indicator on sales trends.
Paul Flondarina, SLED's chief information officer, said South Carolina is following a national trend of increasing numbers of people who want to carry concealed weapons.
He thinks rifles and shotgun purchases are taking a back seat to assault rifle sales, especially since Obama took office. He said some people are using those guns to hunt wild game.
"It's an ego thing," Flondarina said. "It's like driving a Corvette down the road. People are like, 'Hey, look at me.'"
Meanwhile, the proliferation of concealed weapons concerns crime victim advocates, who say a heavily armed citizenry will not make people more safe.
"It becomes a deadly game," said Laura Hudson, executive director of the S.C. Crime Victims Council. "Where is all of this ending? Is everybody going to have a weapon? Are we going back to the Wild West? It just escalates."
A STEADY INCREASE
In South Carolina, nearly 100,000 people hold concealed weapons permits, Flondarina said. That includes people who have received them this year as well as people who have held them for years.
If they all lived in one place, the people who can legally carry a concealed weapon in South Carolina would comprise the state's third-largest city, behind Charleston and Columbia.
A permit must be renewed every four years. For each of the past eight years, the percentage of permit holders not renewing has been less than 1 percent, Flondarina said.
The volume of people applying for permits has been steadily rising for years.
In 2008, 14,630 state residents received concealed weapons permits, a 264 percent increase from 2005, when 4,019 permits were issued.
Handgun sales also are increasing with the demand for permits.
In 2008, the FBI ran background checks for 70,257 handgun purchases, up 90 percent from 2003.
The huge spike in permits hit after the November elections, said Flondarina, who has studied the issue for SLED.
"We had a big influx after the elections because of fears," he said. "Fears weapons would be taken away. Fears licenses and permits would be denied."
At the peak in early 2009, SLED received more than 100 applications a day. The agency brought in three volunteer state constables to help process the paperwork, Flondarina said.
Applications now have leveled off.
South Carolina has had some sort of concealed weapons permit law since the mid1970s. When the law was first created, gun owners had to justify a business need for carrying their weapons concealed.
For example, a store owner who made night deposits at a bank could qualify for the permit.
For years, the number of concealed weapons permit holders in the state hovered around 4,000, Flondarina said.
In 1996, the law changed to allow almost anyone older than 21 to carry a concealed weapon. Exceptions include people who have been indicted or convicted of a crime where the penalty exceeds one year in prison, anyone with a restraining order against them or those who ever have been committed to a mental institution.
Since the law changed, it has become more acceptable to get a permit, said Patrick Nolan, who teaches the classes required of those applying for permits.
"It's less of a scary, frightening thing," Nolan said. "Soandso has their permit. Why don't we go get one?"
THE OBAMA FACTOR
Still, Obama's election propelled the trend to an alltime high, said SLED's Flondarina.
Although Obama has not proposed any laws to restrict gun ownership or sales, many fear he will.
Thompson, the gun club president, is convinced Obama is "completely against concealed weapons permits."
And he thinks banning the permits is on the agenda for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
"We can't afford to compromise," Thompson said. "There shouldn't be any gun laws. Period."
Flondarina said gun lobbyists spread those fears among the general public.
"They force the issue," he said.
A White House official said Obama respects the constitutional right of Americans to bear arms.
"The Obama administration is committed to protecting the rights of hunters and other law abiding Americans to purchase, own, transport and use guns while stopping firearms traffickers and keeping guns out of the hands of criminals, terrorists and others prohibited from owning them," Gannet Tseggai, a White House spokesman said last week in an email to The State newspaper.
THE FEAR FACTOR
There are other events that drive up permit applications. SLED receives a flurry of new applications whenever a gun show is held in the state, generally at least once a month.
And it receives a spike after high-profile crimes.
"People just want a weapon to hold in their hands," Flondarina said. "They want that blanket, that warm and fuzzy feeling that if someone tries to hurt them, they can shoot them legally."
The Midlands had two high-profile shootings involving men with concealed weapons permits in recent months.
In April, a man attending an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in Columbia's Five Points area near the University of South Carolina shot and killed an armed robber who had stormed into the building, demanding money. The shooter, a Columbia attorney, had a permit to carry his .32-caliber handgun. Police determined the assailant posed a real threat and did not charge the shooter.
In March, in Irmo, a Pizza Hut employee shot and killed one of four unarmed men who attacked him after they called in a bogus order. The deliveryman had a permit for his .45-caliber pistol. He was not charged.
Those stories weigh on Patty Clark's mind, which is why she keeps one pistol by her bed and another in her pickup truck. News reports of murder victims who couldn't protect themselves alarm her even more.
"I put a person with that crime scene," said the Gilbert resident who oversees women's programs for Gun Owners of South Carolina. "What did that person go through before they were murdered or attacked or raped? What if that were me?"
THE DETERRENT DEBATE
Gun advocates say concealed weapons permits make communities more safe.
