The Special Investigations Unit within the Department of Public Safety has cleared a backlog of more than 5,000 concealed firearms permit applications, according to a news release from the LePage administration.

The logjam was a source of contention last year as applicants complained that the state had not processed the permits in accordance with state regulations.

The Department of Public Safety had one full-time person working on the background checks required to issue the permits and three people working part time on different parts of the process. However, the number of applications has grown in recent years to the point where the available staff couldn’t keep up.

The state has not analyzed why the number of concealed firearms permits has jumped. Gun rights groups and others have speculated that concerns about the potential for gun control legislation – particularly in the wake of high-profile mass shootings such as the those at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in December 2012 – led more people to seek permits.

The licenses are good for three years. Under state law, renewal applications for Mainers with more than five years of residency must be acted upon with 30 days.

Last summer, residents complained they were waiting nearly five months to receive concealed firearms permits. At the time, Maine State Police said more than 4,500 applications awaited processing at any given time and about 75 to 150 new applications came in every day.

The department shifted assignments and hired a temporary employee to help clear the backlog. The department did not reduce the requirements or scrutiny necessary to obtain a permit, said Stephen McCausland, the department’s spokesman.

The department’s Special Investigations Unit has processed 5,000 permits since the summer, according to a statement from the administration.

“I want to thank the staff at the department for improving the permitting process for Maine citizens,” said Gov. Paul LePage in a statement.

In 2013, the Special Investigations Unit alone issued more than 11,000 permits, an increase of 3,500 permits from the 7,500 issued in 2012.

The number of permits issued by state police was 3,912 in 2008, then rose to between 5,700 and 5,900 in each of the next three years.

“Maine has one of the highest rates of firearm ownership in the country as a state that is fiercely protective of our right to bear arms,” the governor said. “However, we also have one of the lowest rates of gun violence. We are a safe state, and we plan to keep it that way.”

Asked whether the governor was suggesting that high rates of gun ownership have contributed to the state’s low violent crime rate, spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said the administration wasn’t going to speculate on that.

Bennett said the governor issued the news release after being notified by the Department of Public Safety earlier in the week that the backlog in concealed firearms permit applications had been eliminated.

Concealed firearms permits were a hot topic for another reason in 2013. The name and address of people who applied for the government permits used to be a public record. But following a broad request for such records, the Legislature changed the law so that such application information is now confidential.

State police issue permits to Maine residents in 360 towns, most of them towns without full-time police departments, and to all out-of-state residents. The rest are issued by local police departments and boards of selectmen.

The state does not collect data to show the total number of permits issued in Maine.

Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @stevemistler

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

[email protected]