Washtenaw County is on pace to set another new record for applications for “concealed-carry” weapons (CCW) permits.
Whether more adults legally able to carry guns enhances or erodes public safety is a matter of debate. What’s not in doubt is that more community members want the option: A member of about 1 in every 20 households in the county now holds a permit.
The number climbed in late 2008 and 2009 as people across the U.S. acted on concerns that Democratic leadership in Washington might promote restrictions on firearms, according to law enforcement officials.
The upward trend has continued in Washtenaw County, fueled – according to gun-rights sympathizers – by continuing worry about potential legislative restrictions, along with concerns about crime and shrinking public-safety budgets.
So far this year, 1,019 county residents have applied for permits. If that rate continues, the county would see a more than 20% increase over 2009’s record-setting 2,255 applications.
“It’s amazing,” says retired Washtenaw County sheriff’s deputy Ernie Milligan, who chairs the county’s concealed weapons licensing board, which held its monthly meeting this week. “In the past year or so, I’ve started to see roadside signs advertising CCW classes. That may help fuel it, but there’s a fear factor, too.”
Under legislation that liberalized Michigan’s gun laws in 2001, state residents 21 and older who complete a safety course can apply for a permit to carry concealed weapons. Criminal convictions and mental-health problems can disqualify applicants. But unlike the “may-issue” law it replaced, the 2001 “shall-issue” law leaves local gun licensing boards with little room for subjectivity. For the most part, an application yields a permit.
In 2010, 983 permits have been issued so far in Washtenaw County. Seven applications were denied.
CCW Applications: Putting the Trends in Context
Looking at the data requires some sense of history.
When the law was changed in 2001, there was a wave of new applications. The numbers then fell off until the three-year permits first issued under the “shall-issue” law started expiring. Renewals pushed applications up in 2004.
In the meantime, rules were changed so that permits would be valid for five years. That contributed to higher numbers in 2009. And it makes the increased activity this year – an off year for renewals – all the more striking.
Indeed, more county residents applied for CCW permits in the first three months of 2010 than did in all of 2006 or 2007.
The average number of applications per month so far this year – 230 – dwarfs the monthly averages for most of the past five years (54 in 2006; 45 in 2007; 98 in 2008; and 188 in 2009, a year when many permit holders were renewing.)
In 2004, that first renewal year, the average was 85 per month – a total of 1,025 for the year. [.pdf file of Washtenaw County CCW applications, by month, from 2004 through April 2010.]
About 15% of the permit holders in Washtenaw County are women, Milligan says. The greatest concentrations of permit holders are in rural parts of the county.
With a population about 4,967 and 437 permits, for example, nearly 9% of the residents of Chelsea can carry concealed weapons. Assuming one permit holder per household, that means there’s a CCW permit holder in about 20% of the occupied households (2,093) in Chelsea.
About 23% of the permits countywide are issued to Ann Arbor residents, and 33% to residents of Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township. With their larger populations, that means about 1.6% of Ann Arbor residents and 3.3% of Ypsilanti area residents hold permits. [Those figures are approximate, as data from the county gun licensing board is broken down by mailing addresses, which are imperfect reflections of actual community boundaries. Link to listing of CCW permits by location, as of April 2010.]
“The trend in Ann Arbor is more permit applicants this year,” says Ann Arbor police chief Barnett Jones. “But they’re still not big numbers.” There were 206 applicants from Ann Arbor residents in the first four months of this year, compared to 162 during the same period last year.
“I don’t want to suggest that means Ann Arbor is an easy place to commit crime,” says Jones. But neither does he encourage the idea that armed civilians enhance public safety.
“Over the course of my career, I’ve seen officers with very rigorous training make mistakes,” he says. It’s logical that the risk is greater for a civilian with far less training. “We just saw that play out in Detroit when the victim of a robbery fired at the perpetrator and accidentally killed a woman in her house,” Jones says.
