Law enforcement issued more than 71,000 permits to Minnesotans allowing them to carry a firearm in public, a record one-year total and a sharp increase from 2015, state officials said Wednesday.

As of Wednesday, the total number of valid permits in Minnesota was 265,728, the highest total ever reported in the annual release from the Department of Public Safety’s Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. Roughly one year ago, that total was 217,909.

Andrew Rothman, president of Gun Owners Civil Rights Alliance, a Minnesota-based nonprofit that advocates for gun and self-defense rights, said the ever-increasing number of people with permits reflects the “continued normalization of getting a carry permit. It’s not a novelty anymore. It’s more accepted and normal.”

Rothman also said the sharp split among the 2016 presidential candidates about gun laws — and the prospect that a candidate with a harder line on gun possession would win — also created some urgency that made people “want to act immediately before the laws change. ... Whenever there is any sort of political [debate] around the topic of guns, it causes a surge in interest and applications for carry permits.”

Phillip I. Murphy, a north Minneapolis flower shop owner and crime watchdog, said he thinks “awareness of crime happening” is why the popularity of gun permits is growing.

Murphy, who has had a permit to carry for many years and hosts gun training sessions in his business, added that he’s not sure being able to have a sidearm in public makes anyone more safe, “but the person feels safer, and has a way to defend their family and their own person safety.”

Jeff Gigler, director of operations and research for the Protect Minnesota gun control group, pinned his explanation for the rising demand on one word: fear.

“The National Rifle Association and the other pro-gun lobby groups put a lot of effort into making people afraid — afraid of crime, afraid of terrorism,” Gigler said.

He said the NRA and others relentlessly post online news reports about “people robbed at gunpoint or shot in their home. They are pushing fear, and they have been doing it since [Barack] Obama was elected president.”

In the run-up to passage of permit to carry 14 years ago, the debate centered on whether communities in Minnesota would be more safe or more dangerous.

For Gigler, “it’s kind of like, have all these violent crime rates gone down because of all these people having permits? No.”

Among the 73,880 applications to counties in 2016, there were 71,156 approvals. More than 63,000 of the applications were made by first-time applicants. Renewals were sought by more than 10,000 applicants. Permits are good for five years.

Since the Legislature enacted the permit-to-carry law in 2003, the previous record high for issuing permits in one year was 60,471 in 2013. In 2015, 44,696 permits were granted.

Gigler cautioned people not to be misled by the state noting in its latest report that of the 1,495 crimes that permit holders committed in 2016, 80 percent were for drunken driving or other traffic offenses.

He pointed to the 18 assaults that permit holders committed last year, with four of those carried out with a gun playing a role in the offense. The report listed one homicide by a permit holder last year with the firearm being a factor.

Rothman countered that research he has seen on this question is “subtle but clear” that Minnesota communities have been safer since 2003.

He said he has seen interviews with felons who say “their top fears are not being intercepted by police but being shot by a crime victim” who turns out to be armed.

Heavily populated counties issued the most permits during the year. Hennepin led the way with 8,729. Next were Anoka (4,869), Dakota (4,705), Washington (4,355) and Ramsey (4,181).

Sheriffs reported that last year there were 122 permits suspended, 56 revoked and 658 denied.

Applications to carry a firearm must be made to a citizen’s local sheriff’s office. Applicants must provide proof of approved firearms training. Sheriffs then conduct criminal background checks to determine any history that may require an application be denied. Anyone denied a permit has the right to appeal.