The line starts forming at 7:30 a.m. — an hour before the office opens.
By the time staff members at the Law Enforcement Support Agency unlock the doors, the crowd has grown to 40 or 50 — mostly white men — and winds down the sidewalk along Tacoma Avenue South.
They’re waiting for concealed pistol licenses – the pieces of paper that allow private citizens to pack loaded pistols in public.
In Pierce County and throughout the state, people have been grabbing up concealed pistol licenses at unprecedented rates since the elementary school massacre at Newtown, Conn., and President Barack Obama’s subsequent vow to reduce gun violence.
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In January, with Tacoma crowds so heavy at times that some applicants reported four-hour waits, LESA set a record for itself with 1,964 license applications, about twice the usual volume.
The number of concealed pistol licenses had been rising fast even before the latest push for gun control. Statewide, according to the Department of Licensing, the number of license holders went from 239,000 in 2006 to 392,784 at the end of 2012, a 64 percent increase.
For perspective, that’s about 1 of every 12 adults in the state.
Meanwhile, gun buyers have stripped the shelves nearly bare at local gun shops in a rush to buy firearms and ammunition of all sorts.
“Everybody’s panic buying,” said Dan Davaies, co-owner of Mary’s Pistols in Tacoma. “Demand is far exceeding supply.”
“I’ve got everything on order. I mean everything.”
The rapid increase in the number of people buying firearms and applying for concealed weapon permits worries gun-control advocates, who are urging Congress to restrict assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines, and require more thorough background checks.
Here in Washington, gun control groups including the Brady Campaign to Reduce Gun Violence and Washington CeaseFire, view with alarm the skyrocketing numbers of people allowed to carry concealed weapons.
They cite the state’s comparatively liberal licensing policies and the number of deaths and injuries caused by license holders.
“Right now you fill out a form and they basically have to give you a concealed weapons permit,” said Ralph Fascitelli, spokesman for Washington CeaseFire. “We want to make sure that people known to be dangerous don’t get permits.”
Gun-rights advocates, on the other hand, are unperturbed with the increasing number of people seeking concealed gun permits.
“I don’t think it’s anything to worry about, but I’m not jumping back flips, either,” said Dave Workman, a Washington native who’s communications director for the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms.
“I’m kind of indifferent about it,” he said. “The fact that citizens are exercising their rights doesn’t alarm me, and it shouldn’t anybody else.”
‘SHALL ISSUE’ STATE
Washington’s concealed weapons law is among the country’s most relaxed. This is a “shall issue” state, which means that as long as minimum legal standards are met, the government can’t refuse a license.
There’s a background check and a 30-day waiting period. Applicants must be at least 21, have no history of serious mental illness and, with some exceptions, no past felonies. Applicants don’t have to explain why they want the license, and local police have almost no discretion in granting them. Washington is one of a handful of states that issues licenses to nonresidents as well as residents.
Those are among the reasons the Brady Campaign gives Washington a score of 15 points out of a possible 100 in its most recent rankings of states based on laws aimed at curbing gun violence. The state loses most points in the categories of record retention, identifying guns used in crimes, reporting of lost or stolen guns, background checks on gun sales.
Most disturbing to gun-control advocates such as Washington CeaseFire, is Washington requires no training or demonstration of proficiency by a person seeking a concealed pistol license. Only two other states — Georgia and Pennsylvania — have no competency or training requirements.
Tighter regulation of concealed weapon licenses is one of CeaseFire’s legislative goals for 2014, Fascitelli said
The lines of people waiting for concealed pistol permits also is not comforting to Pierce County sheriff’s spokesman Ed Troyer.
“Having more armed, untrained people does not help,” he said.
“It’s not really easy to shoot bad guys without having the bullets end up someplace else,” he said. “It’s not like you see on TV. We’ve gone to scenes where people have fired six or seven rounds and hit everything but their target.”
Lack of training can lead to trouble, advocates note. The Brady Campaign keeps a running tally of unintentional shootings and close calls on its website.
One local example: A Poulsbo man who legally carried his loaded .38-caliber pistol into the Kitsap Mall last month has become a case in point for those who argue that at least minimal training standards should be established.
When the 58-year-old man bent over in the Silverdale CostPlus World Market, his gun fell out of his coat pocket. It went off when it hit the floor, sending a shot that ricocheted off a bed frame and into a stack of rope baskets. No one was hurt, but the store manager evacuated the store as a precaution.
There are far more serious examples of gun accidents and crimes committed by concealed license holders.
A driver left a loaded 9 mm pistol — with a round in the chamber — under a car seat when he got out to pay for fuel at a Tacoma gas station last March. A 3-year-old passenger picked up the gun and accidentally shot himself in the head. He died at Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital and Health Center.
Making the case that armed amateurs can be an effective force against crime became more difficult to make in Pierce County in 2005.
That was the year Dan McKown, a local comedian and holder of a concealed pistol license, tried to stop an attempted mass murderer in the Tacoma Mall. After taking out his gun to confront the shooter, McKown was shot five times and ended up permanently paralyzed without ever firing his weapon.
In the war of anecdotes, gun-rights advocates have ammunition, too.
They cite a situation in December at a mall in Clackamas County, Ore., in which a 22-year-old man armed with an AR-15 rifle began firing at Christmas shoppers in the mall’s food court. An armed citizen drew his weapon and aimed it at the gunman. The gunman retreated and then shot himself.
In another case, in 2007 at a New Life church in Colorado, a gunman who killed a church member was killed himself by another armed congregant.
Workman knows those stories, but he doesn’t like to play the game of dueling anecdotes.
“I’m not sure there’s any evidence one way or another that it has been a detriment to society to have a lot of armed citizens,” he said. “If you take a fair look at the evidence, you’re not going to win an argument either way.
“I will make this observation, though,” Workman said. “We have seen a decline in violent crime in this country in the past several years, when at the same time there’s been a increase in the number of private citizens carrying guns. That does tend to fly in the face of all the gloom and doom of the gun control lobby.”
Few expect changes in Washington’s concealed weapons law anytime soon. With regard to getting concealed weapons permits, there’s been a clear trend toward leniency in recent years.
Ten years ago, seven states had laws that prohibited carrying concealed handguns. Now, after lobbying by gun-rights groups, no states have such laws. In December, a federal appeals court struck down the last such ban in Illinois.
Since 2002, three states — Alaska, Arizona and Wyoming — joined Vermont in allowing concealed weapons without permits, and in 2010 Congress made it legal to carry loaded, concealed weapons in national parks.
In the Washington Legislature, one proposed bill would tangentially affect the concealed pistol law.
Senate Bill 5282, proposed by Sen. Mike Carrell, R-Lakewood, would create a more complete database of mental health commitment information to improve the quality of background checks related to firearm purchases and concealed carry permits.
If his bill passes, Carrell says, it would help track serious mental health problems that he believes are sometimes not revealed in the state’s current system.
“There’s a lack of coordination in record-keeping,” Carrell said. “The left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing.”
No opposition to the bill has emerged publicly so far, but its first hearing is not until Tuesday in the Senate Committee on Human Services and Corrections.
Carrell believes his bill is an example of finding common ground between extremes in the gun violence debate.
“This is the sort of stuff people on both side of the aisle can agree on,” Carrell said. “It’s part of an overall public safety thing — making sure people don’t fall through the cracks.”