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Friday, March 18, 2011

Gun permits more common in smaller towns

EDITOR’S NOTE: Newspapers are watchdogs of government because of laws protecting the public’s freedom of information. Sunshine Week is an annual examination of government’s responsiveness to citizens. The Telegraph participates with newspapers from around the country.

Roughly one in 25 people in Greater Nashua is licensed to carry a concealed gun, but it’s in the rural small towns, not the crowded city, where people are most likely to be carrying.

The number of permits for concealed weapons issued in the region has increased in recent years, possibly in reaction to high-profile crimes or concern about government restrictions.

Under New Hampshire law the number of people in each community who have permits to carry concealed weapons is public information, which The Telegraph obtained to coincide with Sunshine Week. Exactly who those people are is anyone’s guess, as the identities of people who have permits is not public.

New Hampshire requires a permit only for a concealed weapon; and there is no similar data available about how many total firearms are owned.

The data shows that gun ownership in area communities has increased in the past two years. It’s impossible to say exactly why, but some believe a factor was the Oct. 4, 2009 murder of Kimberly Cates. The highest jump in the number of permits locally happened in Mont Vernon, where Police Chief Kyle Aspinwall said more than half of the 70 permits he issued in 2009 came in the three months following the home invasion.

“I can tell you in our particular circumstance it was directly related to the Cates homicide,” Aspinwall said.

Aspinwall issued another 55 permits in 2010, the same year Steven Spader was convicted for the murder. That means nearly two thirds of the 198 active pistol permits in Mont Vernon were issued in the last two years.

“I know immediately following those events we were inundated. Here, there was a direct correlation between the two events,” Aspinwall said.

More permits issued

Overall, the number of people carrying concealed weapons is on the rise. The number of permits issued in the entire Nashua area, and in most communities, has increased in each of the past four years. In 2007, a total of 1,442 permits were issued in Nashua and nine surrounding towns (yearly data for Merrimack was not available). By 2010, that number had risen 40 percent, to 2,008 total permits. Permits expire after four years.

Most towns issued more permits in the last two years than they did in the previous two. For example, more than 55 percent of Wilton’s 272 permits were issued in the last two years and about 57 percent of Brookline’s 247 were given out in 2009 and 2010. Milford and Litchfield each saw increases of more than 60 percent in the past two years.

“We’ve seen a lot more,” Litchfield Police Chief Joseph O’Brion said.

O’Brion said election cycles can influence the number of people seeking permits, with a swell coming when people sense gun laws might be tightened depending on the makeup of the statehouse.

Others agreed.

“Really, I think a lot of it is dependent on whether people get the feeling that things are going to change in the legislature,” Hollis Police Chief Russell Ux said.

Small towns, big gun ownership

Region-wide, police issued 7,746 permits to the area’s 194,571 people, about one for every 25 residents.

Over the past four years, Nashua, predictably, issued the most permits of any community in the region, followed by the area’s two biggest towns, Hudson and Merrimack.

But on a per-capita basis – that is, the number of permits issued per person – the region’s rural locations are the leaders.

Tiny Lyndeborough, for example, has almost four times as many concealed weapons permits per capita as does Nashua. In fact, there’s more than one permit for every 10 residents in that town.

Mont Vernon and Hollis have more than twice as many gun permits per capita as Nashua, while in Wilton and Brookline, people are almost as likely to have a permit.

How to get a permit

Provided you haven’t committed a specific type of crime, concealed weapon permits are easy to get. An applicant’s criminal background is checked and police also check their own records “to see if there are any red flags that pop up,” such as domestic issues or handgun-related offenses, said Merrimack Lt. Denise Roy.

“It’s not a rubber stamp because we do look at each one very carefully,” she said.

In most towns, the board of selectmen or town council authorize the police chief to issue the permits. The state issues an application that requires only basic information like address, social security number, height, weight, place of birth and employer. It asks whether the applicant has been convicted of a felony, whether he or she is addicted to any drugs or whether he or she has been deemed a “mental defective” or committed to a mental institution by a court. Finally, the application asks for three references.

In many ways the law governing pistols and revolvers, RSA 159, leaves much of the rest to police chiefs. It reads that anyone should receive a permit if they fear injury or “has any proper purpose” and assuming that the applicant is a “suitable person to be licensed.”

“Basically it leaves it up to the selectmen or the police chief to determine suitability. That’s subjective at best,” Ux said. “Suitability is really up to the person issuing the permit to determine.”

Most police chiefs said they issued the permit to anyone who cleared a basic criminal background and reference check. The law also bars police from releasing a name of permit holders or taking their picture or fingerprints.

“It’s primarily based on the record check and any other information that would lead me to believe someone is not suitable for a concealed gun permit,” Amherst Police Chief Peter Lyon said. “We’re pretty constrained by some of the case law that’s come out over the years.”

“Based on the way the law is constructed, we can only go by the application and the criminal check,” Milford Police Chief Fred Douglas said. “That’s all we’re able to do. We can’t even take photographs or fingerprints of the person.”

Joseph G. Cote can be reached at 594-6415 or jcote@nashuatelegraph.com.