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Pandemic, presidential election, protests spur gun permit applications

After hearing calls to "defund" the police and wanting to protect herself, downtown New London resident Suzanne Simpson enrolled in an NRA handgun training class last August and a month later began the two-part process to secure her state pistol permit.

Four months later, she still is waiting for her local approval from New London police before submitting her application for a state permit, a process expected to take just as long.

"This is pathetic that it takes that long to get a permit. I just want to protect myself," she said.

Related story: How to get a gun permit

Jefferey Hart, a New London house painter who is the vice chairman of the city's Board of Education, took a training class with his wife and applied for his local permit about 14 weeks ago. He also is waiting for his approval so he can seek his state permit.

While Hart said he feels New London will remain a safe place, he said one of the reasons he applied for a gun permit is the "rise of the violent right wing in this country."

"The tension in this country is pretty palpable. That's one of the things that got me thinking in a different way" about getting a gun, said Hart, who said he grew up around guns and shot air rifles as a kid. "The reason is to provide your own security. The reason is you don't trust others to provide it for you."

Simpson and Hart are two of the approximately 2,000 people in southeastern Connecticut who applied for a pistol permit in 2020, putting a strain on local police departments that have to conduct a background check of each applicant while trying to process many more applications than they have in the past — all in the midst of restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic. State police then have to issue the final permit.

Stonington police, for instance, received 245 applications in 2020, more than the previous three years combined. Other communities are seeing two- and three-fold increases and, based on the applications submitted in January, police see the trend continuing in 2021.

The Day requested information from the state Emergency Services and Public Protection on Jan. 20 about the number of applications statewide over the past five years, what delays have occurred in processing the applications and how the issue is being addressed. The state has not provided that information.

Why they want a gun

Police and those seeking permits who spoke to The Day listed a variety of reasons for why more people are seeking permits, led by the desire to protect themselves from becoming crime victims. Others mention the country's divisive political climate, calls to defund the police, last summer's Black Lives Matter protests, the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S Capitol, as well as wanting to shoot for recreation. Historically, increases are seen in the year of a presidential election.

"Ninety-nine percent of the time the answers I get is personal protection, recreation or they want to assert their Second Amendment rights," said Stonington police Detective Greg Howard, who conducts background checks and interviews the applicants.

"But the overwhelming reason is personal protection," said Howard, who also is serving his first term as state representative for the 43rd District.

Local police say they do not question applicants about why they want a gun.

"I would not want to speculate on why someone would seek to acquire a concealed carry pistol permit," Groton City Chief Mike Spellman said. "That is an individual right, an individual choice that requires permitting. Part of that permitting process is a protective review to ensure the safety of all at the state and local (levels). The overwhelming number of concealed carry permit holders are law-abiding citizens ..."

Some applicants, however, offer up the information, and Ledyard Chief John Rich said the pandemic has "upset people's sense of normalcy, safety and security."

While many of the applicants who spoke to The Day did not want their names published, they echoed Howard's assessment about personal protection.

"I love the police. I think they do a good job. But this whole thing about defund the police and living in New London. I'm 85 pounds and a senior. I need to protect myself because I'm not sure the police could get there in time. If I don't do it myself, there may not be anyone there to protect me," Simpson said.

Conrad Heede, a member of the Groton Town Council, said he has applied for a permit for a different reason. He said he goes hunting with his father in Texas and Louisiana and wants to be able to practice here before those trips. By applying for a state pistol permit, he can buy a rifle and ammunition for hunting but also a handgun, something he said he may consider in the future.

Holly Sullivan, president of the Connecticut Citizens Defense League, said up to 400 people a month joined the gun rights advocacy group in 2020, swelling its membership to more than 38,000.

Sullivan said that across the country there were 5 million new gun owners in the first half of 2020. "We're seeing that same effect in Connecticut," she said.

She said the effort to "defund" police departments, a proposal to reallocate resources from police budgets to community programs and services such as mental health assistance, have made people realize they may be responsible for protecting themselves.

"People became concerned when they saw rioting (last summer). When people saw protesters blocking I-84 and I-91, they wondered 'what do I do if I have to defend myself?'" she said about protests for racial justice last summer.

Sullivan also pointed out that every time there is a change in president, "there is a huge uptick of people worried that if I want a firearm, will I be able to get one in the future?"

Richard Guest, a firearms instructor who owns Eastern Connecticut Firearms in Norwich, said he has seen a 50% increase in people taking his NRA pistol training class, which is required to obtain a permit. With COVID-19, he's had to also offer a hybrid training course that mixes virtual classroom learning with live-fire training on the range. Many women and couples are taking the courses, he said.

