The number of firearms licenses issued by the sheriff’s offices in Washington and Greene counties has doubled over a two-year period and a handful of potential gun purchasers cited personal safety as the reason why they carry concealed weapons.
Being in office for less than three months, Greene County Sheriff Brian Tennant was reluctant to speculate on why the number of applications to carry concealed weapons jumped considerably from 2011 to 2013.
“I am not sure why, but everyone who is approved through the application process has the right to own or carry a firearm,” he said.
“It’s not for me to question these people, but I can say that most, if not all, applications list protection as the reason for wanting a gun permit.”
In 2011, 3,676 Washington Countians had firearms licenses. The count totaled 7,010 at the close of 2013. In Greene County, 504 residents had licenses in 2011, and that number exploded to 1,214 in 2013.
Those age 21 and over purchasing the $20 licenses, which are good for five years, as well as those who are renewing existing licenses, must appear at the sheriff’s license in person, pay cash and provide two character references. A license will be issued only after their names are run through what’s known as Pennsylvania Instant Check, an automated call system that screens for certain criminal convictions and mental health commitments.
But a crush to apply for and renew licenses occurs at year’s end.
“At Christmas time, we have lines down to the first floor,” said Washington County Sheriff Samuel Romano from his third-floor office at Courthouse Square. Why Christmas? “Probably that’s when people have time off,” Romano speculated.
So if lines are out the door, or the applicant has a common name, he or she is unlikely to walk out the door with what’s familiarly known as a gun permit. Those granted a license are more apt to receive it via U.S. mail.
Denials of a license are also mailed, although the applicant has the opportunity to appeal the denial to the county court. A license can be denied if a person has been convicted of certain crimes, including drug offenses, has been dishonorably discharged from the military, has been committed to a mental facility, is a drug abuser, a “habitual drunkard,” or if his “character and reputation is such that the individual would be likely to act in a manner dangerous to public safety,” according to state regulations.
State law says the license is required “for the purpose of carrying a firearm concealed on or about one’s person or in a vehicle throughout this Commonwealth,” and then goes on to list many, many exceptions, such as those who work as constables, sheriffs, prison or jail wardens and members of the military.
Romano has made it a policy to alert license holders by letter 60 days before their permit expires. The sheriff’s office notes that a license to carry a firearm gives no one the right to carry a firearm on any property where possession of a firearm is restricted or posted that a firearm is prohibited.
At the Ace Sporting Goods store on Route 19 in South Strabane Township, which bills itself as “#1 for Guns,” customers who identified themselves as firearms license holders discussed the reason they have such a license.
Jeff Hawkins, 40, of Clarksburg, W.Va., who was on a shopping expedition in Washington for furniture and firearms, said he obtained a firearms license five years ago because “There’s too many idiots.”
He has yet to find himself in a situation where he felt compelled to draw his weapon, a Taurus pistol.
As in Pennsylvania, Hawkins said West Virginia residents apply through their county sheriff, who runs a background check.
Mark Shrader, 39, of Monessen, has had a firearms license for 13 years even though he described himself as a fifth-degree black belt in Tang Soo Do and owner of the eponymous mixed martial arts academy on East Maiden Street in Washington.
“You can’t defend yourself against a knife, baseball bat or another gun, so you have to have something to equal the playing field is what it ultimately comes down to,” Shrader said.
“I can’t fight a bullet.”
A gun, to Shrader, is “a backup just in case something happens. I have three children so if something happens where I’m attacked and my children are with me, I would like to have something with me to defend my life and defend my children.”
With Shrader was Matthew Singo, 21, a 12-year resident of the Washington and Canonsburg areas.
“I like just shooting recreationally, but really, the reason I obtained a license was because when you turn the news on it seems like violence is escalating,” he said. “I’m not naturally a violent person but I just recently got married and I don’t want to have to use my gun. But I want to be able to protect my family if it comes down to it. It’s more like a safety thing to me. You never know what’s going to happen.”
Singo would like to see obtaining of a firearms license go hand-in-hand with instruction in the use of the weapons.
“I know other states do it in order to get your license,” Singo said. “You have to go through a certain amount of training.
I would like to see it in this state.”
Kim Stolfer of South Fayette Township, president of the Firearm Owners Against Crime, a political action committee registered in Pennsylvania since 1994, also cited as reasons for the increase in the number of firearms licenses “people’s fears about crime and their desire to protect themselves. They see the shrinking fiscal budgets and economic hard times. Public safety is always the first to get cut.”
He expects to be in Harrisburg April 29 for a rally on the Capitol steps and meetings with legislators and staff members on gun issues, noting that each state representative is on the ballot this year, as is half of the State Senate. These candidates, however, are further down on the ticket topped by the gubernatorial race.
“I wouldn’t be surprised to see the governor stop by,” Stolfer said.
Shira Goodman, executive director of the group Ceasefire PA since October 2012, said her group does not plan to stage a counter-rally.
“We do our own events,” she said Tuesday in a phone interview. “We’re not interested in disturbing what the other side is doing.”
“I don’t have a problem with law-abiding gun owners when they go through the process to do it,” Goodman said of those with firearms licenses. “After Barack Obama was elected, there was a lot of distrust and anxiety that everybody’s guns were going to be taken away. The NRA represents gun manufacturers, and they made a lot of money off that.”
As to the local rise in the number of firearms licenses, she said, “I wouldn’t be surprised to see the numbers level off a little bit.
I do hope they offer people who have guns training so that they store guns safely and put safety above all else.” She favors defense and protection but not vigilantism.
“Guns without training make our communities more dangerous,” Goodman said. “Expanding background checks doesn’t hurt any law-abiding gun owner. People who shouldn’t have guns shouldn’t buy them. I think there are unfounded fears.”
Although some may say that the American public seems to have forgotten the horror of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings on Dec. 14, 2012, Goodman said, “It takes a long time to change policy. Other states have done a lot more than Pennsylvania has done. We are seeing more people becoming engaged,” Goodman said.
“Sandy Hook was the catalyst, not just mass shootings but the day-to-day toll and domestic gun violence.”
On the federal level, both U.S. Sens. Pat Toomey, a Republican, and Bob Casey Jr., a Democrat, favored increased background checks for gun purchases that last year failed to overcome the threat of a filibuster.
In the realm of pending legislation, Firearm Owners Against Crime and Ceasefire PA are at odds over the background checks that take place when applying for or renewing a firearms license.
On its website, under “Action Alerts,” FOAC noted that House Bill 921 would replace the Pennsylvania Instant Check System with what it calls the “more efficient and less-costly National Instant Criminal Background Check System … Amendments, especially anti-gun amendments, are always a concern.”
The bill came before the House Judiciary Committee on March 18.
“Pennsylvania uses its own system along with the federal system,” Goodman said. “The Pennsylvania State Police have been very clear. PICS has more records in it than the national system. Despite intense pressure, they tabled that bill. We see that as a victory.”
Neither side knows the outcome. The legislative session ends in October.