B'Ham News - "Metro area loaded with concealed guns"
Metro area loaded with concealed guns
Sunday, February 18, 2007
News staff writer
On mornings before he goes to work at Mike's Pawn and Music Center downtown, Joe Locascio showers, shaves, dresses and picks out a pistol to tuck into a holster hidden inside the waistband of his slacks.
The 70-year-old Birmingham native prefers a semi-automatic to a revolver - you're less likely to die for lack of shooting back with a semi-automatic, he says - and this day he's carrying a .380 Smith & Wesson.
He says he's a good enough shot to hit the door across the room should there be trouble.
If there is trouble in this room, or most any other he walks into in Birmingham, odds are good he won't be the only one ready to take aim.
Locascio, who has had a pistol permit for most of his adult life, is one of more than 64,000 people in Jefferson and Shelby counties with permits allowing them to carry concealed handguns, according to sheriff's department records.
That means that in the two most populous counties in the metro area, more than one in 10 adults may be legally carrying a concealed handgun on their persons or in their cars.
While there are no national statistics on how many people are licensed to carry, experts say the numbers for greater Birmingham are significantly higher than they've seen in other metro areas around the country.
An analysis of Jefferson and Shelby counties' records shows that the carrying of concealed pistols in greater Birmingham cuts across economic and cultural lines.
Those who have permits to carry guns include cabbies, construction workers, surgeons, chief financial officers and clergy. More than 16,000 women in Jefferson County and about 2,600 in Shelby County have permits, making women account for nearly a third of all legally concealed handguns in the area.
The most concealed pistol permits - as a percentage of the population - are found in western and northern Jefferson County; the fewest are found in southern and eastern Shelby County. But residents of Birmingham and of the suburbs, and residents of every ZIP code in the two counties, have permits to carry concealed guns, according to data for the 12 months ending last September.
Pistol permit holders interviewed for this report all said they began carrying a gun for the same reason: They felt unsafe without one. And all said they hope, or pray, that they'll never have to pull the trigger.
Locascio, who once foiled a robbery of a grocery store he ran by shooting and wounding a robber, said he began carrying a gun as a young man when he lived and worked in a tough neighborhood on Birmingham's Southside.
"It's an insurance policy," Locascio said. "You hope you'll never need to use it."
Officials with the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and the National Rifle Association - organizations at opposite ends of the national fight over gun control - both said they found the number of Birmingham adults with permits surprising.
Peter Hamm, a spokesman with the Brady Campaign, said he was stunned.
NRA spokeswoman Ashley Varner gasped when she heard the numbers. "That's great! It's definitely a good thing for the community."
Varner later said the official position of the NRA was that it should not be entirely unexpected that a community such as Birmingham is home to many gun owners and more permits.
"Some states have more permits because of the values of the region," she said.
There is no national data because state laws vary widely. In some states, such as Alabama, permits are granted by dozens of sheriff's departments or local police departments, and in some states the information is not public record.
Still, some of the leading academics who study the issue said Birmingham stands out.
John Lott, a former scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of several books on handguns and crime, said his research has never identified a city with a higher percentage of adults with permits.
"Those are pretty remarkable numbers," he said.
Among states for which Lott said he'd collected data, South Dakota has the highest percentage of adults with permits, 7.5 percent. Lott said he'd run across a handful of very rural counties with higher percentages than greater Birmingham, but not a city of any size.
Gary Kleck, a professor in the criminology department at Florida State University, said the most recent significant research he has seen - done for a book published in 2000 - found that 2.9 percent of adults in states with the most gun-friendly laws had permits. That's less than a third of the rate in Birmingham.
The state's limits:
The Brady Campaign's Hamm said the number of permit holders in Birmingham comes despite a state gun law that is more restrictive than laws in most other states.
Alabama's concealed weapons law allows county sheriff's departments, which are responsible for issuing pistol permits in Alabama, discretion in determining who can carry a gun. Commonly called a "may issue" law, it gives law enforcement the authority to reject permit applications.
While the Brady Campaign and the NRA differ slightly on how they classify some states, they generally agree that 11 states, including Alabama, have various forms of "may issue" laws while 35 states have "shall issue" laws, which mandate that permits be issued to applicants who meet certain qualifications. That typically means anyone without a felony conviction.
Other factors also come into play. For example, Florida requires its permit holders to take a gun-safety course, even though it is a "shall issue" state. Alabama has no such requirement.
That contributes to an interesting comparison: Jefferson County, with a population of 485,500 adults, has 53,500 conceal-carry permits while Florida's Miami-Dade County, with 1.7 million adults, has 42,500 pistol permits. That means adults in greater Birmingham are four times more likely than their Miami counterparts to have a concealed-weapon permit.
Weapons rarely used:
Officials with the sheriff's departments in Jefferson and Shelby counties said permit holders rarely use their weapons. Crimes committed with legally held concealed handguns are so rare, they said, that they couldn't recall any such incidents.
"Most of the time the people who get pistol permits are your good, honest, law-abiding citizens who have them for legitimate purposes," said Capt. Chris Corbell of the Shelby County Sheriff's Department.
"Your criminals are not going to go to the trouble of coming down here to get a pistol permit."
Both Jefferson and Shelby sheriff's officials said they run background checks on permit applicants to make sure they don't have felony convictions or other issues that might make them ineligible. And both departments said they routinely revoke pistol permits belonging to anyone who's arrested.
While crimes involving the use of handguns by permit holders are rare, one of the nation's most publicized crimes involving a legally concealed handgun occurred in Shelby County in 1999.
A road rage incident involving two women driving on Interstate 65 - cutting one another off in traffic - escalated when both women pulled off the highway onto an Alabaster off-ramp. Gena Foster, a 34-year-old mother of three from Columbiana, was shot and killed by Shirley Henson, a 40-year-old legal secretary who had a .38-caliber revolver in her glove box. Henson, who had a permit for the handgun, served four years at the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women.
The NRA and other gun rights advocacy groups argue that legally concealed guns more often are used in clear-cut cases of self-defense, and that crime is lower in states with more legally concealed weapons because the higher probability that a victim will be armed serves as a deterrent.
"In every state with right-to-carry laws, crime has dropped significantly," said the NRA's Varner. She cited FBI data that shows crime fell 27 percent in states that adopted gun-friendly right-to-carry laws.
The Brady Campaign - named for former White House press secretary James Brady, who was seriously wounded in a 1981 assassination attempt on President Reagan - argues that crime dropped even more in states where it's harder to legally carry a gun.
Would have been robbed:
Marvin Torme, who with his brother Merv owns the Torme's Grocery in Bessemer and owned the recently closed Torme's in downtown Birmingham, is among those who believe in the deterrent effect of firearms.
Several years ago Torme was carrying cash to a bank near the Bessemer store when a man approached with what he says was clearly the intent to rob him. Torme, who usually is accompanied by a security guard on trips to the bank, was by himself but had a gun in a holster on his belt.
He turned, exposing what he describes as his "big" gun to the man, who immediately turned and fled. Without his gun, for which he has a permit, he would have been robbed, or worse, Torme said.
Locascio, the permit holder who works at Mike's Pawn, said he still thinks about the day his grocery was robbed, and he shot and wounded - using a shotgun, not a pistol - a robber.
"I just couldn't get the barrel around fast enough," he chuckled, joking about how he only winged the robber, who survived. Then, turning serious at the memory, he said, "It's something you're forced to do."