Sometime during the course of your day, someone with a loaded weapon probably is near you. And those are just the legal weapons.
Nearly 8,000 people in Hamilton County have valid concealed weapons permits, records show, allowing them to carry loaded firearms just about anywhere.
Statewide the number of handgun carry permits issued dropped from 57,044 in 2005 to 51,987 in 2007. In Hamilton County, the number of handgun carry permits issued dropped from 2,777 in 2005 to 2,090 in 2007.
Tennessee requires a handgun safety course before approving an application. That course, along with fingerprinting, a thorough background check and $115, gives Tennessee residents the right to carry a loaded firearm in the Volunteer State and roughly a dozen other states that share similar laws. Permits are good for four years and can be renewed for $50. There’s no permit required simply to own a gun.
Staff Photo by Meghan Brown
Instructor Mark Haskins assists Prinna Puakpong with her aim during a Tennessee handgun safety course at Sportsman’s Supply on Hixson Pike. The handgun is fitted with a laser to practice accuracy. Watching are students Danny Moore, left, and Jean Shumacker.
Even with a carry permit, guns still are banned in businesses that serve alcohol, in airports, civic centers, schools, public parks, playgrounds and other recreational buildings and grounds. Additionally, any business or civic entity can bar weapons.
Local gun shop owners aren’t sure why so many people are looking to pack heat here, but business is brisk at Sportsman Supply and Services in Hixson, which in addition to selling guns offers a state-approved handgun training course.
“This year we’ve had a class every Saturday of the year, which is atypical,” said Mark Haskins, the handgun course instructor who also is a Chattanooga police sergeant and head of the city’s SWAT team. Classes seat 10 to 12 pupils, he said.
“Usually we have two to three classes a month … and (now) it’s a full class, not just a partial class,” he said. “We don’t know what the rush is, but there are a lot of people wanting to get their permit.”
Shop owner Carl Poston thinks locals are scared by media reports of gang activity. The worsening economy and uncertainty about how a potential Democratic president and a Democratic Congress might reshape gun laws figure in as well, Mr. Poston said.
“We’ve seen a ton of customers since the first of the year,” he said.
But Sgt. Haskins said he believes most people are seeking to protect their property or themselves in case they come in contact with a criminal.
Thomas Malone was in Mr. Poston’s gun shop last week to sign up for the required class.
“When I travel, it’s not always in large, metropolitan areas,” he said. “I’m liable to be at a hotel in the middle of nowhere and, because I’m constantly on the road, I think it would be a good thing to have a carry permit.”
Sgt. Haskins said he can’t remember many examples of arresting someone for a gun crime who held a carry permit. Still, some groups such as the Washington, D.C.-based Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence said Tennessee and many other states have weak control over who gets a concealed weapons permit.
“We feel, at the very least, local law enforcement should have the discretion in deciding who gets a concealed weapons permit,” said Brian Malte, director of state legislation for the Brady Campaign. “Laws like Tennessee’s just say that, if you pass a background check and any other requirements, you must be allowed to receive a permit.”
In truth, Tennessee does deny many applications for permits. About 10,000 applications were denied in 2007, records show, for various reasons, including prior criminal convictions and incomplete information on the application form.
The state, however, earned Brady Campaign praise for shooting down separate bills that would have kept concealed weapon permit information secret, allowed guns on college campuses, in bars and in parks. Another bill would have allowed those formerly committed to a mental institution to obtain a firearm permit when they get out.
By the numbers
Top 10 counties with carry permit applications
2006 - 2007
Statewide 55,868 - 195,251
Hamilton County 2,423 - 2,090
Bradley County 922 - 869
Bledsoe County 159 - 91
Grundy County 177 - 129
Marion 261 - 202
McMinn County 678 - 592
Meigs County 143 - 114
Polk 164 - 146
Rhea County 277 306
Sequatchie 150 115
Source: Tennessee Department of Safety
Others say concealed weapons laws are flawed and rely on a mythical belief that people who carry a loaded gun will use it for a good reason at the right time.
“What many people don’t know is that there were two armed guards at Columbine that engaged that shooter and were simply outgunned,” said Kristen Rand, legislative director for the Washington, D.C.-based Violence Policy Center. “In Texas, we challenged their laws, and legislators produced one example of a permit holder stopping a crime, but we found that 5,314 people there were involved in committing crimes after receiving their permit.”
In Sgt. Haskins’ classes, he tries to dispel gun law myths and tells his students that using deadly force isn’t to be taken lightly.
“I tell people, if at all possible, you don’t want to shoot somebody,” Sgt. Haskins said. “I have people say, ‘If their arm is in my window, I’m going to shoot them.’ But I say, ‘What if it’s just the neighbor’s kid that’s just going to steal your Xbox because he thought you weren’t home? Now you’ve gunned down this 13-year-old boy.’ ... These are things you have to think about.”
The owner of a local firing range and gun shop says his classes are overflowing and handgun sales are up. Figures for 2007 show about 8,000 Hamilton County residents had permits to carry handguns. Police, gun owners and an instructor comment on the increased interest in firearms.
Adam Crisp covers education issues for the Times Free Press. He joined the paper's staff in 2007 and initially covered crime, public safety, courts and general assignment topics. Prior to Chattanooga, Crisp was a crime reporter at the Savannah Morning News and has been a reporter and editor at community newspapers in southeast Georgia. In college, he led his student paper to a first-place general excellence award from the Georgia College Press Association. He earned ...