By Christopher Williams, Sun Journal Posted March 17, 2012, at 6:18 a.m.
When John Moore moved back to Maine from Massachusetts, he thought he wouldn’t have to wait long to get a permit to carry a concealed handgun.
After all, Maine law says applicants who have been Maine residents for five years or longer have to be notified within 30 days of whether they’ve been approved or denied.
Although it has only been a bit more than three weeks since he applied, Moore, 40, of New Gloucester isn’t optimistic.
A quick visit to the state’s website told him he might have to wait up to three months for his permit. Moore, a martial arts teacher, believes knowledge of and ability to use firearms properly is part of being proficient in self-defense to protect himself, his wife and twin daughters.
He cited a recent trend in Maine of burglaries and home invasions by addicts seeking prescription drugs. In the rural area where he lives, law enforcement response time to a 911 call can take about 20 minutes, he said.
In Massachusetts, state law allows permits to carry concealed handguns, “but they can make it impossible,” Moore said. He hoped it would be different in Maine.
Though not impossible, getting a permit here appears to require increasing patience.
And it’s not only at the state level.
Maine towns and cities that handle their own applications for permits to carry concealed handguns are telling permit seekers they should expect to wait more than 30 days.
In Auburn, the wait is averaging around six weeks; in Lewiston, applicants are told it can take as long as 12 weeks.
As more people buy handguns, more gun owners are applying for permits.
Gun dealers say demand for handguns has shot up.
“Sales have been very good,” said Jamie Pelletier, manager of Reid’s Guns and Cigars in Auburn.
At G3 Firearms in Turner, handgun sales have doubled over the past year, owner Chris Jordan said.
Enrollment at firearm-safety courses has kept pace with brisk sales. Pelletier said every class offered by the shop has been full.
Paul Mattson, a National Rifle Association certified firearms instructor in Harrison, said he has seen demand for his course in personal protection climb by nearly one-third over the past three years.
He said his students are frustrated by the time lag. One student, a 74-year-old woman who is a lifetime Maine resident, waited 114 days for her permit, while it took only 2½ weeks for her to get a U.S. passport in the mail, he said.
Maine State Police Lt. David Bowler said his agency put the notice on the state’s website because it had been inundated with emails and phone calls from applicants wondering why they hadn’t gotten their permits. The time it took to answer the inquiries was taking time from working on issuing the permits, he said.
“For some reason, we’ve been getting quite an unusual amount of applications” for the permits, he said.
Bowler oversees the concealed-handgun-carrying permitting process at the Maine Department of Public Safety for about 250 municipalities, such as New Gloucester, that don’t issue their own permits. His also is the only permitting agency for nonresidents and private investigators.
The number of applications for concealed-carry permits processed by his agency shot up 46 percent from 2008 to 2011, he said.
While applications are up, staffing at his agency is not.
“We just never seem to get caught up,” he said. To make matters worse, he has had personnel shifts that left the agency even shorter-staffed at times.
He has tried to address the problem with creative staffing solutions, short of paying overtime, “just to see if it’s making a dent in this thing,” he said. “If it looks like it’s just a Band-Aid on a broken leg, then I’ll stop it and just keep on charging forward the best we can.”
He doesn’t expect to get more workers anytime soon, Bowler said.
Part of the problem is waiting for other agencies or institutions to respond to requests for information, he said.
Applications require federal background checks, as well as checks with local law enforcement and mental health institutions.
As the number of permit applicants grows, those agencies and institutions have become overwhelmed by requests for information, Bowler said.
“We’re at the mercy of these entities,” he said. “They’re probably in the same boat we are … It’s just a vicious circle of getting bogged down.”
Bowler said he couldn’t explain the sharp increase in applications, but he pointed to the spike in gun sales.
He said the lagging economy may have had an effect.
Mattson said he believes that is a contributing factor, along with Moore’s concern over burglaries and home invasions.
“People really can’t have law enforcement at their disposal,” he said. He’s seen a greater percentage of women and more older people pursue handgun-safety courses.
Jordan said he’s heard from his customers a “huge” increase in interest in concealed-carry permits since the 2008 election.
He said he sees more older couples in his store shopping for handguns for home protection.
Bowler said handgun owners who have permits should apply for renewal before their permits expire. If they do, they can continue to carry a concealed handgun until their renewal is approved or denied. If they wait until after their permits expire, they have six months to apply for a renewal, but can’t conceal their handguns. If they wait more than six months after their permits expire, they have to apply as though they never had a permit.