Maine’s packing heat – More people are legally carrying concealed guns in Maine. Who are they? Lots of women and ‘more normal people than people might expect.’

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It is, by her own admission, a worst-case scenario.

“Jane” wants to be able to protect herself if an intruder breaks into the house and gets the jump on her husband.

“If something happened and you drop the gun and you’re dead on the floor, I’ve got to know how to use it,” she told him.

So, last weekend, after a lot of thought, the couple attended a local five-hour gun safety course. On Tuesday, they applied for concealed firearms permits at the Lewiston Police Department. Jane’s husband used to target practice as a kid with his father. She’s never shot a gun in her life.

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“It’s such a tough, tough decision, at least for me it was,” said Jane, who’s in her late 30s. “I still don’t know if it came down to it, shooting to wound or taking a life, if I can do it.”

“Jackie,” 29, of Casco, got her concealed firearms permit 18 months ago when her job started taking her on long stretches of the turnpike, by herself.

“I had started to hear some not-so-great reports of things happening at rest areas,” she said. “I have a little holster that looks like a day planner. If anybody looked in the car, they’d never guess.”

“Mark” is a Bar Harbor real estate agent. He got his permit in January. He’s concerned about showing an empty house that might turn out not to be empty, and about the political tone the country’s taking.

“Things have definitely changed these last few years,” he said. “To be blunt, I would feel really stupid if the s— hit the fan and I was standing there with nothing in my hand other than a sharp stick. Do I think that will happen? No, I really don’t.”

He reasons that it’s like having homeowner insurance in the unlikely event his house burns down — just another layer of protection.

All three weren’t eager to reveal their identities — they aren’t looking for fights, or to become targets themselves. They’re part of the slow but steady creep of more people applying for concealed permits in Maine.

Lewiston police are issuing twice as many permits as they did 10 years ago, but Chief Michael Bussiere said people aren’t coming in with a “sky is falling” mentality.

He and Chief Stacy Carter of the Rumford Police Department said permit holders have largely shown themselves to be law-abiding citizens who don’t give police any trouble. Neither the state nor the courts keep track of crimes committed by concealed firearms permit holders.

“Some of them, I think, they’ve been the victims of crime,” Carter said. “They have them for safety or security, at least, in their mind.”

Municipalities with police chiefs issue their own concealed firearms permits. People who live in municipalities without police departments, and all nonresidents, go through the Maine State Police.

In 1999, state police issued nearly 2,000 permits. In 2009, it was 5,706.

“It goes in cycles ever since 9/11,” said Sgt. Bill Gomane, in the State Police’s special investigation unit in charge of gaming and weapons.

Permits are good for four years, he said, so a large crop one year means that four years out, it’s likely to get larger still.

No one authority in Maine is charged with recording the number of active concealed firearms permits statewide. Gomane took it upon himself to count, and estimated that in 2008, there were 29,236. A fair number, as many as 20 percent, were held by nonresidents who might have applied for the novelty of it.

“Many nonresidents with permits do not travel to Maine,” he said. “Some applicants like to have permits from different states, and some can use a Maine permit in other states.”

The gun safety course is required as part of the application process. A small percentage get denied, he said.

Paul Mattson of Harrison, owner of Maine CWP Training, has been a trainer for 35 years.

“The last five years, it’s been full-time, almost seven days a week — my wife does not like that,” he said.

His ladies-only class at Cabella’s in January drew an 84-year-old western Maine woman whose house was broken into while she was home.

After officers cleared the scene, “the police chief pulled out my business card, ‘Call him,’” Mattson said.

Now she’s got her permit. (Without one, she could have still had a gun in the house but couldn’t have walked around town with it under a coat.)

Mattson said he has seen more interest from women and from people who carry large amounts of cash in their line of work. He’s never drawn his own weapon. The closest he’s come was nine years ago in Windham. It was early morning and Mattson had just pulled away from an ATM.

“Somebody actually grabbed my steering wheel as I drove away,” he said. “I stepped on the gas.”

The man fell and knocked himself out on the pavement. Mattson called police. He tells people in class that the odds are “very, very low” that they’ll ever draw.

“It’s a tool of last resort,” he said.

The lady factor

Reid’s Guns & Cigars in Auburn hosts a monthly gun safety course with classroom work but no range work. Manager Jamie Pelletier steers beginners toward Mattson.

“It’s gotten to the point, you’re seeing as many women coming to class as men,” Pelletier said.

Scott Boone and Uel Gardner, two owners of Portland-based Weaponcraft, the biggest firearms training school in Maine, said their company taught nearly 600 civilians last year. They offer an eight-hour basic handgun class that has lessons in law and has students firing off 350 rounds.

“I don’t think we knew what the demographics would be,” Boone said. “When we started, I thought it would be camouflage- and flannel-wearing guys running around with guns.”

Instead, they see lots of soccer moms. Dentists and other professionals. Couples. About 40 percent of students are women.

Gardner said he wouldn’t be surprised if women were receiving most of the increased number of permits in Maine. To him, it falls in line with the high divorce rate (more single mothers) and a general trend toward preparedness (more people buying generators, taking first aid classes).

“It’s not a lot of radicals; it’s just normal people, more normal people than people might expect,” Gardner said.

Ask new permit holders themselves why, and why now, and reasons vary.

One Auburn man, “Joe,” said he got his in November 2008 “because of the way the community’s going; you never know when you’re going to be safe.”

“For example, three of the four convenience stores that were robbed last week were three stores that I frequent … at those times,” he said.

A near miss several years ago originally got him thinking about it. While approaching the traffic light near Elizabeth Ann’s on Sabattus Street, the car in front of him with the license plate “GUNZ” abruptly went into reverse and tried to ram him. (The driver was later brought up on several charges, according to Lewiston police.)

“Say he hit me and he did get out of the car,” said Joe. He’s not sure what would have gone down. Now, in off-work hours, he wears a gun 90 percent of the time.

Mike Matthews of Rumford said he got his permit over the winter, in part for patriotic reasons — he was inspired by finding several soldiers, including a Minute Man, in his family tree — and in part out of concern over terrorists. It bothers him that the plotters behind 9/11 passed through Maine.

“The terrorists are here, in America. They think they’re doing God’s work,” said Matthews, 60. “Most people have taken for granted why we’re free and how we became free. People are ignorant of history.”

“Phil,” who applied for a permit on Tuesday with his wife “Jane,” said he’d waited until he was mature enough and his son was older. He hadn’t wanted a gun in the house with a young child. Politics was another factor.

“If you have rights and they’re not being used, they can be taken away from you,” he said. “I am worried the president might do something (to restrict those rights).”

The couple is still gun shopping. They anticipate keeping both firearms locked up at home most of the time, even after they have permits.

“I was quite hesitant about owning a gun, and I hate to say it, I was quite hesitant about touching a gun,” Jane said.

During class she handled one for the first time, loading and unloading a .45-caliber Magnum and a Smith & Wesson revolver with snap caps (fake bullets).

“It was a huge experience,” she said. “I didn’t even know how heavy they were.”

kskelton@sunjournal.com

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