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Number One With a Bullet

Allegheny County has one unheralded distinction: We're hidden handgun heaven.

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We may no longer be the most livable city, but Pittsburghers still have one more top national ranking to make their chests puff with pride: Allegheny County may issue more concealed carry gun permits than anywhere else in the country.

 

According to the Allegheny County Sheriff's office, there are 47,278 active concealed carry permits, with another 2,000 or so in the process of being renewed. These permits allow citizens to carry concealed handguns anywhere, apart from schools, courthouses and other restricted places, without having to show any particular need or reason. A study by City Paper of the 26 states that collect and release county-based data found that Allegheny County's active permits top the nation in sheer numbers and place us third per capita, with 3.75 percent of our 1.3 million residents packing.

Westmoreland County, meanwhile, tops the nation in per-capita carry permits with a staggering 10.2 percent (or 37,417) of its 368,224 residents granted permits.

"It's pretty troublesome that one in 25 Allegheny County residents have the right to carry a concealed weapon," says Chad Ramsey, field director for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. "I don't care how careful anyone is, having that many guns on the streets when you have no discretion to deny the permits or any power to require training is asking for trouble."

 

When Henry Hoffman decides to carry a concealed gun, he says, chances are you'd never know it. With his legal Pennsylvania concealed carry permit he's free to pack heat anytime he wants. And that's part of his point.

"I don't carry all the time, but there are times when I have to carry a large amount of money on me," says the first vice president of the Allegheny County Sportsmen's League and the caretaker of the Monroeville-Pitcairn Sportsmen's Club. "To be honest, there are also certain areas I wouldn't walk in without a gun. Certain areas are known to be pretty nasty."

 

The record number of residents packing doesn't surprise Hoffman. He says Allegheny County residents take their right to bear arms seriously. And as the large number of firearm safety classes offered in the county shows, he says, county residents are responsible gun owners who have earned the right to carry.

 

The intent and the effect of concealed weaponry is to force criminals to play Russian roulette, says Edward Leddy, former editor of the Second Amendment Foundation's Journal on Firearms and Public Policy. "A study that I conducted showed that one out of every 20 people eligible for a permit actually takes one out," he says. "Criminals are thus left to decide if they really want to figure out which one has the gun."

 

That, or they're encouraged to pack something, just in case.

 

People also get permits to avoid hassles over other gun regulations, Leddy says. While target-shooting enthusiasts, for instance, don't need a permit to transport a gun, a permit saves problems if they're stopped in their vehicles.

 

But the biggest reason people carry, Leddy says, is personal protection. One in five who pack are women, he says.

 

"The most effective tool a woman can have to avoid being raped is a handgun," Leddy says. "They can talk all they want about karate, mace, a knife and a big bunch of keys, but if you have that gun, you will stop that attack before it starts, without a doubt."

 

But B.J. Horn, executive director of Pittsburgh Action Against Rape, says Leddy's assessment is a simplistic solution to a complex problem. Seventy-five percent of all rape victims know their attackers; half of all victims are younger than 18 and a quarter are younger than 12. The idea that a handgun would prevent those rapes, says Horn, furthers the myth that most rapes are perpetrated by strangers.

 

"The bottom line," she says, "is if you carry a deadly weapon, especially one that you're not prepared to use, then it can be used against you."

 

The Rosenberg Institute's Glosser says he has long been familiar with the gun advocate's argument that more guns mean less crime. They use "funny science" to find numbers to fit their needs, he says. He points to other countries, particularly in Western Europe, in which gun ownership is severely restricted and handgun deaths are "exponentially lower.

 

"The state removed most urban areas' rights to control guns, subjecting urban areas to the same laws as rural and suburban areas," he says. "It's clear that we need to have local authority over who can and can't carry."

 

Allegheny County's main competitors for top gun-toting county are places you'd expect to put up a fight: red states and murder capitals.

 

Lake County, Indiana, for instance, the home of Gary, is second per capita at 4.2 percent. Cause or effect, it's probably related to Gary's per-capita murder rate, which hit a nationwide high in 1993 of 89 murders per 100,000 residents and still sits at 57.7 murders per 100,000 people.

 

Counties that issue the bulk of permits are concentrated in six states: Florida, Michigan, Texas, Utah, Arizona and Indiana. Most of the top 25 permit-issuing counties are in typically conservative states in the South, West and Midwest.