How It Works: The Weapons Licensing Board
Obtaining a license takes one to three months. The process includes 1) filling out a one-page application with a $105 fee, a photograph and proof that you’ve completed a pistol safety training course; 2) getting fingerprinted and a background check by the sheriff’s department, and 3) additional background checks by the state police and FBI.
The final step is a review by the county’s weapons licensing board. The board meets monthly – since applications have increased, they now meet for two full days, reviewing applications and holding interviews with a small subset of applicants.
The May meetings were held this week on Tuesday and Wednesday in a small conference room near the county clerk’s office, at 200 N. Main St. in Ann Arbor. Chaired by Milligan, the three-person board includes Sgt. Kurt Schiappacasse of the Washtenaw County sheriff’s department and Lt. Wynonia Sturdivant, Michigan State Police Ypsilanti Post commander.
Jennifer Beauchamp, deputy county clerk, takes minutes of the meetings and is the staff person who processes all the applications. Before October 2008, the job took up about 20% of her time – now, it’s closer to 60-65%, she says.
For May’s meeting, the group was reviewing 242 applications and had scheduled 18 interviews over the two days. The meetings are open to the public, but the interviews – during which criminal histories and other personal information might be discussed – are not. Much of the meeting that The Chronicle observed on Tuesday morning consisted of the three board members reading through stacks of blue file folders that contained the applications and other documents, making notes, and calling staff at the sheriff’s department or state police post to get additional information.
Periodically they would compare notes to see if any of them had questions about the applications. Of the first two dozen or so applications reviewed, only two were flagged – one for a missing zip code, and another for what appeared to be an incomplete background check. The others in that batch were approved.
The group has a comfortable rapport, teasing each other and swapping stories as they work. Sturdivant related how she worked security detail for President Obama’s May 1 speech at the University of Michigan commencement – she got a photo taken of herself with Obama. Schiappacasse was there too, also working security, but more on the perimeter – he did, however, get a photo taken standing next to Marine One, the helicopter that brought Obama to Michigan Stadium.
But mostly, their focus was on the applications – with 242 to process, including the 18 interviews, they were settled in for two long days.
The Fear Factor
There’s no objective way of knowing what’s behind the trend of increased applications. Applicants are not required to state their reasons for wanting to carry a concealed weapon. However, those closest to the situation tend to point to the same things.
“People are afraid the president is going to take away their guns,” says Milligan.
Former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin repeated that assertion just last week. In the 2008 election campaign, Obama did pledge to 1) revive an assault-weapons ban; 2) press states to release data about guns used in crimes; and 3) close a loophole that allows the sale of firearms at gun shows without background checks. He has yet to take up any of those issues.
“There are a lot of people who want to make a statement about their right to bear arms,” says Milligan. “And the economy has a lot to do with it. People are worried.”
Washtenaw County’s unemployment rate of 9.6% in March 2010 is up significantly from 4.9% in March 2008.
Monroe County resident Frank Purk is a National Rifle Association-certified instructor who teaches firearms-training classes in Washtenaw County. He says his students range from 21-year-olds to “great grandmas and grandpas.” All, he says, are people who want to be able to protect themselves.
Increases in the number of applications for weapons permits are a “function of the inability of government to provide the protection we need,” says Purk. High unemployment can lead to crime, he says. “People want firearms for self protection.”
Like Milligan, Michigan NRA representative Alan Herman sees many people getting permits on principle. “They’re just exercising their right and have no intention of carrying.”
“Others go through training and think it’s real exciting, but then they find out it’s a pain in the butt because you can’t go into different places,” says Herman.
Concealed-carry permit holders are barred from taking firearms into schools and child-care facilities, sports arenas and stadiums, taverns, hospitals, casinos and large entertainment facilities, college dorms and classrooms, and religious facilities – except when allowed by the presiding official.
In addition, property owners and operators can set their own policies and some do prohibit weapons.
“If you’re going somewhere where carrying could be problem, you have to think twice,” says Herman, a Bay City resident who’s taught firearms-safety classes and served on his local gun licensing board. “Most people can’t carry every day.”
