A record number of Minnesotans received permits to carry a handgun last year, a surge that came in a year that brought anxiety over the COVID-19 pandemic, an economic slowdown and rioting in the Twin Cities after the police killing of George Floyd.

The state issued 96,554 permits to carry a handgun in 2020, compared with 51,404 permits the year before. Of those who received a permit last year, 80,000 were new and the rest were renewals.

"We've experienced an uptick in the past year in handgun sales, and we've had to tell a lot of people how to get a permit," said Kory Krause, owner of the Frontiersman gun store in St. Louis Park.

Minnesota's soaring number of permitted holders came in a year in which the FBI conducted a record 39 million background checks for firearm sales nationally. The number of checks conducted by the FBI has risen steadily for decades, marked by occasional spikes after mass shootings and other traumatic events, such as the rioting that broke out in cities across the country after Floyd's death.

Minnesota gun shop owners and county sheriffs tie the state's increase to the intense political climate during the past election season, fears caused by the pandemic and unrest in the wake of Floyd's death. Nearly half of the permits issued last year were for people in metro-area counties, according to the state.

Dakota County Sheriff Tim Leslie said concealed-carry permits jumped dramatically in his county to more than 1,100 last year. Much of the increase happened during the riots in Minneapolis last June, he said.

"911 calls were going unanswered. People came to the realization that law enforcement couldn't be everywhere all of the time," he said. "Law enforcement was pushed to the brink. People were wondering if they might need to take the law into their own hands."

Protect Minnesota, a group that works to prevent gun violence, said "the chaos and fear of 2020 and early 2021 resulted in a flood of new guns into our communities."

The group said many of the new gun owners were women, Black, Indigenous and people of color.

"Research has proved that more guns do not intrinsically make communities safer," said Maggiy Emery, spokeswoman for the group. "However, until we as a society address and rectify the underlying issues of gun violence, we need to emphasize responsible and safe gun ownership."

The state denied 1,191 permit applications last year. Another 103 Minnesotans' permits were suspended, 36 were revoked and 968 permits were voided after the holders were convicted of a crime that made them ineligible to possess a firearm.

People with permits committed 3,110 crimes last year, the highest number since the state made it legal to carry a concealed weapon in 2003. More than half of the crimes involved drunken driving or other serious traffic infractions.

People who want to obtain a permit to carry must apply at a local sheriff's office and provide proof of approved firearms training. Sheriffs then must follow a process defined in state law, checking FBI, Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and Department of Homeland Security records as well as their own data for any disqualifying information. Those denied a permit have the right to an appeal.

Krause said his gun store has experienced wild fluctuations in gun sales throughout the year.

At the start of 2020, people feared "that things would be getting worse" with the pandemic.

Then came the rioting after Floyd's death in May, which triggered another wave of gun sales, he said.

Krause said they anticipate another surge in sales as Minneapolis braces for the trials of the four former police officers at the scene when Floyd was killed. "What's going on is unprecedented," he said.

"After an event, like a school shooting and the political discussion surrounding the event, we might have lines outside the door," said Bill Hutton, executive director of the Minnesota Sheriffs' Association and former sheriff of Washington County. After an incredibly trying year, "we all pray we don't have the kind of events that trigger those political discussions."

Like many other big U.S. cities, Minneapolis saw violent crime spike in 2020. Homicides and serious assaults rose to levels unseen in years, and the number of people struck by gunfire, 553, was the highest tally by far in at least the past 15 years, Police Department data show.

While many crime categories have fallen back to average levels in the first two months of 2021, shooting numbers have continued to climb. A Minneapolis city spokesman said the Police Department would not comment on the increase in permits.

In Washington, some members of Congress are making a fresh push for significant new gun restrictions, introducing two measures aimed at dramatic changes to the nation's gun laws.

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., on Tuesday introduced the Protecting Domestic Violence and Stalking Victims Act to close what is commonly referred to as the "boyfriend loophole." The legislation will prevent people who have abused dating partners from buying or owning firearms and stop convicted stalkers from possessing a gun.

"This bill will close a dangerous loophole and stop abusive dating partners and convicted stalkers from buying or owning a gun — a common sense step that will save lives," Klobuchar said in a statement.

David Chanen • 612-673-4465