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Counties see increase in firearms permit applications

Monroe County Sheriff Ken Morris has seen applications for permits to carry firearms jump by 59 percent from 2019 through last year.

The number increased from 3,422 to 5,455.

The surge shows no sign of slowing, with 1,398 applications processed as of March 10.

What triggered the jump?

“The usual reason is self-defense,” Morris said. But he attributes the rise to two main reasons.

“All the riots around the nation last year, it was fear-driven. Also, the political climate. If the new administration is not so gun friendly, (more people) come in for licenses,” he said.

Also fueling the increase is Morris’ streamlining of the application process.

“I put it online now. We’ll conduct the background check and then they come in, get their picture taken. It now takes about a week to a week and a half. It used to take about 45 days.

“We average about 50 applications a day,” he said. “We’re constantly busy.”

The trend holds true across the state.

“The Pennsylvania State Police is responsible for the Pennsylvania Instant Check System, PICS, which is used to determine an individual’s eligibility to possess a firearm. PICS did experience record volume in 2020,” said Communications Director Ryan Tarkowski.

There were 272,901 checks in 2019, and 420,581 in the fourth quarter last year.

The highest total previously was 406,151, set in the third quarter of 2020.

The Pennsylvania State Police announced that the Pennsylvania Instant Check System set a record for activity in the first quarter of 2021. It was the third straight quarter to experience record-breaking volume.

The previous records for PICS activity were 420,581 background checks, set in the fourth quarter of 2020; and 406,151 background checks, set in the third quarter of 2020.

The trend continues in 2021.

In the first quarter of 2021, PICS completed 427,450 background checks, compared to 304,876 in the first quarter of 2021.

The checks were for sales, transfers, evidence returns, and license to carry applications and renewals.

The wave of carry permit applications is swelling with the rising tide of first-time gun owners.

Mark Oliva is Director of Public Affairs for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a firearm industry trade group.

Is he seeing an uptick in first-time gun owners?

“Absolutely,” he said. “Our surveys of retailers showed (that) 40 percent of all purchases last year were to first-time buyers.”

Oliva pointed to a confluence of events he believes contributed to the surge.

“People started buying guns in earnest in March of 2020. That was when we saw 2.3 million background checks for the sale of a gun. That was at the same time we saw stay-at-home orders being issued and police were warning communities they had to pull officers off the beat because they were becoming infected. They warned communities that 911 calls would be triaged.

“At the same time, convicted violent felons were being released from prison for fear of contagion. Some of those criminals were being rearrested within days of their release for committing another violent act.

“In May, we saw the protests quickly erupt to riots, looting, burning and violence that wasn’t limited to one city or one region. It was national. People responded by taking ownership of their Second Amendment rights,” he said.

“Then in the fall, people started to pay attention to the presidential race, where President Biden proposed the most strident gun control platform ever, including unconstitutional firearm confiscation, limiting gun rights and creating government watch lists for gun owners. He also proposed repealing the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, the law the protects the firearm industry from frivolous lawsuits that are designed to bankrupt the industry,” Oliva said.

Carbon County Sheriff Anthony C. Harvilla saw a 29 percent increase in applications, from 1,829 in 2019 to 2,363 last year. As of March, his department has processed 579 applications.

“Usually when there’s a change in administrations, there’s a rush to buy guns and ammo and a surge in permit applications,” he said.

Due to the pandemic, his department is processing applications by appointment only.

Chief Deputy Schuylkill County Sheriff Brian Tobin said his county has always had a lot of carry permit applications, but typically sees an increase after high-profile events.

Applications surged by 37 percent from 2019 through 2020.

“Generally, when a tragedy happens, we see a spike,” he said. “For example, after Sandy Hook, we saw a spike.”

But although the numbers increased, Tobin doesn’t see the rise as dramatic.

“It’s our normal flow. We always issue a lot of license to carry permits in Schuylkill County, usually 5,000 to 6,000 a year,” he said.

Due to the pandemic, the county is issuing permits by appointment only by order of President Judge William E. Baldwin.

People can also apply online, a service implemented by Sheriff Joseph G. Groody, Tobin said.

“Your background check is done, and you can pay for it online. You just have to come in and get your photo taken,” he said.

“It’s a good tool for people to use.”