Correction: An earlier version of this story said concealed weapons could be brought into a bar or nightclub. They cannot.
More concealed weapons permits are being taken in the central San Joaquin Valley, just as a debate about firearms reaches a fever pitch nationwide.
Sheriffs in Fresno, Madera and Tulare counties report issuing more of the permits in 2012 than in 2011.
State Department of Justice records also show a dramatic difference in the number of permits issued between rural counties such as those in the Central Valley, where more are issued, and metropolitan areas such as San Francisco and Los Angeles counties, where permits are difficult or impossible to obtain.
Firearms instructors in Fresno say people want permits because crime is on the rise and criminals do not stay in jail once arrested. In addition, it has become easier to obtain the permits in Fresno County since Sheriff Margaret Mims made the conditions for obtaining a permit less stringent and the Fresno City Council followed suit. Mims said the national debate over firearms has also driven more people to seek permits because of fear that new laws will make gun ownership more difficult.
While advocates of more-restrictive gun laws such as the Brady Campaign argue that issuing more concealed weapons permits puts more people at risk of gun violence, Mims says that has not happened in Fresno County.
"It's working fine," she said of her policy.
When she came into office in 2007, one of the first things that Mims did was to relax rules requiring those who wanted a concealed permit to have "good cause" such as carrying a large amount of cash or living or traveling in high-crime areas. She broadened that definition to include self-defense. The city of Fresno also lists concern for safety in its definition.
"Self-defense is good cause," Mims said this week.
So far, the sheriff said that no one has abused the relaxed rules.
"I have revoked (permits) if someone has been arrested," she said. "But I haven't had a case where someone abused (a permit) causing it to be revoked."
When the new policy was implemented, increased demand pushed the waiting time to about nine months. Now, Mims said she has brought in retired deputies to speed the background process to about six months. The permit process is self-funded, with those applying paying for the processing.
Certain criminal convictions or a history of mental illness are cause to deny a permit. So is a history of alcohol or drug abuse. Permit holders must take a certified training course. They can't take their gun to work without the employers' permission and they can't be armed in a bar or nightclub. Permits must be renewed biannually.
Mims said Sheriff's Office figures show that Fresno County's approximately 5,500 permits issued is about 14% of the permits statewide.
According to the Calguns Foundation, Fresno County had 5.3 permit holders per 1,000 population. Madera (9.8) and Tulare (6.4) counties were higher, while Kings was at 2.4. Officials there report a drop-off in renewals last year.
Mariposa County, where figures for 2012 were not available, had 50 permits per 1,000 in 2011.
Those numbers contrast sharply with Calguns' numbers for San Francisco, where no permits were issued to citizens, and Los Angeles, where just 220 were issued, or about .03 per 1,000.
Steve Collins, 54, who teaches courses needed to obtain a concealed permit at The Range in northwest Fresno, said concern over crime is a driving force for many seeking permits. He said criminals are not staying in jail or prison once they are arrested and are becoming more bold and dangerous.
Collins, who had 64 students in his class last week, said the number of students seeking permits is growing and a greater proportion are women -- that include 18 in the most recent class.
Natalie Paulus, 24, an instructor at The Firing Line on Clovis Avenue, also said her classes have been growing recently. She is also noticing more women in attendance.
Paulus learned how to shoot from her stepfather and her interest in firearms and training grew from there.
Collins' background includes service in the Navy helping make bases safe from terrorism, a stint at the Blackwater security firm and experience training police officers at "active shooting scenes" such as the recent, well-publicized mass shootings.
Collins disagrees with school district policies that prevent teachers who are permit holders from being armed at their schools.
"Gun-free zones don't make you more safe -- they make you more vulnerable," he said.
He said one of his students is a teacher who broke down after the Sandy Hook shooting, upset that he could not defend his students if a similar shooting happened in his school.
Doing it the right way
At the same time, Collins, who said that he has never had to use his handgun in a crime situation in 30 years, cautioned that carrying a weapon is not for everyone. It could even be turned against you.
"I can take a gun away from a lot of people and bad guys practice that, too," he said.
Shooting 50 or 100 rounds at a stationary target is actually a small part of the classes Collins and Paulus teach.
At The Range, the first portion of a course is taught by attorney Kendra Weber, who tells students about the criminal or civil aftermath of using a weapon in an unjustified shooting.
That's true for Paulus, as well.
"We talk about the use of legal force and that it should only be used as a last resort," she said, adding that the aftermath can take an emotional as well as legal toll on the shooter.
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6339, firstname.lastname@example.org or @jimguy27 on Twitter.