“I think the big reason that the number of permit applications is still escalating is concern about safety, because of things like police layoffs,” he says.
Public Safety Concerns: Perception, Reality
It’s certainly true that financial pressure on all levels of government has affected law enforcement.
Data collected by the FBI shows sworn officers in the Michigan State Police down about 12% statewide from 2000 to 2008.
The contraction in the Ann Arbor police department during the same period was 20%, and more positions have been eliminated since then. The city of Ypsilanti and county sheriff’s department have reduced their head counts by 15% and 5% respectively.
Crime statistics are more mixed.
Data reported to the FBI by the Washtenaw County sheriff’s department, and Ann Arbor and Ypsllanti police departments in 2000, 2005 and 2008 (the most recent year available) does show spikes in some kinds of crimes. For example, the number of aggravated assaults, robberies and burglaries reported by the sheriff’s department all increased from 2005 to 2008.
On the other hand, there were more reports of violent crime, robberies, property crimes and burglaries in Ann Arbor in 2005 than in 2008. And the city saw more robberies, burglaries and larcenies in 2000 than in 2008.
In some cases, perceptions don’t align with data, says county Sheriff Jerry Clayton.
For example, in Ypsilanti Township, home invasions have gone down, says Clayton. “But because of what they hear in the media, most people in that community still feel more threatened when they should feel safer.”
In other cases, the overall incidence of a crime may not change, but the locations may. That, too, can shape perception in ways that may not be accurate, says Clayton.
County prosecutor Brian Mackie says there have been some upticks in crime. Nevertheless, he’s skeptical about a correlation between crime rates and demand for CCW permits.
“When we had discretion (under the “may-issue” law) and could ask why people wanted permits, a solid majority talked about going to or near Detroit,” he says.
Still, it does appear that more women and families are applying for permits, says Mackie, who declined to serve on the county weapons licensing board after the shall-issue law was enacted. Milligan was appointed by the county board of commissioners in 2001 to fill the seat usually held by the prosecutor’s office.
The demographic data that could create a profile of typical permit holders is confidential, as are the identities of permit holders. A Michigan State Police spokeswoman said that the agency is not allowed to release information beyond what appears on its website. The local data in this report has been provided to The Chronicle by local officials.
Do Concealed Weapons Make Us Safer?
The shall-issue law was enacted over the objections of statewide police chiefs, sheriffs and prosecutors associations. And while CCW champions make the case that the ability to carry concealed weapons improves safety, others see prohibitions on firearms as a security measure.
At Briarwood Mall, for instance, the Simon Property Group has a code of conduct for patrons that precludes them from carrying firearms and knives. That code is posted at most if not all entrances and at the mall office, says Simon spokesman Les Morris. “We overtly prohibit guns. We’re cognizant of safety and have really enhanced security from a technological standpoint. We take it very seriously and that begins with that code of conduct.”
For Sheriff Clayton, the increasing number of civilians potentially carrying firearms is cause for some concern.
“It causes concern with our own staff and we train continuously,” he says.
“We train, not just in how to use firearms and accuracy, but on how to manage a situation so that we never have to engage,” he says. “In law enforcement, we own every round we fire. We emphasize decision-making around the use of a firearm – who’s behind an aggressor … The unintended consequences should always be on people’s minds.”
Milligan, of the county gun licensing board, offers additional perspective: “Even if you have good training, these are perishable skills. You have to practice. It worries me a little that, to renew a permit, you don’t need any proof that you continue to practice. You just sign a statement. … You have to maintain a pistol. There’s a lot to it.”
But the NRA’s Herman sees armed citizens as a crime deterrent.
“The increasing numbers work in our favor,” he says. “They change the perception for bad guys.”
Chronicle publisher Mary Morgan contributed to this report. About the writer: Judy McGovern lives in Ann Arbor. She has worked as a journalist here, in Ohio, New York and several other states.