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Up in arms: County gun permit apps surge

LAWRENCEVILLE - To call Benjamin Olsen "armed" is a colossal understatement. He's more like a walking arsenal.

At any given moment, the 25-year-old Suwanee contractor is strapped with a Kel-Tec 9 mm in his cargo pocket, a Springfield XD .45 caliber in a hip holster and, nearby in his truck, a loaded shotgun. Another 13 guns await Olsen at home.

All this from a hulking guy who stands 6-foot-3, weights 285 pounds and projects the no-nonsense scowl of a courtroom bailiff.

So why all the firepower?

"When seconds count, the police are minutes away," says Olsen, grinning. "If the bad guy's got a gun, (the guns) are necessary. The only way to minimize force is to meet it with equal or greater force."

That sentiment is apparently all the rage for residents across Gwinnett County.

Officials say gun permit applications in Gwinnett skyrocketed by more than 85 percent in 2008. Gwinnett Probate Court, whose employees process permits alongside marriage licenses and birth certificates, logged a nearly two-fold increase in applications from 3,952 in 2007 to 7,340 in 2008.

The county's on pace through January - when another 887 applications were filed, or 44 per day - to shatter the 2008 high-mark by more than 3,000 applications.

By 1 p.m. on a recent Monday, another 60 hopeful firearms carriers had walked through the door.

Probate Court staff attorney Hillary Bowlick said the surge is tasking her limited staff.

"The work keeps piling up, but we don't always have the manpower to keep up with it," Bowlick said.

The deluge of applications - which cost $15 and can take between two weeks and several months to process, depending mostly on an applicant's criminal history - started last July, when HB 89 took effect, allowing license holders to carry guns in Georgia state parks, on MARTA and in some restaurants, Bowlick said. And it only snowballed from there.

Unlike in other parts of metro Atlanta, the rush to armament can't be tied to a perceived spike in crime.

Gwinnett police data from 2008 show a drop in nearly all major crime categories. Even last year's homicide total (38) fell more than 20 percent from the record (50) set a year prior - the first time since 2004 the county's seen a decrease in killings over consecutive years.

The predominant reason for the uptick in applications seems to lie in the country's highest offices, according to Bill Weeks, spokesman for GeorgiaCarry.org, a citizens group of outspoken firearms right advocates.

With Democrats controlling both the White House and Congress, said Weeks, firearms advocates fear legislation is imminent that will restrict where and what guns they're allowed to carry. Couple that with a hobbling economy - historically a trigger for higher crime rates - and citizens are more apt to arm themselves than any time in recent memory, Weeks said.

"Obviously, (President Barrack Obama) has gone on record stating that he's against carrying firearms," Weeks said. "There's some apprehension as to what legislation might be coming up in the next year or two."

That logic echoed recently at a local shooting range.

"I think it's going to be harder to get not just licenses, but guns," said a Gwinnett man, who preferred to remain anonymous, between blasts of his new .45 caliber at Lawrenceville's Bull's-Eye Indoor Range and Gun Shop. The handgun, which he plans to carry on his hip once his Georgia Firearms License clears, set him back $500.

Michael Higgs, 42, a Duluth pest control expert, said an antique .32 caliber handgun he carries recently spared him a potentially violent altercation outside a Gwinnett grocery store. The argument, he said, started over a parking space.

"It's my responsibility to protect myself and my family," Higgs said. "Law enforcement is expected to arrest the bad guys afterwards."

Cpl. Illana Spellman, Gwinnett police spokeswoman, stressed that carrying a gun isn't tantamount to being an extension of the law.

"(With) the overall impression in crime - just the way things have changed over the last 10 years - I can understand why people feel the need to arm themselves," Spellman said. "(But) I would encourage that they never take any matters into their own hands. They need to contact police when they encounter or see any criminal activity."

Since Georgians aren't required to register guns - only five states have laws mandating that - it's difficult to tabulate the number of permit holders in a specific county, officials said.

But the gun craze, according to some in the firearms business, is nothing new.

Scott Austin, owner of Tucker Gun on U.S. Highway 29, said semi-automatic pistols and .38 revolvers (especially for women) are flying off shelves, typically costing between $350 and $750. In his 40 years selling guns, Austin said he's seen these "cycles" before.

"It's the same thing when it snows in Atlanta - everybody buys five gallons of milk and a stack of toilet paper," Austin said. "Americans don't know how to act; they just know how to react."