Guest said he "tries to stay out of politics" but said new permittees are worried about whether they will be able to acquire a gun in the future.

'A great responsibility'

Another instructor, Nick DeFelice, a Montville gunsmith who owns DeFelice Defense, called buying a gun strictly out of fear as "the worst-case scenario."

"You should never possess anything out of fear. And a firearm should not be your only line of defense," he said. "If I'm afraid, I should not be in possession of a firearm."

DeFelice said new gun owners should acquire much more training and knowledge about the responsibilities that come with being a gun owner and spending much more time on the range learning how to shoot in different situations. He said all of this is far more than what new gun owners receive from the one-day NRA course required to apply for a permit.

"There's so much more to carrying a pistol than 'I just got my gun permit,'" he said, stressing the great responsibility people should have when carrying a gun and the respect they should have for that firearm.

"When you get this tool in your hands and see its devastating power, you feel unstoppable, that's the worst mentality," he said.

He added that a new permit holder stepping out with a gun strapped to his or her waist with no additional training "is possibly the worst thing to do."

"You don't understand the parameters of what you are doing, the capability of that weapon and the meaning of taking a life," he said.

He said that when he carries a concealed handgun in public he understands it is his responsibility to be the calmest and most responsible person in any situation.

"That's your responsibility to the entire firearms community," he said.

Asked if more training should be required to get a permit, DeFelice said, "From a constitutional point of view, no, because you have a right to bear arms. But from an ethical point of view, yes."

Permit increases concern some

For groups that work to tighten gun laws, the news of the spike in pistol permit applications is unwelcome.

"We know the more guns there are, the more gun deaths we'll have. That's supported by studies, evidence and public health statistics," said Jeremy Stein, the executive director of Connecticut Against Gun Violence, which among other initiatives pursues legislation to decrease gun violence.

Stein, who formerly prosecuted gun crimes for the Washington, D.C., attorney general's office, said the instances in which people need to use deadly force to defend themselves are miniscule compared to the instances of other types of gun deaths.

Instead, he said the chances of that same gun being used in a suicide, homicide, an accidental shooting or being stolen are far greater. He said statistics show that having a gun in a home increases the likelihood of accidental death by four times, suicide by up to five times and homicide by four times.

Stein said state public health data shows that from 2015-19, three southeastern Connecticut communities ranked among the top 12 in the state with gun suicide rates per 100,000 people: Colchester is fifth, Groton, eighth, and Norwich, 12th.

He said statistics show that while it's primarily young men of color who are victims of gun murders, it tends to be older white men who live in rural and suburban areas who kill themselves with a gun.

"Certain people may think they are safer when they have a gun when the plain truth is that they are not," Stein said. "It's a myth that guns keep you safe. Instead, more guns equal more gun deaths."

"The real question is why so many people feel that having a gun is the answer when we have statistics that show exactly the opposite," he said. "We've been listening to a (presidential) administration over the last four years that spewed fear and hatred and spread the NRA message of getting more guns into the hands of people."

He added this "fear mongering" creates an impression that people need to get a gun. "This NRA tactic will only get more people killed," he said.

Stein said police are reporting people buying guns in bulk as well as an increase in gun theft and trafficking that has led to a dramatic increase in gun violence in cities such as Hartford, New Haven, Bridgeport and, more recently, Waterbury.

"There's a certain population of people who don't want to listen to the facts. They refuse to listen to empirical data. They close their eyes and put fingers in their ears because they don't want to hear that more guns equal more gun deaths," he said.

Connecticut Against Gun Violence is working to get legislation introduced in the current session to expand the categories of people who can seek an extreme risk protective order, or ERPO, to remove guns from someone at risk to themselves or others to include medical professionals, mental health providers and immediate family members. Currently just police or prosecutors can seek an ERPO, but Stein said people are not comfortable going to police. In addition, people whose guns are removed automatically get them back in one year without a hearing. Stein says his organization feels there should be a hearing to ensure the person can safely possess a firearm.

Some applicants seeing long delays

The surge in applications coupled with COVID-19 restrictions and office closures has, in many cases, delayed the issuance of local and state permits for months.

Simpson said she was told recently that her local permit would not be approved by New London police until March, six months after she applied.

In contrast, Howard, the Stonington detective who handles his department's permits, said that since June he typically approves an application for a local permit in one to two weeks.

Stonington employs a process that is different than most departments but allowed under state law.

After taking an applicant's fingerprints and being assured of the person's identity, Howard does his own background check instead of waiting for the state to perform it. However, if he is not familiar with the person or they are a recent arrival to town, Howard will wait until the state confirms the person's identity.