 

The exceptions are Pennsylvania, Michigan and Vermont. Vermont has no concealed-carry restrictions and allows all residents to carry without a permit.

 

In Michigan, the largest number of permits, according to a spokeswoman for the Michigan State Police, are in the three counties that encompass the Detroit metro area, which had nearly 400 homicides and more than 800 shootings in 2004, according to the Detroit News.

 

Part of the reason Pennsylvania and these other states top the packing list is because we are among the 35 whose statutes dictate the state "shall issue" a permit unless the applicant is a convicted of certain crimes, including second-degree felonies and multiple DUIs.

 

Ten states -- New York, New Jersey, Alabama, California, Delaware, Iowa, Maryland, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Hawaii -- allow restricted permit issuance. That includes four of the six states that border Pennsylvania. Their laws say such permits "may" be issued at the discretion of local law enforcement. Four states -- Kansas, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Illinois - do not issue concealed-carry permits.

 

"The two main problems we have with the law" in Pennsylvania, says the Brady Campaign's Ramsey, "is that there is no requirement to take a gun safety course and that law enforcement has no discretion when handing these things out. If the person is a domestic abuser, or just a little off, but never convicted, he can't be denied a permit. That's a little scary."

 

Even in Alabama, some aspects of Pennsylvania's permissive permitting don't sit well. Pat Roberts, Alabama's deputy attorney general, has been working on reciprocity agreements between Alabama and other concealed-carry states, like Pennsylvania. "Here," Roberts says, "the chief or the sheriff likely knows the person he's giving a permit to and he can deny the permit even if he has the feeling that the guy might just be a little off."

 

Ramsey says there is a growing gun culture in Pennsylvania, pointing to the large number of guns in the state -- more than 500,000 handguns purchased in the past five years, according to data from the Pennsylvania State Police. He also cites the claim of the Pittsburgh-based Rosenberg Institute for Peace and Justice, which led local protests against the National Rifle Association convention in Pittsburgh last spring, that Pennsylvania has been second in the number of gun shows only to Texas.

 

What worries Rosenberg's Nathaniel Glosser is the number of legal guns he assumes are being carried without permits. "The residents of this county would be better off," he says, "if we had officials who were more interested in advancing gun control in this county."

 

Local law enforcement can't explain the top rankings of Western Pennsylvania counties.

 

Allegheny County Sheriff Pete DeFazio didn't return calls seeking comment.

 

Westmoreland County Sheriff Chris Scherer knew his county had the highest permits per capita in the state, but the national prominence surprised him a bit. Part of the reason for the large number of permits may be the high number of sportsmen and responsible gun owners, he speculates.

 

 "We do have a lot of permits," says Scherer, "but we haven't seen any problems because of it. In fact, we haven't had a homicide this year and I've never known for firearms-related crimes to involve a permitted gun."

 

Violent crime rates nationwide in 2004 dropped 1.7 percent overall, and 2.1 percent in metropolitan counties. Violent crimes in Allegheny County decreased about 1 percent in 2003, but homicides saw a 36 percent increase.

 

Barry McCarthy, a criminal law professor with the University of Pittsburgh, says the city in particular was overrun with gang violence in the early 1990s and a large number of people rushed in those years to get a permit to carry a concealed handgun.

 

"I wasn't aware that we were developing that hysterical climate again, although some of it ... may have returned in the past year or so," McCarthy says. "The number [of permits] compared to the rest of the state seems disproportionate. I don't know why it's so high."

 

Some rushes on gun-carrying permits may be correlated with a rise in violent crime. For example, in 2003, Allegheny County processed a six-year high 11,326 permits, according to state police, who collect each county's data. That year also saw the county hit a record number of murders with 125.

 

But not all spikes may be motivated by fear. Scherer says permits in Westmoreland County spiked in 2003 because it was the end of their five-year permitting cycle and many active permits had to be renewed.

 

Meanwhile, Allegheny County, only the 28th most populous in America, may remain number one in concealed-carry permits for some time.

 

"I know there's a name put to a person who decides to carry a firearm for personal protection," says Allegheny County Sportsmen's Henry Hoffman. That name would be gun nut. "But in the end? I really don't care.

 

"There are a lot of young people out there with no regard for their own life and absolutely no regard for yours," he says. "They've got illegal firearms and they don't care who they hurt. You have to take care of yourself."

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