"An armed society is a polite society," said Gerald Stoudemire of Little Mountain, president of Gun Owners of South Carolina, an affiliate of the National Rifle Association.
In the past 10 years, violent crime rates in South Carolina have dropped.
Between 1998 and 2007, they fell 13.5 percent, according to the latest statistics obtained from the S.C. Department of Public Safety.
The debate over whether gun ownership contributed to the decline is controversial. Both sides can point to research that supports their arguments.
Flondarina, the SLED official, said no one has proved or disproved in South Carolina or anywhere else whether private citizens having guns deter crime.
Nolan, the concealed weapons instructor, said criminals will think twice about committing crimes as the number of people carrying guns rises.
"It protects everyone to a degree," he said. "I feel uncomfortable if I know nobody is armed."
That means Nolan should be uncomfortable on the university campus where he works. While laws prohibit weapons on campuses, Nolan thinks mass shootings, such as the one at Virginia Tech in 2007, would be far less deadly if students and faculty could be legally armed.
People who want to pull off a mass killing don't go to gun stores or rifle ranges, he said.
"They're going to go where they can fire at will," Nolan said. "Most of the time, what stops a shooting is where someone else shows up with a gun."
In rural areas, residents with concealed weapons permits say guns bring a level of security that law enforcement cannot provide.
Stoudemire said it takes longer for police to respond to emergencies in rural areas.
"Confrontations occur in seconds, not minutes," said Stoudemire, who runs Little Mountain Gun & Supply Inc., with his wife from the back of their house. "I refer to 911 as 'dial a prayer.' Police can't protect everybody."
That's why 41-year-old Johnny Riddle of Little Mountain got a permit to carry his 9 mm handgun nine years ago.
"I made a promise to the good Lord above that I would protect my wife and child and myself," Riddle said. "I'm not going to be intimidated by someone breaking in my home and trying to rob me."
Many concealed weapons permit holders say they are afraid of crime. But only one of the state's 10 counties with the highest concentration of permit holders Darlington is also one of the state's most violent.
While concealed weapons permit holders cite reasons for carrying weapons, crime victim advocates are not so sure guns are the answer.
Vicki Bourus, executive director of the S.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, said her agency is concerned about the growing number of concealed weapons carriers.
"This belief that guns are an important part of our lives and keep us safer is unfounded," she said. "To me, that is unreasonable."
For example, the majority of women killed by their abusers are shot, Bourus said.
People who have been convicted of criminal domestic violence are not allowed to have a gun, much less a concealed weapons permit, according to SLED.
Still, domestic violence victims often don't press charges even after calling the police, Bourus said. That would make the abusers still eligible to own a gun and carry it with them.
For the most part, public officials have not reported problems caused by people who carry concealed weapons.
That has come as a surprise to S.C. Sen. John Land, D-Clarendon, who was one of the fiercest opponents to changes to the state's concealed weapons laws in the mid-1990s.
"As hard as I fought it, and as much as I believed at the time that it was unnecessary, it has turned out very well," Land said. "I was afraid of crazy folks who would get one and go out there and start shooting up folks."
Two high-profile shootings in Columbia in recent years involved people who did have concealed weapons permits and went to prison for using their weapons.
In 2006, H. Dewain Herring, an estate attorney, shot his gun from the parking lot toward the front door of Chastity's Gold Club, killing the strip club's manager, who was behind the door. The manager had thrown Herring out of the club.
When deputies went to Herring's Gregg Park house to arrest him, Herring pulled a pistol from his nightstand and pointed it at deputies. A deputy fired and hit Herring's left arm. The other deputies then opened fire, shooting 17 times. A jury, rejecting Herring's argument that someone had drugged him, sentenced him to 30 years in prison for murder.
In 2004, an armed security guard was charged with murder after shooting an unarmed man following a confrontation outside Cornell Arms, an apartment tower near USC.
Although not required to by his employer, Jason Michael Dickey carried a loaded pistol, for which he held a concealed weapons permit. Dickey was convicted of voluntary manslaughter. He appealed to the S.C. Supreme Court, arguing the shooting was in self defense. The high court did not agree with him.
Lexington County Sheriff James Metts said he is concerned that citizens feel so threatened by crime that they want to arm themselves.
But he does not have a problem with them making that choice.
"We believe the people getting the permits are good, law-abiding citizens," Metts said. "It's put criminals on notice. They don't know if the person they're going to rob has a gun or not."
In Richland County, Sheriff Leon Lott said he does not find problems in the growing number of people who are carrying concealed weapons, because they have taken gun safety courses to qualify.
He encourages anyone who buys a gun, whether they want to conceal it or not, to take a safety class.
"The worst thing you can do is get a gun and not get trained on it. There's nothing more dangerous than a gun in an untrained person's hand," Lott said.
Rick Brundrett contributed to this report.