AUGUSTA – If you want a concealed-weapons permit from the Maine State Police, be ready to wait three or four months: there’s a 2,500-application backlog.
As gun sales have jumped in recent years, so has demand for the permits, said Lt. Scott Ireland, who runs the state police division that handles permit applications for more than 300 small towns, along with unorganized territories and townships. Larger towns and cities handle their own.
With 100 to 150 applications coming to Ireland’s office daily now, the four employees who handle them – only one working on it full-time – are stretched.
In 2008, the year Barack Obama was elected president, the Maine State Police issued 3,912 permits, Ireland said. In 2009, the year Obama took office, they issued 5,706. And in 2012, the year of the president’s re-election, the state police issued 7,574.
Ireland said 2013 will be another record year.
To many, there’s no coincidence.
Many conservatives fear that gun rights will be restricted during Obama’s administration.
“People got scared and they went out and started buying ammunition,” said David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine. “I think Obama has woke up a sleeping giant.”
Since his re-election and the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in December, Obama has moved to back gun control.
In a recently announced proposal, he asked Congress to consider requiring background checks for all gun sales and reinstating a ban on assault weapons.
That has caused a national run on guns and ammunition. Trahan said those who feared Obama’s positions on guns were right.
Robert Schwartz, executive director of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association, said he has been sending more blank applications to municipalities that handle their own permitting.
“People are concerned that they’re going to lose some of their rights to own a firearm, and they want to get their permits,” he said.
Nationally, federal background checks for gun purchases from dealers increased by more than 1.3 million from 2008, the year of Obama’s election, to 2009, the year he took office.
Then, more than 14 million checks were done nationally. In 2012, that rose to more than 16.8 million, a 32 percent increase over 2008.
That trend is far more pronounced in Maine. From 2008 to 2012, the number of federal checks went from 56,561 to 91,834 — a 62 percent increase.
That equates to one check for every 14 people in Maine last year. In 2000, there was one check for every 28.
In December 2012, there were 12,416 background checks. This January, there were 10,538. Those are the only two months since 1998, when the federal program began, when Maine broke the 10,000 mark.
Fort Kent Police Chief Kenneth Michaud said he has had trouble buying ammunition for an assault rifle the department keeps — many suppliers say they’re all out.
And he hears a common political sentiment when he talks to permit applicants. Many people in the Aroostook County town of more than 4,000 have guns, but it wasn’t long ago when he issued only 20 concealed-weapons permits in a year. Now, he gets a request a week.
“People seem to think the president’s going to take their guns away and ammunition away,” he said. “Everybody’s stocking up on ammunition. Why? I don’t know.”
Ireland said that since November’s election, permit applications have piled up in his office.
In the Piscataquis County town of Milo, population 2,300, Police Chief Damien Pickel said 5 percent to 10 percent of residents have concealed-weapons permits.
Many just want to be able to carry a pistol in their pocket while hunting, he said. Some do it because it’s their right.
But there isn’t much to fear of crime in Milo.
Pickel came to Maine after a career as a New York City detective. He said that, in New York, which has more gun control, you need an “act of God” to get a weapon.
In Milo, “there’s guns everywhere” but that’s part of the culture, he said.
Pickel doesn’t think that politics are driving people to seek permits in his town.
“There’s this push that people are worried about weapon bans and ammunition bans and magazine bans and all that, but I don’t necessarily see a correlation to that in my town,” Pickel said.
Trahan, of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, said he talks to many people with permits. He said some carry a lot of money, or have been threatened and assaulted. Some are retired law enforcement officers, fearing run-ins with people from their past.
Michaud, Fort Kent’s police chief, said while residents’ urgency surrounding requests has changed, their reasons haven’t: it’s mostly tradition. Many work in the woods or trap and hunt.
“It’s all people who have always had guns but have never had a concealed-weapons permit,” he said.
In Augusta, it’s different, said Police Chief Robert Gregoire, who thinks the increase in requests stems from an increase in crime.
The Maine Department of Public Safety said crime was up 5 percent in Maine in 2011, while it dropped nationwide. And last year, Augusta had nine pharmacy robberies, the most in any Maine municipality.
“I don’t think it really has anything to do with a presidential election,” Gregoire said. “We see a lot more things in the news and read a lot more things in the paper than we ever have.”
Vern Malloch, assistant police chief in Portland, sees it differently. He issued 156 concealed-weapons permits in 2011 and 209 in 2012. He said he couldn’t guess why the increase happened.
He said some people may feel more unsafe than ever, but long-term, crime isn’t an increasing problem in Maine.
“If people are feeling less safe, I think it would have to be a result of other factors,” he said.
People in Maine who hold concealed-weapons permits aren’t dangerous, many said. Each one must pass a safety course, answer 32 questions about their criminal background and mental health, release existing mental health records and go through a background check.
Michaud, in Fort Kent, called them “the good guys.”
He said he has rejected one applicant, and he has been chief since 1977. That man shot himself in the foot to get out of the military and was “a little psychotic,” the chief said.
Ireland, with the state police, said he rejects people regularly, but the percentage is in the single digits.
The Violence Policy Center, a national gun-control group, tracks the number of murders committed by concealed-weapons permit holders nationwide, dating back to May 2007.
It contends that concealed-weapons carriers are more dangerous than the average citizen, saying 499 people have been killed by carriers nationwide since May 2007.
Schwartz, director of the police chief’s association, said he hasn’t heard of crimes involving concealed-weapons carriers in Maine, and the Violence Policy Center hasn’t counted any murders by any in Maine since 2007.
“My memory bank goes back way before that,” said Steve McCausland, spokesman for the Maine Department of Public Safety. “I can’t recall one.”
Michael Shepherd can be reached at 370-7652 or at: