The number of first-time applicants for concealed-weapons permits nearly tripled across South Carolina in 2012, according to the S.C. State Law Enforcement Division.
The rise in the first-time applications predates the Connecticut elementary school massacre that killed 26 in early December and revived discussions about gun laws.
There were 61,766 first-time applications in South Carolina in 2012. In 2011, there were 24,661 such applications.
The number of people who have been granted concealed weapons permits is also rising .
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In 2012, a total of 186,916 permits were active, according to SLED data. That's a 26 percent increase over 2011, when there were 148,624. Thirty-three percent of the 2012 increase came from first-time applicants.
At the end of 2010 -- the most recent year of SLED data available for Beaufort County -- 2,992 residents had permits.
For some county residents, the decision to pursue a permit now has everything to do with recent political developments, including the re-election of President Barack Obama, seen by some gun rights supporters as a threat to the Second Amendment.
Local statistics seem to bear that out.
SLED issued county residents between 340 and 370 new permits a year from 2006 through the end of 2008. In 2009, after Obama's first year in office, 752 first-time permits were issued in the county -- a 131 percent increase. In 2010, a non-presidential election year, new permit requests decreased by 6 percent.
Statewide, new applications typically accounted for around 20 percent of all permits but increased to 35 percent in 2009 and 2012.
Some first-time county applicants also cited local and national media coverage of violent crime, including the Connecticut school shooting.
"It's just constant," said one applicant who was training with instructor Bobby Jarrell on Hilton Head Island Saturday. He cited the Connecticut shooting and a July 20 shooting in an Aurora, Colo., movie theater in which 12 died before the gunman surrendered to police.
All five applicants involved in the training Saturday spoke to the Island Packet and Beaufort Gazette on the condition their names be withheld because they don't want their permit or gun ownership to be public knowledge.
One man cited the recent publication by the Journal News, a newspaper based inUpstate New York,of the names and address of permit holders in Westchester and Rockland counties, N.Y.
Others run businesses and don't want customers or neighbors to feel uncomfortable.
All of them see the training as a matter of self protection.
"A lot of times I leave work late at night," one woman said. "I want to be able to protect myself no matter what happens."
Instructor Jarrell, who is certified by SLED and the National Rifle Association to teach the class, said the decision to carry a weapon is intensely private but thinks that, whatever the precipitating cause, his students ultimately want to provide their own safety.
State law requires, among other things, that permit applicants be at least 21 years old. They must submit an application from the SLED website and pay a $50 fee. They are also required to submit their finger prints, proof of residence and proof of completion of the 8-hour course. That time frame is a state-mandated minimum. SLED does a state and federal background check on all applicants.
The application process can take as long as four months, Jarrell said.
"A lot of people think that you can just come and get a license," he said, "but that's the furthest (thing) from the truth."
Jarrell, who taught Saturday's class from his Hilton Head home, said demand for the course has skyrocketed in recent weeks. His classes run over two days and can stretch from 12 to 13 hours.
Before the Connecticut shooting, Jarrell said he taught a six-person class once or twice a month. In the wake of the Dec. 14 shooting, he said, he has classes booked for every weekend through March.
"My (phone) will not quit ringing," Jarrell said. "It's just off the hook and it's unbelievable."
While instructor Rick Chapman, who has taught the class in northern Beaufort County since 1997, has not noticed a sudden increase in his class sizes, he has noticed a gradual increase in the demand for the classes over the last five years.
Indeed, the total number of permits has steadily risen since 2006, the earliest year data is available from the SLED website.
SLED spokeswoman Kathryn Richardson said SLED would not speculate about the reason for the increase.
Jarrell said he doesn't believe carrying a gun is right for everyone but instructs the class to keep those who do safe.
"I've worked in security and I'm a lifelong hunter," he said. "I love our rights and I think you should have the right to protect yourself and your family."
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