Concealed weapon applicants in Allegheny County ebbing

Sheriff : 'They were overwhelming. They were lined up out past the doors.'

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After 10 months, Allegheny County Sheriff Bill Mullen can finally catch his breath.

For almost a year, nearly 200 people lined up every day outside his courthouse office to apply for licenses to carry a concealed weapon. Perhaps fearing a government crackdown after December's shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, gun owners turned out in force -- and nearly shut the sheriff's office down.

As a result, the average wait for a concealed-carry permit reached 45 days.

But with new leadership taking command of the Firearms License Division and demand for permits slackening, Sheriff Mullen is happy to report the average wait for a concealed-carry license has dropped to just 10 days.

"They were overwhelming. They were lined up out past the doors," he said. "It's frustrating for people to come down here, particularly from the outlying regions -- and we were overwhelmed and couldn't get these licenses back to them."

Sheriff Mullen's permit staff has seen a steady increase in business since 2008, the first year he saw a major spike. That year, applications jumped 18 percent, followed by another 10 percent in 2009.

The sheriff and others credit that to the election of President Barack Obama, whose comments on the 2008 campaign trail regarding gun control may have spooked Pennsylvania firearms owners. Interest dropped back to 11,000 applications a year before rocketing up again in 2012 -- another election year.

"I think a little bit about it was myth and fear perpetuated by the gun lobby that Obama is out to get your guns," said Shira Goodman, executive director of CeasefirePA, a Philadelphia advocacy group fighting gun violence. "People are realizing that's not happening."

Even so, this year will likely set records. Sheriff Mullen's office has issued 17,212 concealed-carry permits so far in 2013, topping last year's record of 15,797 with two months still to go.

PG graphic: Permits to carry concealed weapons

As in every county in Pennsylvania, the sheriff's office is responsible for screening applicants seeking concealed-carry permits. Standards differ across the state: While all departments must run applications through a background check, it's up to the local sheriff how to determine a gun owner's "good character," the only other requirement under state law.

For Sheriff Mullen, that means running applicants through a national background check and verifying they don't have pending charges with local district judges. While the extra steps take valuable time, he believes it is important to be thorough.

Unfortunately, his staff also switched computer systems last year, triggering crashes just as crowds were forming outside the office.

"We were running OK -- there were few complaints," he said. "But then Sandy Hook put it over the top."

On Monday, operations seemed to be going smoothly enough. J.C. McGreehan drove in from Dravosburg to renew his permit, the first time he's had to make the trip in five years.

He's heard grumbling from friends about Sheriff Mullen's stricter background checks. But the 34-year-old took no issue with the sheriff's methods, saying security should be a primary concern.

That said, after waiting more than a month in 2008, he'll believe Sheriff Mullen's 10-day promise when he sees his permit in front of him.

"You send out the information, and then it's just a waiting game," he said.


Andrew McGill: amcgill@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1497 or on Twitter: @AndrewMcGill

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