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Armed citizens help reduce crime, say supporters

BILLINGS - The number of concealed-weapon permits has more than doubled in the last five years, as a growing number of Montanans have armed themselves to ensure their safety.

Some law enforcers are concerned about the trend, while others say there's nothing unusual or startling in the marked increase.

Two years ago, after several threats were directed at members of the state Supreme Court, Chief Justice Jean Turnage obtained a permit to carry a concealed weapon. "I'm not sure that it will help, but it's better than being totally defenseless," Turnage said recently.

Turnage is the highest-ranking state official permitted to carry a concealed weapon, according to a Billings Gazette study.

As of last month, there were about 8,600 concealed-weapon permit holders in Montana. In July 1995, the number of permit holders was 3,646. That represents a 136 percent increase in permits, which are valid for four years.

Theories about the increase vary. Attorney General Joe Mazurek, the state's top law officer, said a significant reason may be that obtaining a concealed-weapon permit exempts the holder from the federal waiting period when buying a handgun.

Permit holders contacted by the Gazette say they obtained permits for the security offered by carrying a weapon.

"People want to have the ability to defend themselves," says Rep. Bob Davies, R-Bozeman, one of three lawmakers with a permit.

Police can't always get to a situation quick enough, he said. "It's pretty much up to the individual."

More than 240 state employees have permits, including almost 40 who work in corrections, 21 forestry workers and 11 who work in probation and parole. Seven county attorneys - locally elected officials who are partially paid by the state - are also concealed-weapon permit holders.

The other lawmakers are Rep. Scott Orr, R-Libby, and Rep. Allan Walters, R-Hamilton.

At least 13 school teachers also have been issued permits.

Permits cost $50, plus $5 if fingerprints are taken. Renewals cost $25. Permits are obtained through local sheriff's offices.

The permits are considered public record, however the state Department of Justice would not release all of the information on the permits, only names, expiration dates and city of residence of permit holders.

Some information that was considered public in 1995 is no longer available because it threatens privacy, according to Beth Baker, a deputy in Mazurek's office. No longer released are permit holders' home address, birth dates and gender - information that is considered public in other state records.

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Gallatin County Sheriff Bill Slaughter says part of the increase in permits may be due to a misunderstanding of exactly where in Montana guns can be carried. Guns can be carried in many places without a permit, including vehicles. Those new to the state, especially Californians, do not seem to understand that, Slaughter said.

Interest in concealed weapons permits may also be on the rise because Montana permits are increasingly recognized in other states - a benefit for Montanans who travel, says Gary Marbut, head of the Montana Shooting Sports Association and also a member of the governor's advisory council on concealed weapons.

But, says Yellowstone County Sheriff Chuck Maxwell, maybe there are so many permits because they are too easy to get.

"Basically, anybody who applies for one gets one," says Maxwell, who doesn't think there needs to be that many residents carrying concealed weapons.

Permit holders must be at least 18 years old, be a resident for at least six months and have a driver's license. While other restrictions apply, the main reasons for denying a permit are a serious criminal record that might include violence or intoxication and a history or suspicion of mental illness.

Weapons advocates disagree with Maxwell.

"I feel that it should be nothing more than walking into the sheriff's office and requesting one if you're not a felon," Orr said.

Davies, the Bozeman lawmaker, says more law-abiding citizens carrying concealed weapons actually reduces crime. He remembers an altercation he had with a man who wanted to fight.

"Come ahead, I've got a 9 mm on the seat here," said Davies, who was in his vehicle. Although Davies says he was bluffing, just the notion that he was armed "stopped him in his tracks."

Law officers said they have not heard of specific cases where concealed weapons have either been used in a crime or used to prevent a crime.

Mazurek said he has not heard a "crying demand" for making permits tougher to obtain.

Davies said he would support lifting restrictions that forbid carrying of concealed weapons in banks and government buildings, including schools. He referred to the shootings by students last year in Colorado.

"How many lives would have been saved if a teacher had one at Columbine?" Davies said.

However, Mazurek said it is important to have places where weapons are not allowed, including banks, schools and bars.

Joe Kolman is a reporter for the Billings Gazette.

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