The number of concealed weapon licenses issued by the North Dakota Attorney General's office has been surging as of late. That trend is reflected in the amount of concealed carry permits being issued in several counties, including Ward and Williams.
Ward County led North Dakota with 846 concealed carry permits issued in 2011. Williams County issued 459 concealed carry permits in 2011, up from 170 in 2010. The two counties are on pace to surpass those numbers this year. Both areas are heavily influenced by the energy boom in the western part of the state and have been growing rapidly.
The recent abduction and slaying of a Sidney, Mont., teacher caused an increased awareness of personal protection measures, including the purchasing of handguns and applications for concealed carry permits. But there are other influences. Gun manufacturers have been producing "down-sized" versions of handguns designed for the concealed carry market. The number of concealed carry instructors has been increasing too. There's even companies targeting the concealed carry market with everything from specialized clothing to secretive handbags.
Before applying for a concealed carry permit, a person must first attend a class taught by a certified instructor and pass the course. Instruction includes gun safety, proficiency and a review of the do's and don'ts of concealed carry. Applicants must provide law enforcement with two current photographs and fingerprints. Permits issued are for a period of five years. In North Dakota applicants must be at least 18 years old. In many states the minimum age is 21.
Those who obtain concealed carry permits do so for various reasons, ranging from personal protection to transporting firearms. For instance, a concealed carry permit holder may have a loaded firearm in their vehicle during a routine stop for a traffic violation. Producing a concealed carry permit can ease what could otherwise become a very tense situation for law enforcement.
"It is not mandatory, but we'd like to see your concealed weapons permit when we ask for your driver's license," said Steve Kukowski, Ward County sheriff. "If not, and the officer asks for your vehicle registration and you reach into your glove compartment and your firearm is in there, the tension level is going to be raised."
The application for concealed carry permits must go through the local police department and sheriff's department before being forwarded to the North Dakota Attorney General's office for final approval. Therefore, says Kukowski, anyone who produces a concealed carry permit has already gone through a thorough background check.
"I worry about those who don't have one because they are the ones that may have something on their record that prohibits them from having one," said Kukowski.
There are a number of misconceptions about when or where concealed carry weapons are permitted. Among the places where concealed carry is prohibited are churches, gaming sites, liquor establishments, and any public gathering. Additional concealed carry rules are covered in mandatory classes and are detailed in the North Dakota Century Code and, in the City of Minot, in the Municipal Code.
"There are some ambiguities there but, the way I read the city ordinance is that you can't carry on people's private property without permission of the owner. I'd be careful about that," said Capt. Dan Strandberg, Minot Police Department.
Sometimes regulations conflict in unusual circumstances that might not be readily ascertained by concealed permit holders. An example is that hunting regulations do not permit loaded firearms in a vehicle, even if that firearm is a handgun that is not being used for the hunt.
"Probably the biggest concept most people overlook is when they are engaged in trapping or hunting," said Chuck Skager, former Ward County deputy and concealed carry instructor. "Even with a carry permit a handgun has to be completely unloaded while in the vehicle if you are hunting."
Definition of concealed
The North Dakota Century Code, 62.1-04-01, includes in its definition of a concealed weapon that, "A firearm or dangerous weapon is concealed if it is carried in such a manner as to not be discernible by the ordinary observation of a passerby. There is no requirement that there be absolute invisibility of the firearm or dangerous weapon, merely that it not be ordinarily discernible."
The reference to "dangerous weapon", according to the Century Code, includes such items as knives, martial arts weapons and bows and arrows. While the law may leave some room for courtroom debate, it is clear that anyone discovered secreting a weapon is committing a violation of the Century Code and subject to be dealt with accordingly.
The Century Code also defines "plain view," placing a weapon where it is "easily discernible by the ordinary observation of a passerby." There-in lies one the leading reasons for the surge in applications for concealed carry permits.
For instance, if an upland game or waterfowl hunter lays his unloaded shotgun in the back seat of his pickup and then covers it up with a blanket to prevent damage from dogs or other equipment, he is then in possession of a "concealed weapon." The same would hold true for someone who tosses a coat into the back seat, or on the seat next to him or her, and unwittingly covers up a handgun or anything else fitting the definition of "dangerous weapon." The act of covering a weapon, even partially, can place it within the definition of "concealed."
Those circumstances can be remedied if the person possesses a concealed carry permit.
"The vast majority get a concealed carry permit so they don't get jammed up having a weapon in their car. If you get stopped, technically, it is a concealed weapon unless you have a license," said Strandberg.
