A record year for guns
The number of gun permits issued by the Douglas County Sheriff's Office spiked to 700 in 2016.
That's more than the combined number of permits, 685, that were issued during a five-year period from 2005 through 2009.
It's a trend that's happening statewide.
A report from the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension released last week shows that the number of permits to carry a gun in public totalled 71,156 in Minnesota — a record one-year total and a 60 percent jump from the 44,696 permits granted in 2015. The totals include both new permits and those renewed for another five years.
Douglas County's gun permits increased 43 percent from 2015's total of 489.
Having so many new permits is not a bad thing, said Douglas County Sheriff Troy Wolbersen.
"Permit holders are generally responsible gun owners," he said. "I think Minnesota does a good job of legislating permit to carry and permit to acquire firearms. There's a good, solid process in place to make sure that people who are issued permits are qualified. They've taken the required training course and are familiar with handguns and state statutes for both possessing and using firearms.
"It's the people who aren't qualified to carry firearms that law enforcement is concerned about," Wolbersen added.
Opinions vary as to why more Minnesotans than ever are seeking permits to carry a firearm.
Greg Hystead, who handles gun sales at The General Store in Osakis, said, "People don't trust people as much. They want to protect what they own."
Wolbersen noted that although crime hasn't noticeably increased locally, there is a growing fear of violent crime brought on by media coverage and spread through social media.
"Every event feels kind of local because there's so much information out there that's being spread immediately," Wolbersen said. "When something happens in a different part of the country, it feels like it is happening here. Sometimes, the perception is not necessarily the reality."
Wolbersen added that crime is also being reported more often.
"We're putting out media releases more frequently than we used to, but that doesn't mean there's been an increase in criminal activity," he said. "We are doing it in response to social media. We want to get accurate information out there."
Some believe that the possibility of Hillary Clinton, a gun control advocate, taking office prompted many people to get a gun while they could.
Hystead said that every election cycle seems to trigger a fear in people to get a permit. "They're worried that someone will get in there and ban this and ban that," he said. "Basically it's a scare tactic because one person can't control everything. There is still the House and the Senate and those who strongly support gun rights."
Even though the election is long past and a new year of record-keeping has just begun, interest in gun permits doesn't appear to be waning. Firearms are selling at a brisk pace at The General Store.
"Sales are definitely up," said Hystead. "With the weather getting nice and people getting their tax returns back, they're buying guns."
Another factor that has impacted gun sales is that more women are getting permits, Hystead said.
"More women are joining shooting leagues, bullseye leagues and taking target practice," he said. "There's definitely been an increase in women hunting and participating in shooting sports," Wolbersen said. "Many of them take the course with their husband, dad or boyfriend."
Youth are also introduced to guns at an early age through trap shooting, Hystead said, and that early interest carries over to when they're old enough to purchase a firearm. "Kids are more involved in learning how to shoot the right and safe way," he said.
Not having a valid gun permit can result in serious consequences — a first offense is a gross misdemeanor and a second or third violation is a felony.
As is the case statewide, not many permits are denied in Douglas County. In the last five years, it's happened only two times. Statewide, 585 permits or less than 1 percent of the applications, were denied last year.
Wolbersen said that the small percentage of denied permits is misleading.
"Most of the time, people know if they will be disqualified as a permit holder so they don't apply." he said. "They are aware that they've convicted of domestic abuse, a violent crime or a felony so they don't go through the process."
The permits do bring in some revenue. A five-year permit costs $100. Douglas County collected $68,775 in permit application fees last year. After paying state fees, office supplies, and other expenses, the county netted $57,427.
Wolbersen said the money goes into a designated fund that's earmarked for legal defense cases that may arise.