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More than 60,000 Minnesota gun permits were issued last year, nearly double the number from 2012, bringing the state total to a record 165,295 active permits.
Gun dealers and law enforcement experts say the national debate over beefing up gun control after the Sandy Hook school shooting and other violent outbursts triggered the trend. People turned out in record numbers to buy guns amid fears that their right to bear arms could be eroded.
The 2013 numbers, released by the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension on Friday, show about one in five of the 2013 permits were renewals, required every five years.
"Since Sandy Hook, we've seen a spike in public demand," said Randy Gustafson, a spokesman for the Ramsey County Sheriff's Office, where permits issued were up 88 percent from 2012 to 2013.
"Anytime there has been a news focus on more gun control or gun ownership regulation, that has fueled a greater demand for people to purchase firearms while they still have an opportunity to do so because they think that maybe they're going to be regulated out," Gustafson said.
Edwin Olwin, an 81-year-old widower in Maple Grove, keeps a revolver in his night stand and keeps his permit to carry up to date. He insists the community is safer with more law-abiding gun owners.
"Take a look at the states with the most gun control like California, New York and Illinois and you'll find the highest murder rates," he said. "[President] Obama frightened everyone to the point you can't find bullets anymore. All he had to do is open his mouth, and they'll double in price overnight."
With their large populations, Twin Cities-area counties issued the most permits last year: Hennepin (7,982), Anoka (4,747), Dakota (4,125), Ramsey (3,483) and Washington (3,319).
Two smaller southwestern Minnesota counties showed the largest percentage increase with Rock (96 permits) and Murray (121) counties more than tripling gun permits issued in 2013 compared to 2012.
At Bill's Gun Shop & Range in Robbinsdale, owner John Monson has seen "a large influx of consumers purchasing firearms" since the Dec. 14, 2012, school shooting in Newtown, Conn., claimed the lives of 20 children and six adults.
"We're seeing about one-third of our business from what we call newbies coming in for their first experience," he said. "Others are acquiring additional firearms."
He, too, credits the threat of more regulation for the uptick. "Us Americans are pretty stubborn when we're told we can't do something: Then we're going to take advantage of it while we can."
But Heather Martens, executive director of Protect Minnesota, an organization aimed at ending gun violence, said that the swell in permits shows that "the firearms industry is aggressively marketing firearms as a way to be safe. Unfortunately, firearms don't make households safer."
She said 42 people in Minnesota who had cleared background checks to get gun permits were charged with domestic violence last year.
"We're concerned about how the standards are applied," she said. "Particularly where there is domestic violence, the presence of a firearm raises the risk of someone dying."
Sheriffs statewide reported 540 permits were denied last year, 28 suspended, 18 voided and 11 revoked. Since gun-carrying legislation was enacted in 2003, state law has required that sheriffs "shall" issue permits to citizens who pass background checks and take gun safety classes. Since then, about 96 percent of gun-carry permit applications have been approved.
Up in Duluth, retired teacher and Vietnam War veteran Paul Fleming is a lifelong National Rifle Association member. But he's become fed up with the group's rhetoric and its role in jacking up the permit numbers. He usually leaves his gun in his desk unless he's taking a long trip and fears he might get a flat tire and get stranded somewhere.
"The NRA and its propaganda — 'Obama's going to take my guns!' — has riled everybody up and frankly I'm disgusted with it," said Fleming, 66. "Every time I go to Fisherman's Corner in Hermantown to get a handgun, shotgun or rifle, I go through a check. What the heck's wrong with that?"
Staff writer Glenn Howatt contributed to this report.