Even though a record number of Minnesotans have permits to carry firearms, only a tiny number ever have pulled the trigger in self-defense.

Five instances of justifiable use of a firearm by a permit holder have been reported to the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) since 2003, although some recent self-defense shootings haven’t been counted.

Still, the low number of justifiable uses of firearms serves as a Rorschach test for those involved in the gun control debate, with rights supporters saying that guns don’t have to be fired to provide protection.

“That doesn’t show when a firearm deters an actual crime from taking place,” John Monson, owner of Bill’s Gun Shop in Robbinsdale, said of the figures. “Visibility or knowledge of a firearm is a deterrent, but those don’t get reported.”

The annual BCA gun reports also show that permit holders have been convicted of 124 crimes using a firearm since 2003. Gun control advocates say the rarity of justifiable uses points to a need to more tightly restrict access to firearms.

“I think it does undermine the argument that there’s a tremendous need for self-defense, to carry weapons,” said Jennifer Green, an associate professor and director of human rights litigation with the University of Minnesota Law School. “It shows that we may still have some problems as to who is carrying guns.”

Unreported cases

When the “shall issue” permit law was passed in 2003, making it easier for residents to carry loaded weapons in public, it required each police chief and sheriff in Minnesota to report the “lawful and justifiable use” of firearms by permit holders to the BCA. But those agencies don’t have to provide any other details.

The BCA said the most recent case happened last year in Hennepin County. The Sheriff’s Office declined to provide any details on that case, saying that doing so could reveal the identity of a permit holder and would violate state law.

Equally little is known about the other cases. The BCA reported three justifiable uses in 2009 but said records on which counties reported them have been destroyed, “which is in keeping with the data retention policy for those documents,” said agency spokeswoman Jill Oliveira.

A justifiable use occurred in Wabasha County in 2005 involving a man who drew complaints about target shooting near someone’s property but wasn’t charged.

The form used by law enforcement to provide information about gun permits has a field to report justifiable uses. However, in some cases, well-publicized justifiable shootings weren’t reported to the BCA.

The BCA recorded no such cases in 2010 and 2011, but permit-holders in Minneapolis shot three people during that period in cases ruled justifiable.

A bouncer at Grumpy’s Bar in northeast Minneapolis shot and killed a 24-year-old man attempting to attack him. A 61-year-old man fired several shots at several people trying to rob him in the Whittier neighborhood.

Perhaps the most well-known instance occurred in October 2011 in a Cub Foods parking lot on E. Lake Street. Darren Evanovich pistol-whipped a woman and stole her purse. A witness pursued Evanovich and asked for the woman’s purse back. Evanovich responded by pointing his gun at the witness, who aimed his own gun and shot the robber dead.

The Minneapolis Police Department didn’t know those cases had to be reported to the BCA, according to police spokesman Sgt. William Palmer. He said the BCA never told the department about that requirement.

“Starting immediately, we will be working internally and with the BCA to assure we are in compliance with the reporting requirements,” Palmer said.

Then there are cases where permit holders have said they’ve used their firearms to protect themselves that never get reported to police.

“I’m a perfect example of that,” said Mike Briggs, a firearms instructor and permit holder who lives in Ramsey. Briggs said he was pumping gas in February 2012 about 4 a.m. in north Minneapolis when he saw four people drive up in a car with the headlights off. Briggs said he made eye contact with the driver and that the two stared at each other for three minutes until the group slowly drove away. Briggs said he never pulled out his Wilson Combat .45 pistol.

“I think they were going to carjack me,” he said. Briggs said his gun gave him confidence to confront the group if need be. “My self-confidence, my eye contact, my body language. I was ready. And I think they figured that.”

To Steve Petersen, a federal firearms licensee and permit holder in Andover, it’s those types of incidents that prove the value of having a permit to carry.

“That gun is there to protect me,” Petersen said. “It does not obligate me legally or morally to intervene in a situation where I’ve got to draw my gun and protect someone else. I’ve got to believe 99 percent of permit holders. … would agree with that.”

‘More guns, less crime’?

Gun control advocates contrast the number of justifiable uses of firearms to the number of incidents where a gun has been used to intimidate or harm, intentionally or not.

“The small number of these defensive uses [contradicts] arguments that were made for putting more guns in people’s hands in public places, that was supposed to confer more safety, and it didn’t,” said Heather Martens, head of Protect Minnesota, which advocates for gun control. “I think that the whole premise of the more guns, less crime was false.”

Of the 124 gun-related crimes committed by permit holders in Minnesota since 2003, 19 were assaults, 10 were for carrying under the influence, six were for drug-related crimes and one was a homicide.

Gun rights advocates respond by saying the same statistics show generally they are far more law abiding than the general public. They also point to a drop in violent crime — a 23 percent decline since 2005 in Minnesota — and say that’s partly because of the increased number of people carrying firearms.

Law enforcement and criminologists say that’s highly unlikely.

“Violent crime has gone down across the country,” said Dakota County Sheriff Dave Bellows.

Bellows said he believes that justifiable-use incidents are so low because the majority of permit holders often leave their guns at home. He said the permit renewal rate in his county has dropped steadily since 2009 and sits at about 40 percent.

All applicants for a carry permit must take a class that teaches about justifiable uses of firearms. That’s probably another reason so few of them have actually used them, said James Franklin, executive director of the Minnesota Sheriffs’ Association.

“We had hoped it would have worked this good,” Franklin said.

“I think it’s a success from the standpoint that [when the law was passed], it was first alluded to that perhaps a number of misapplications might occur, that people would be trigger-happy.”