Loaded or not loaded
The question of whether or not a firearm is loaded is not as simple as it may seem. A North Dakota hunter may have a loaded magazine in a rifle or handgun but not be in violation of the law. The state's 2011-2012 Deer Hunting Proclamation states, "No person may keep or carry in or on any motor vehicle any firearm with a cartridge in the chamber while hunting small game or big game animals (Section 5)-penalty- $100."
However, that situation refers only to a legal hunting activity. A key phrase is "cartridge in the chamber." At no time while hunting does the law permit any ammunition to remain in the barrel of a firearm while inside a motor vehicle, regardless of whether or not the person possesses a concealed carry permit.
When not actively engaged in lawful hunting, a gun owner should be aware of what constitutes a loaded firearm. The answer can be surprising to the uninformed gun owner.
"If you have the ammunition in close proximity to the firearm, that's considered a loaded firearm in a motor vehicle," explained Kukowski. "You'd have to have a concealed carry permit to have that."
A revolver with a single cartridge anywhere in the cylinder is a loaded firearm. A semi-automatic pistol with a magazine inserted that contains a single round is considered a loaded firearm, regardless of whether or not a cartridge is in the barrel. It is always the responsibility of the gun owner to know and follow the law or risk fines or arrest.
Women and concealed carry
Men have long dominated the concealed carry world, but a change is under way. Part of the growing interest in concealed carry permits is coming from women who wish to legally carry a handgun for personal protection.
"Yes, the women are showing more interest. Women's numbers at classes has at least tripled, if not more," said Skager.
"We've seen a big increase in women too," agreed Laura Ramirez, Minnesota, a former deputy warden at an Arizona prison who teaches concealed carry classes for Scheels stores and others throughout the Midwest. "We really believe in empowering women to take responsibility for their own protection. The police can't be everywhere."
The number of women participating at the Minot Rifle and Pistol Club has been slowly increasing. The club, which has swelled from 300 to 400 members a few years ago to nearly 1,700 today, recently certified several more Range Safety Officers, including women. It is another sign of the changing interest in firearms, particularly handguns, in North Dakota. An influx of new gun owners brings proper instruction and safety to the forefront.
"When we teach the class our focus is on handgun safety and handling," said Ramirez.
"I really push the Rifle and Pistol Club. Join the club. Get the correct training and proper instruction," said Kukowski. "Do shooting as a recreational sport. I think that is better than just buying a handgun and being unfamiliar with it."
In addition to sheriff's duties, Kukowski is also a competitive shooter and president of the Minot Rifle and Pistol Club.
"Probably the most important thing for women is that they handle a firearm they are comfortable with," advised Strandberg. "Check the grip and the way it fits. The small handguns today, especially in the larger calibers, have some recoil there."
"We talk about avoiding conflict. More than an hour of our class is devoted to situational awareness," said Ramirez. "I walked in on a burglary in my own home. I could have grabbed a handgun and handled it, but I got out of there. Why put myself in any jeopardy? Our position is not to take the law into your own hands. Remember, I was a trained police officer."
The burglar referred to by Ramirez was caught and paid for his crime. The important thing, says Ramirez, is that she avoided conflict. She also had an understanding of Minnesota state law.
"You have to retreat. That's one of the things the law requires," said Ramirez. "I would rather retreat than use that gun."
Laws differ from state to state, meaning gun owners need to be fully aware of where they are at and what law may apply.
"Knowing the laws of the state you are going into is just as important as knowing your own state's laws," reminded Ramirez.
In 2007 the North Dakota Legislature passed the "Castle Doctrine" bill. The legislation states that if a criminal breaks into your occupied home, your vehicle or your place of business, you may use any manner of force against that person and do not have a "duty to retreat" if threatened with great bodily harm or death.
"You used to have to retreat from your home. Now you have a right to protect your castle, your home," said Kukowski. "Still, people use good judgment and that's a plus."
"I tell them a little common sense goes a long ways," said Skager.
While some have acquired their concealed carry permit for personal protection, those would actually use a firearm against another are probably a small percentage. Producing a firearm increases the risk of an attacker over-powering a defender and using the firearm against them.
"The use of force has a lot of "what if's." You just have to make the decision you have to make," said Ramirez. "I've never heard of a former student that has had to use the handgun. It is a life-changer in every way. I've had students say they'd rather be judged by 12 than carried by six. If they have that mindset, they are going to place themselves in a position to get hurt and they have no business in our classroom."