Most other communities wait for the state police to confirm the applicant's identity and conduct the background check. State law also requires local police departments to make a decision on an application within eight weeks.

Some departments, such as Norwich's, say applications are taking longer for them to approve due to staffing shortages and the office being open by appointment only due to COVID-19 restrictions. Fingerprinting of applicants have to be spread out so people don't congregate due to pandemic restrictions.

Waterford police Chief Brett Mahoney pointed out that it is taking the state 14 weeks to respond to background checks from local police departments. "We have no delays or problems here at the department except for waiting for returns from the state," he said.

Groton Town Chief Louis J. Fusaro Jr. said he recently had to temporarily dedicate an officer to clear the backlog of applications. He added his department also receives a considerable number of applications each year from people newly assigned to the Naval Submarine Base. They may be moving from another state and now need a Connecticut permit for their gun.

But even with their local permit, applicants face another delay due to the backlog in permits being processed by state police, which Mahoney said takes four months.

New London police Capt. Brian Wright said the process "is not as quick and as streamlined as people want to believe" and the pandemic has slowed the process at both the state and local levels, leading to a backlog of applications. At one point he said the department shut down its application process because people were not being allowed into headquarters.

Wright said he is trying to work through that backlog but the department has limited resources. He added the department also has hired an outside contractor to perform fingerprinting.

"Just as you want to ensure they get it in a timely fashion, you also want to ensure no one slips through the cracks. The wait can be very frustrating to people. Nonetheless it's done with utmost diligence, properly and in a timely manner," he said.

But Sullivan, head of the Connecticut Citizens Defense League, called it "a shame" that law-abiding citizens cannot get a permit quicker. She added the delay is impeding citizens' constitutional ability to get a permit.

Pointing out that gun owners pump a lot of money into the state budget through permit fees and taxes on guns and ammunition, Sullivan said the state should put more resources and manpower into clearing the backlog of background checks.

"They pay exorbitant fees and they go through a lot of hoops," she said. "The fact people are waiting five to six months is a problem. If a person is in need of a gun for personal protection, they need it quickly for a reason."

j.wojtas@theday.com

Editor's Note: This version corrects that Conrad Heede is a Groton Town councilor.

Pat Cassidy, left, an assistant with Eastern Connecticut Firearm, helps Ron Bates of Norwich with his form as he shoots a handgun Sunday, Jan. 24, 2021, during a live-fire session of the Pistol Permit Course at the range in Oakdale.  (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
Pat Cassidy, left, an assistant with Eastern Connecticut Firearm, helps Ron Bates of Norwich with his form as he shoots a handgun Sunday, Jan. 24, 2021, during a live-fire session of the Pistol Permit Course at the range in Oakdale. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)

Gun permits by town

The number of pistol permit applications granted and denied by town for the past five years:

EAST LYME (population, 18,462)

2020: 217 applications, 1 denied

2019: 70 issued

2018: 72 issued

2017: 107 issued

2016: 167 issued

GROTON CITY (population, 10,389)

2020: 83 applications, 4 denied 

2019: 43 issued

2018: 49 issued

2017: 67 issued

2016: 89 issued

GROTON TOWN (population, approximately 40,115)

2020: 216 issued, 2 denied

2019: 92 issued, 5 denied

2018: 66 issued, 1 denied

2017: 197 issued, 2 denied

2016: 221 issued. 10 denied

LEDYARD (population, 14,621)

2020: 242 applications

2019: 96 applications

2018: 120 applications

2017: 132 applications

2016: 214 applications

rejections 2016-2020: 5

NEW LONDON (population, 26,858)

2020: 94 issued, 6 denied

2019: 67 issued

2018: 113 issued

2017: 92 issued

2016: 139 issued

NORWICH (population, 38,768)

2020: 308 applications, 139 issued, 6 denied

2019: 183 issued, 11 denied 

2018: 183 issued, 7 denied 

2017: 106 issued, 10 denied 

2016: 294 issued

STONINGTON (population, 18,559)

2020: 245 applications, 2 denied

2019: 64 applications

2018: 63 applications

2017: 102 applications

2016: 158 applications

WATERFORD (population, 18,746)

2020: 265 applications, 5 denied

2019: 86 applications

2018: 104 applications

2017: 160 applications

2016: 237 applications

Population estimates as of July 1, 2019, by Connecticut Department of Public Health except Groton Town and Groton City, which are from 2010 census data. Gun permit applications data were provided by area police departments. Montville and statewide permit application statistics were not available.

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