Brian Boshea, a Limerick nurse taking a concealed weapons training course, says concern about home invasions and other violent crimes has fueled his desire to carry a gun for protection.

“I’ve decided to become more responsible for my own safety rather than relying on law enforcement,” said Boshea, a 52-year-old surgical technologist.

Concern about crime and personal safety is behind a sharp increase in the number of concealed firearms permits issued by the Maine State Police, firearms instructors and gun rights advocates say.

The number of people seeking concealed gun permits from the state police in 2009 was 5,706, an increase of 40 percent over 2008. Portland, the state’s largest city, saw a 60 percent increase.

That increase is in keeping with a steady growth over the years in the number of new permits being approved by police agencies.

“In our membership, there’s a feeling of urgency. We’re going to be protecting ourselves and this is how we do it,” said Merv Keller, of the Falmouth Rod and Gun Club. “It’s also very empowering.”

Personal safety is a major reason given by students taking introductory handgun safety courses, particularly women, says Jeff Weinstein of the Maine Gun Owners Association and director of FirearmSafety.net. He typically asks students why they enroll in beginner or personal protection firearms classes.

“Usually the response is they’re concerned about horrific scenarios such as home invasions,” Weinstein said.

“People are looking for a means for self-defense. Calling 911 and the police, when it comes to violent crime, that’s the secondary move. That’s the follow-up,” he said.

The number of nonresident permits issued has also grown. Applicants are often seasonal residents or people from out of state who go hunting in Maine and want to carry a handgun with them.

Communities with police departments are usually in charge of issuing concealed firearms permits, while rural communities typically ask state police to handle the applications. Permits are good for four years.

State police have issued roughly 17,000 of the 29,000 active concealed firearms permits in Maine, 37 percent of them to nonresidents.

The number of permits issued each year includes new applications and renewals. There appears to have been some year-to-year fluctuation in new permit applications, but overall, there has been a gradual increase over the past 15 years.

State police issued 4,079 permits in 2006, the highest to that point. The numbers dropped in 2007 and 2008 from the 2006 total, but both were higher than four years earlier.

Residents are typically free to carry guns in most places in the state, but the guns must be visible unless the person has a concealed firearms permit. Even with a permit, people can’t carry guns in a state court building, a posted liquor establishment, on school property, in the area around the State House, on federal property and in some parks and wilderness areas, said Lt. David Bowler, head of the Maine State Police Gaming and Weapons Unit.

Permits are typically issued by local police chiefs or the state police after a background check to make sure the applicant is not prohibited from owning a gun, because of a felony conviction, for example. The law lets police deny a permit to anyone who is not of “good moral character.”

Portland Police Chief James Craig said he was startled at the number of concealed firearms permits issued in Maine compared with Los Angeles, where he worked previously.

Los Angeles had a high crime rate and approved relatively few concealed firearms permits, while Maine has a low crime rate and is fairly liberal in granting the permits, he said.

But in Maine, granting concealed weapons permits has not increased crime, he said.

Craig said that to reduce the chance that the permits will be issued to irresponsible people, he scrutinizes applicants’ backgrounds closely, and sometimes denies a permit for certain misdemeanor convictions. Ten of 187 applicants were denied last year.

“I look at each and every permit. I do not delegate that,” he said. If a person has a reckless-conduct or operating-under-the-influence conviction “they’re not going to get a permit from me,” he said.

In addition to concern about personal safety, some gun-rights advocates believe there was an upswing in gun sales and concealed weapons permit applications when Democrats took control of the White House and Congress. Some feared that liberal members of the party would push for stricter gun control laws, although that has not materialized.

Sometimes a concealed firearms permit is for the simple convenience of being able to keep a handgun in a vehicle glovebox for the trip to and from a firing range.

Hank Wheat, training committee chairman for the Scarborough Fish and Game Association, said more people have been enrolling in concealed weapons training classes.

“We noticed that after 9/11 and it’s been continuing ever since,” Wheat said.

Paul Mattson of Harrison, who offers concealed weapons courses, said carrying a gun does not increase the likelihood someone will become involved in a confrontation.

“In our classes, we teach to avoid a confrontation if at all possible, but if you do have to defend yourself or an innocent other, you do have that training and ability.”

Boshea said defending himself against crime requires more than just carrying a gun.

“I think the most important thing anyone can do if they decide to engage in self-defense with a firearm is seek qualified instruction,” he said. “It’s right up there with flying an aircraft, driving a motorcycle or a car. There’s no margin for error.”

 

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

dhench@pressherald.com