Lehigh Valley News
By Tom Shortell / The Express Times
The married 32-year-old father is grateful he’s never been caught in such a situation. But he doesn’t want to be caught unprepared, so the Bethlehem man applied last week to renew his license to carry a concealed firearm.
Lopez, who owns a 9 mm and a .380 handgun for protection, lost his older brother in a drug-related shooting in their neighborhood at the Marvine-Pembrooke public housing development. He said he feels safer knowing he can meet force with deadly force, if necessary.
“I’ve always had a gun. I’ve always wanted to have a gun. Legally,” Lopez said as he left the Northampton County Sheriff’s Department.
Lopez is one of thousands of Pennsylvanians looking to legally carry a concealed firearm inside the state and one of a growing a number in the Lehigh Valley.
In the first eight months of 2012, Northampton County saw more people apply to legally carry a concealed gun than all of last year, according to Northampton County Sheriff Randy Miller.
Lehigh County so far this year has 25 percent more applications than last year, Sheriff Ronald Rossi said.
Prominent shootings could be at play
National media outlets have reported an uptick in gun purchases this year, but neither Rossi nor Miller could pinpoint what was causing the spike in applications for concealed-carry permits. Miller said it could be that people mistakenly believe their carry permits will be accepted as voter identification at the polls this year.
He also said recent mass shootings, including a massacre at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin and a shootout following a murder outside the Empire State Building, could be prompting people to take their safety into their own hands.
“It’s supposition, but it could be from the tragic events at Aurora,” Miller said, referring to shooting at a Colorado movie theater that killed 12 during the premier of a Batman move. “The events nationwide affect us all.”
Jacqueline Otto, a spokeswoman for the National Rifle Association, said the NRA does not track the number of concealed-carry permit applications nationwide but that she heard similar reports across the country.
It would be a normal reaction for people to take safety precautions after major crimes, Otto said, but she believes the phenomenon is not related to the shootings.
“I think it predates some of the high profile crimes,” Otto said of the increases.
‘The only one not carrying’
Dennis Kenney, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, said he did not know if mass shootings are becoming more common. But the national headlines they garner make people more aware of the presence of guns among the public, he said.
“You begin to develop the notion that you’re the only one not carrying a gun,” said Kenney, who researches policing and public safety.
The better-armed society that results, however, is not necessarily a safer one, Kenney said.
Odds of a shootout are increased when more people have guns, he said, and police must take extra precautions because they know firearms are becoming more common.
That creates a barrier between police and the public, which makes it more difficult for authorities to know the people and communities they serve, Kenney said. In the end, he said, that separation hurts their ability to protect the public.
“It’s the beginning of a downward spiral,” Kenney said.
Need for guns questioned
Under Pennsylvania law, the county sheriff performs a background check on every person who applies for a carry permit.
Provided no red flags arise when reviewing the applicant’s mental health history or criminal record, applicants generally are given permission to carry a concealed weapon.
In August, Northampton County received 426 applications, filing only two denials and no revocations, according to figures provided by the sheriff’s department.
Unlike New Jersey, Pennsylvania law does not require that the applicant know how to operate a firearm. Miller and Rossi said nearly all gun owners they know are knowledgeable about their weapons, but Rossi said he doubts many of the applicants need a weapon.
New Jersey law forces applicants to demonstrate a justifiable need to carry a concealed weapon.
In some instances, Rossi feels gun ownership has become a status symbol and that he would feel more comfortable if a training requirement existed. The preference does not enter his decision making, he said.
“We stick to what the law says,” Rossi said. “I don’t try to change anything on my own.”
The surge in applications and the legwork required to research the applicants has left both sheriff departments feeling strained.
Miller said he is requesting more personnel in the 2013 budget, in part, to pick up the slack that’s been created by the jump in applications.
He has two clerks and two deputies assigned to handle the various license applications his office oversees. But some work has fallen behind because someone is almost always handling license-to-carry applications.
This August marked the highest monthly figure in Northampton County history for concealed weapon carry permits at 426. The county received 2,910 permit applications through August compared to 2,727 applications for all of 2011.
“It’s like we lost a person,” Miller said of the workload required to meet the demand.
In Pennsylvania, county sheriffs must issue a concealed weapon carry permit unless the applicant:
is under the age of 21;
has been convicted of a major crime or is considered a fugitive;
is not of sound mind or has ever been committed to a mental institution;
is addicted to narcotics, marijuana or stimulants;
is not a legal resident of the county where they apply;
has a court order forbidding them from owning a firearm or has a protection-from-abuse order against them, or;
has a questionable character or reputation.
In New Jersey, gun owners apply to their local police department or state police for a license to carry a concealed firearm. After police perform a criminal background check and review the applicant’s mental health history, the information is passed along to a judge who makes the final decision.
New Jersey applicants must show they:
are of good moral character;
know how to operate their weapon;
can demonstrate a justifiable need for the weapon.