A record 200,000 Minnesotans now have permits to carry handguns, an increasingly diverse group that includes two men who recently made split-second, life-altering decisions to fire their weapons.

In 2003, the year Minnesota passed its permit-to-carry law, 15,000 five-year permits were issued. The number issued annually then decreased for several years. But by 2014, 184,985 Minnesotans held permits. Today, one in 20 Minnesotans has a permit, 19 percent of them women.

The most armed counties

Sherburne County has the highest rate of valid conceal carry permits in the state. The map represents the rate of valid 5-year permits per 1,000 households in each Minnesota county in 2014.

Conceal carry grows

Opponents had feared that the law would lead to a surge in shootings and gun deaths. But Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension data show that fatalities involving permit holders are rare. In the past five years, there have been five deadly or nonlethal instances of justifiable use of a firearm by permit holders.

From 2013 to 2014, gun crimes reported to the BCA involving permit owners dropped in half. While the numbers may not tell the full story — law enforcement can’t track all gun owners who flash weapons only if needed for self-defense — gun rights advocates say they’re telling.

“Most criminals aren’t trained ninja assassins, they are opportunists,” said Andrew Rothman, a firearms trainer and president of the Minnesota Gun Owners Civil Rights Alliance. “When they find out they don’t have an easy victim, they change their minds about pursuing a crime.”

No such scenario happened on a quiet St. Paul street on the night of July 31. Lavauntai Broadbent, 16, was killed after he brandished a handgun during an attempted robbery of a man and woman at Shadow Falls Park. The man, identified as K.L., drew his own gun — for which he had a carry permit — and shot Broadbent.

The other fatality happened in north Minneapolis last September, when Earl Malone, 18, robbed and threatened to harm the daughter of a man who had offered him a ride. The man, a permit owner, convinced Malone he had more money in a car compartment. He pulled over, reached into the compartment, grabbed his loaded gun and fatally shot Malone.

In both cases, the men tried to treat the wounds or called 911 for their victims.

Neither of the shooters, who remain anonymous, will face charges, because the Ramsey and Hennepin County attorneys determined their actions were legally justified.

“This was classic self-defense,” Hennepin County Attorney Michael Freeman said of the Minneapolis shooting. “You can use the same level of force being used on you that is necessary to stop the threat.”

To receive a permit, the applicant must pass a background check and take four to six hours of training. A permit usually costs $100 and has to be renewed in five years.

James Franklin, executive director of the Minnesota Sheriffs’ Association, said he had envisioned the potential for many permit owners using their guns. But it’s been quiet on the permit-to-carry front, he said. An exhaustive background screening program for applicants and gun safety training help explain the small amount of incidents, he said.

“Virtually every case has been a person defending themselves,” Franklin said. “And I can’t recall a single case where a person hurt themselves with a gun [used for self-defense].”

Still, in the past few years, there have been several fatal shootings by permit holders, including one by a security guard and one by a bar bouncer. And then there was the 2011 case of Darren Evanovich, who was shot and killed by a man protecting a senior citizen and himself outside a Minneapolis grocery store. Like the two most recent incidents, none of these shootings led to charges.

The debate will go on

The debate over carrying guns has varied little since permit-to-carry laws became the norm more than a decade ago. Both sides can present statistics and reports to prove their points.

In 2014, the United States saw the largest single-year increase in the number of active carry permits, bringing the total to nearly 13 million, said John Lott, president of the Crime Prevention Research Center in Swarthmore, Pa. At least 10 states no longer require a permit to carry a handgun.

He cited polls that indicate a growing percentage of people feel safer with a gun in their home. He also pointed to the changing demographics of gun owners, which now include more blacks and women.

Meanwhile, research by the Violence Policy Center in Washington found that individuals with permits to carry handguns in public have been responsible for at least 568 fatal non-self-defense shootings since 2007. Twenty-nine of those incidents were mass shootings (with three or more victims), resulting in the deaths of 139 victims. And since May 2007, at least 17 law enforcement officers have died at the hands of killers with permits to carry.

In Minnesota, permit owners committed 44 crimes with their guns in 2013, but the number dropped to 20 last year, according to the BCA.

When proponents campaigned for the state’s permit-to-carry measure, they argued that being able to carry a loaded gun in public would deter crime, said Heather Martens, executive director of Protect Minnesota, a gun safety and education group. She doesn’t buy it, saying permit standards aren’t strong enough because people who have multiple DWIs can receive one.

“People behave differently when they have a gun,” she said. “If you are trying to keep people safe, you don’t make guns easily accessible.”

The ever-growing number of guns has caused an increase in domestic homicides and suicides, she said. And she cited the story of a Minneapolis child who came across a gun poorly stored by a permit-holding parent and killed his sibling, and that of a permit holder who shot an undercover cop during a road rage incident.

In contrast, firearms trainer Rothman points out that Minnesota’s crime rate is relatively low compared to that of other states. And 95 percent of permit owners who pull their guns for defensive reasons never fire a shot, he said.

“When I teach a class, I give students a long legal laundry list of things they have to contemplate in a short time before firing,” he said. “If they have to think about whether or not to pull the trigger, I tell them not to pull.”

People usually understand that having a gun is like insurance — it’s likely you won’t need it, Rothman said. He said his students ask more questions about the legality of shooting situations than about the mechanics of guns.

“Over the years, the idea of carrying a gun has become much more normalized in society,” he said.