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 nationwide and in Maine have skyrocketed in recent years, so has permit demand, said Lt. Scott Ireland, who runs the state police’s licensing division, which handles permit applications for more than 300 small, rural municipalities, along with unorganized territories and townships. Larger cities and towns handle their own.

With 100 to 150 applications coming to Ireland’s office daily, the four employees tasked with handling them — only one working on it full time — are stretched.

In 2008, Barack Obama was elected president. The Maine State Police issued 3,912 permits that year, Ireland said. In 2009, Obama took office. it issued 5,706 — nearly a 46 percent increase. And in 2012, the year of the president’s re-election, it issued 7,574. With that backlog, Ireland said, 2013 will be another record year.

To many, there’s no coincidence.

“I think it’s the political climate in the country,” Ireland said. “They feel they need it now.”

Since 2008 — and recently — federal background checks for gun sales by dealers and permit requests are up in Maine. Many conservatives have attributed that to 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 Sportsmen’s Alliance of Maine. “I think Obama has woke up a sleeping giant.”

Focus on gun control

Since his re-election and a slew of mass shootings in 2012, including the December shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., which left 26 students and teachers dead, Obama has moved hard to back gun control.

In a recent proposal, he asked Congress to consider requiring background checks for all sales and reinstating a ban on military-style rifles. That’s caused a national run on guns and ammunition, and Trahan said those who feared Obama’s positions on guns were right.

“People are concerned that they’re going to lose some of their rights to own a firearm, and they want to get their permits,” said Robert Schwartz, executive director of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association, who said he’s been sending more blank applications to municipalities who handle their own permitting than before. Nationally, federal background checks on gun purchases from dealers skyrocketed 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 performed nationally. In 2012, that rose to more than 16.8 million, a 32 percent increase from 2008.

The increase 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.

Like Ireland’s permit numbers, early totals for the last two months suggest the state’s on pace for another banner background-check year.

In December 2012, there were 12,416 checks. This January, there were 10,538. Those are the only two times since 1998, when the federal program began, when Maine broke the 10,000 mark in a month.

Fort Kent police Chief Kenneth Michaud said he’s had trouble buying ammunition for a military-style rifle the department keeps. Many dealers say they’re out of stock because of the run. 

He also hears a common political sentiment when he talks to people applying for permits. Many have guns in the Aroostook County town of more than 4,000, but it wasn’t long ago when he handed out 20 weapon 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 since the election, permit applications are piling up more in his office. This news comes after concealed-weapons permits were the hot topic of the week in Augusta.

Latest uproar

On Tuesday, a bill sponsored by Rep. Corey Wilson, R-Augusta, that would make now-public information on gun permits confidential, including holders’ names, addresses and dates of birth, was referenced to a legislative committee. The next day, the Bangor Daily News requested that information for every holder in Maine, setting off an uproar among Republicans and gun-rights advocates, even though they said they wouldn’t publish identifying information. 

The newspaper rescinded the request the next day, and later Friday, Gov. Paul LePage announced emergency legislation that would make the information confidential in the interim, before the referenced bill goes into effect.

Milo police Chief Damien Pickel was credited by many activists for publishing news of the BDN’s requests on the department’s Facebook page. That’s where Trahan learned of it. In that Piscataquis County town, population 2,300, Pickel said anywhere from 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, he said. But there isn’t much to fear, crimewise, in Milo.

Overall, firearm violence in Maine has been historically low. A 2009 report from the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service said firearms crime rates in Maine were one-third of the national average, while in 2004, the school said there was more than one gun per person in the state, and 29 percent were handguns.

Pickel came to Maine after a career as a New York City detective. There, with 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.

While Pickel put himself in the middle of the politics of the BDN’s information request, he doesn’t think politics is driving permit-seekers 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.

Ever higher requests

Trahan 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, he said.

Michaud, the Fort Kent 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 an uptick in requests stems from an uptick in crime. Last year, the Maine Department of Public Safety said in 2011, crime was up 5 percent in Maine 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,” he said. “We see a lot more things in the news and read a lot more things in the paper than we ever have.”

But Vern Malloch, assistant police chief in Portland, sees it differently. He issued 156 in 2011 and 209 in 2012. He said he couldn’t guess why the uptick happened. 

State numbers on total crime from 2001 to 2011 show incidents have slightly increased, but a 2011 study by the Muskie School said 38 percent of respondents to a survey said crime has “greatly or somewhat” increased.

Malloch said some people may feel more unsafe than ever, but long-term, crime isn’t a real, increasing problem in Maine. “If people are feeling less safe, I think it would have to be a result of other factors,” he said.

Not many denied

But permit-holders aren’t dangerous in Maine, many said. They have to 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 called them “the good guys.” 

He said he’s rejected one person, and he’s 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 said he rejects people regularly, but the percentage of those who don’t pass muster are in the single digits, he said.

The Violence Policy Center, a national gun-control group, tracks the number of murders by concealed-weapon permit holders nationwide, dating back to May 2007. 

It contends concealed carriers are more dangerous than the average citizen, saying 499 people have been killed by carriers nationwide since then. Notably, a legal concealed weapon was involved in the Florida killing of black teenager Trayvon Martin in February 2012, allegedly by George Zimmerman, who was appointed neighborhood watch in his area.

Schwartz, the chief’s association director, said he hasn’t heard of crimes involving concealed 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 Stephen McCausland, spokesman for the Maine Department of Public Safety. “I can’t recall one.”

When Wilson, the representative, talked about his bill to protect permit information on Tuesday with a reporter, he said it was targeted at helping law-abiding citizens avoid scrutiny. Augusta Mayor William Stokes, the member of a national group of mayors advocating gun control, said he agreed with it.

Now the furor over the Bangor newspaper’s request has stoked passions behind the bill, said Trahan, the sportsman’s alliance director.

“I think they underestimated why people have permits,” he said. “When you put a scare into people who can’t safely protect themselves and they’re now more vulnerable because of the BDN, this is the kind of response you’ll get.”

Michael Shepherd — 370-7652
mshepherd@mainetoday.com