The number of Minnesotans who are legally entitled to carry a handgun reached an all-time high in 2014, with 184,895 active permits by the end of the year, according to a new report from the state.
The end-of-year total is more than 14 percent higher than last year, according to the report released Monday. There were 161,536 active permit holders at the end of 2013.
In the last few months, that figure has risen to 189,142, as more residents got permitted.
Law enforcement and firearms experts say that gun ownership has dramatically increased nationally since President Obama took office and some worried about tougher firearm restrictions.
"Any time there's any kind of fear that there's going to be some type of gun control imposed, we see some type of spike," said Cmdr. Paul Sommer, a spokesman with the Anoka County Sheriff's Office.
Handgun permits are valid for five years, which means the statistics are a mix of those who already have permits and new permit-holders. In 2014, 41,493 new permits were given out, compared to 60,471 the previous year.
About 3.95 percent of adults in Minnesota have handgun permits, according to the Crime Prevention Research Center, a nonprofit organization that studies the connection between firearms and crime. That puts Minnesota in the bottom half of states in terms of the percentage of residents who have permits. About 12.3 percent of South Dakota adults have handgun permits, the highest rate in the nation. The group found that 4.8 percent of adults nationally have handgun permits.
Anoka County saw an uptick in the number of legal carry permits in the wake of the last two presidential elections and the mass school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
The county, which had been receiving about 200 carry applications a month, saw a nearly threefold jump following the 2012 school shooting in which a gunman killed 20 children and six educators, Sommer said.
The increase in the number of handgun permits hasn't necessarily translated into an uptick in gun crimes.
"They thought the streets were going to be running with blood, but statistically, it hasn't shown itself as a problem in terms of an increase in the amount of gun crimes," Sommer said Monday.
The Crime Prevention Research Center found that states with a high percentage of gun ownership often had low violent-crime rates. Murder rates dropped 22 percent nationally from 2007 to 2013, while the adult population with weapons permits jumped 130 percent over the same period.
Heather Martens, executive director of Protect Minnesota, a group that advocates for tougher gun control, said she wasn't surprised by the historic rise in permits.
Since permits are active for five years, "the number will just continue to go up," she said.
State gun laws, she said, don't "go far enough to keep dangerous people away from carrying a gun."
Chris Williamson, owner of Osseo Gun Club and Pro Shop, has seen an increase of people, women in particular, inquire about their permit to carry class. The shop opened three months ago, and has classes booked until April.
A stay-at-home mom inquired about a class in February after a Byerly's store in St. Louis Park was put on lockdown during a manhunt that took place throughout the western Twin Cities suburbs. "They are here because of security or personal protection," Williamson said.
At Osseo Gun Club, participants must be familiar with a firearm or take an intro class before taking a permit to carry class.
Tyler Edwards, 22, recently moved from Utah, where he had a permit to carry. He recently finished an online course for a permit in Minnesota.
"It's a way of life," Edwards said. "I've been shooting my entire life."
Peter Johnson, founder of Archway Defense and instructor at Osseo Gun Club, said he noticed a huge spike of permits after Sandy Hook in 2012.
"The trend is increasing," he said.
Since gun-carrying legislation in Minnesota was enacted in 2003, state law has required that sheriffs 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. Individuals denied a permit can appeal.
In 2014, the number of Minnesota applications denied was 422.
Heavily populated counties saw the greatest number of permits issued in 2014. Hennepin (5,279), Anoka (2,951), Dakota (2,691), Ramsey (2,415) and St. Louis (2,263) led the way.
Minnesota law enforcement agencies reported that individuals with permits committed 1,320 crimes in 2014, with the majority of those involving drunken driving or other traffic offenses.
Law enforcement agencies are then required to report their data on gun permit applications, issuances and denials to the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. The BCA compiles the public information provided by Minnesota law enforcement agencies into its annual report.
Staff writer Karen Zamora contributed to this report.