Land of 100,000 gun carriers

  • Article by: LARRY OAKES , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 9, 2012 - 10:25 AM

One in 40 Minnesota adults now has a permit to carry a handgun, and there's no consensus on whether we're safer.

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Pat Cannon, 59, of Minneapolis, took part in a defensive pistol competition at the Faribault Rifle & Pistol Club in Kilkenny. “You move from spot to spot and use cover,” Cannon said. “It’s a lot of fun.”

Photo: Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune

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It's become another thing Pat Cannon makes sure he has on him each morning before heading out the door of his south Minneapolis bungalow.

Wallet? Check. Keys? Check. Handgun?

"Actually, the gun usually goes on with the pants," said Cannon, who tucks his loaded Ruger .357 Magnum revolver into a holster he conceals inside his waistband. He positions it far enough forward on his right hip so that he can drive comfortably, but far enough back so that the grip doesn't poke out and alarm someone at work or in the grocery store.

He's not a vigilante. He's not a nut. He's just another average Minnesotan who has acquired the power to kill.

Cannon, 59, a gray-haired production artist, is one of 103,000 state residents with a permit to carry a handgun -- more than 10 times the number there were a decade ago. They, in turn, are part of a growing "carry' culture across the country: a record 8 million people who have taken on the means to use deadly force if they decide it's necessary.

Handgun owners have more freedom now than they've had in nearly a century, with every state except Illinois offering average residents the option of getting a carry permit, up from just a few states in the 1970s. In Utah, where gun laws are so liberal public schools can't even prohibit them, one in nearly seven adults has a permit. In New Jersey, where local authorities have retained the discretion to deny permits, just one in 4,200 adults has one.

This spring, in the wake of the killing of unarmed teen Trayvon Martin in Florida and a vigorous national debate over "Stand Your Ground" laws, Minnesota surpassed 100,000 permits, putting it in the numeric middle of the states, with one in 40 adults now licensed to carry.

"There's a big explosion in more people being interested," said Evan Easton, a Twin Cities software designer who runs a side-business called Personally Safe and is one of the state's 400 or so private, certified instructors of the 1-day course required to get a permit.

Easton said the permit holders he knows "are lawyers, real estate agents -- especially women who have to show houses alone -- landscapers, a video engineer, a network technician, a radio show host, a couple of legislators, a mediator who talks divorced couples through sticky situations ... a lot of typical, average careers."

Country changes direction.

"America has long had a gun culture, but now it's becoming a carry culture," said Adam Winkler, a professor at the UCLA School of Law and author of "Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America."

Winkler traces the roots of the shift to fears spawned by the social and political upheaval of the 1960s.

"People began to see the gun as something for personal protection, not just hunting," Winkler said. Meanwhile, as gun-control advocates pushed to get handguns banned in Washington, D.C. and Chicago, the NRA "changed overnight" in 1977, Winkler said, from stressing support for hunters to focusing like a laser on the right to bear arms.

Those factors helped trigger a handgun rights movement that swept the country, and by 2011, 37 states adopted so-called "shall issue" permit laws, taking away officials' discretion to deny permits to people who are of legal age, sound mind and have no criminal history.

For decades, Minnesota police chiefs and sheriffs limited how many permits they issued, especially in the Twin Cities.

The Personal Protection Act of 2003 changed that. It added Minnesota to the "shall issue" majority, saying a permit should be issued to any resident 21 or older who pays a fee of up to $100, gets prescribed training and passes a background check.

Minnesotans queued up at an average rate of 10,000 a year, swelling the ranks of permit holders from 11,381 in 2002 to 50,777 by 2007. Wisconsin, which in November became one of the last states to pass a carry permit law, reached 100,000 permits in less than six months.

Gun rights advocates say that's because it costs more to get a permit in Minnesota, and more training is required.

"The barrier to entry in Minnesota is much higher than those in other states," said Andrew Rothman, vice president of the Minnesota Gun Owners Civil Rights Alliance.

'You're not Godzilla'

About 87 percent of Minnesota's permit holders are men, and almost 70 percent are over 40, according to state data.

Though found everywhere, they are concentrated more heavily in the woodlands of central and northern Minnesota. Cook County, a retiree Mecca at the tip of the Arrowhead, has the heaviest concentration, with permit holders comprising 5 percent of the population. In Rock County, in the extreme southwest, less than 1 percent of residents have permits.

Rothman said older folks can more easily afford guns, and are more security conscious.

"When you get to be in your 40s and 50s," he said, "you begin to realize you're not Godzilla and can't run as fast as you once could."

Pat Cannon said he bought his first handgun at 45 and started entering defensive pistol competitions, which simulate life-threatening encounters.

"You move from spot to spot and use cover," Cannon said. "It's a lot of fun, so I kind of got addicted to that."

Then a woman he knows was robbed and beaten. The "shall issue" law was newly in force, and Cannon got a permit and started carrying.

"I like the feeling that in the extremely unlikely event that I needed it, I would have it," he said.

Rothman said it's no surprise that a greater proportion of permit holders live where the gun culture is generations deep.

"If you grew up in Minneapolis, it's easy to believe that guns are just plain trouble," he said. "But you don't have that out in the country, and the square miles are huge. If you have a dangerous situation, the police can be 30 minutes or an hour away."

Cloquet, Minn., resident Dennis Schelonka, a 59-year-old meat cutter, said he started carrying years ago when he was paid to watch vacationing people's homes. He said he still carries a couple days a week, more when traveling.

"Everyone has the right to feel comfortable out in public," he said. "I want to be able to protect myself."

He's also a certified carry-permit instructor and said he's observed that not all who get permits intend to carry often; some simply want to transport their handgun legally, and others just want to exercise their Second Amendment rights.

Open and secret

Rothman says he is among the relatively few state residents who exercise the right under the law to carry openly, his pistol strapped to his left hip.

"Education is the reason," he said. "Many people don't know that carrying a gun can be perfectly legal, and [they] emotionally equate guns with illegal violence. When they see a neatly groomed suburban dad innocently shopping with this undeniably adorable young kids, it challenges that preconception."

Others, such as a 32-year-old Twin Cities IT professional, carry only secretly. He asked that his name not be published because his boss wouldn't approve.

"Our office isn't posted [as prohibiting guns], and it's not against the employee handbook, but I know his stance on the issue, so I keep it under the radar," he said.

Though only 13 percent of the state's permit holders are women, Rothman said that proportion has increased.

One, a 40-year-old professional from the Twin Cities, asked that her name be withheld for the same reason she started carrying: A man with a violent history is stalking her.

She got a restraining order, but even the judge who signed it told her it wouldn't necessarily protect her. So both she and her husband got permits and carry.

"I don't want to ever have to use it, and I would rather not have the responsibility," she said.

A mixed record

Minnesota's shall-issue law was some of the most hotly debated legislation of its era, with supporters promising it would deter crime and detractors predicting a surge in needless bloodshed. Neither prediction has come to pass.

The law "has not been a net benefit to our society in any way," said Heather Martens, executive director of Protect Minnesota -- Working to End Gun Violence. "They promised that if lots of people had guns everybody would be safe. Here just [recently] we had a 5-year-old child killed while sleeping on a couch. I think we were sold a bill of goods."

State data shows that since the law took effect, permit holders were convicted of 882 non-traffic crimes, including 66 assaults, two robberies and two killings. Many were committed with guns. Martens said it debunks the notion that all permit holders are law-abiding.

Rothman responded that permit holders commit much less than their share of crime, citing as an example that though one in seven Minnesotans has a DWI on their record, only one in 545 of the state's permit holders got one after getting a permit.

"No one ever claimed permit holders would be perfect," Rothman said, "but the numbers show (they) are consistently orders of magnitude more law abiding than the general public."

Mona Dohman, commissioner of the Department of Public Safety, said legal carrying has proved to be "neither the problem nor the solution" when it comes to crime.

"We have observed no apparent correlation between the number of permits to carry handguns and the level of criminal of activity," Dohman said.

Both sides point to extreme cases, including the 2005 killing of Minneapolis restaurant doorman Billy Walsh by a drunken permit holder angry over being kicked out, and last fall's killing of mugger Darren Evanovich, who pistol whipped a woman on E. Lake St. and snatched her purse before pointing his gun at a permit holder who confronted, then shot him. No charges were filed.

Whatever the overall affect on society, Easton, the Twin Cities gun instructor, said he thinks that carrying has made him a safer member of it by giving him what he perceives to be "a sense of grace."

"When you're carrying a gun, you can't afford to get accused of causing trouble, so you let things roll off your back," he said. "You wave with all five fingers."

Larry Oakes • 612-269-0504

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