Albemarle County has seen a surge of citizens applying for a permit to carry a concealed weapon over the last few years, in keeping with trends showing an upswing in both firearms purchases and “concealed carry” permit requests nationwide. The Virginia State Police Firearms Transaction Center reported that while 935 permits were issued in Albemarle in 2019, that number jumped 71% to 1,597 in 2020 and is on track to reach over 1,400 in 2021.
Concealed Handgun Permits (CHP), as they are called in Virginia, are processed by the circuit court of the county or city where the applicant resides. A Virginia resident 21 or older may apply for a five-year permit after completing an in-person handgun safety course and paying a fee of $50, which includes a $35 charge for a criminal background check.
If the applicant does not fall into a lengthy list of proscribed categories—such as convicted felons, persons who have been dishonorably discharged from the U.S. military, fugitives from justice, or persons who have been involuntarily committed to mandatory treatment for mental illness (and whose firearms rights have not been restored by a court)—then a permit should be issued to the applicant within 45 days.
“Given how the law is written, the rate at which CHPs are granted is over 90%,” said Jon Zug, Albemarle County Circuit Court Clerk, who handles all permit requests from county residents. “Based upon the statute, I deny less than one in ten applications due to either ineligibility, technical issues with the application, verification of address, or not taking the proper firearm safety course.”
Zug says that CHP applications have a certain degree of confidentiality accorded them by statute, and while he is unable to answer precise queries about the quantity or demographic distribution of applicants, he does notice trends. “Anecdotally, from what I see, somewhere between 50-60% of all applications are renewals, and the remaining percentage are first-time applicants.”
All applications require “documentation of competence with a handgun,” which can be satisfied by taking a civilian class or by prior military or law enforcement training. “We teach a basic pistol class that someone can come to with a gun that they just purchased that morning,” said Phil Eaton, an instructor at the Rivanna Rifle and Pistol Club (RRPC) in Albemarle County for over 20 years, speaking for himself. The three-hour First Steps Pistol class, approved by the National Rifle Association (NRA), meets Virginia’s training requirement for a concealed carry permit. “We basically teach them how the gun works, how to use it safely, and how to hit what they’re aiming at.”
State Rules Vary
There are 6,457 active CHP permit holders in Albemarle County, according to the Virginia State Police, which represents about 6% of the county’s population. That percentage compares with 11% statewide and 8% nationally in 2021. These figures likely undercount the number of citizens who carry concealed firearms in the U.S., partly because some people carry without a permit, and partly because almost half of states have no concealed carry permit requirement at all.
Virginia and twenty other states are classified as “shall issue” states, meaning that officials must issue a permit to an applicant who satisfies objective requirements such as training and background checks. Alabama has the highest rate of permit holders at 32% of the adult population. Eight states are “may issue,” meaning the state has the discretion to deny a permit to any person based on subjective factors. New Jersey, for instance, requires applicants to show a “justifiable need” for a permit such as a specific threat or previous attack, and has a high rate of denial—only 0.02% of New Jersey residents have concealed carry permits.
The number of states that have adopted “constitutional carry” (no permit needed to either open or conceal carry) has jumped significantly in recent years to 21. Despite states abandoning permit requirements, the number of concealed carry permit holders in the U.S. has nearly doubled during the last seven years, from 11.1 million in 2014 to 21.5 million in 2021. More states (37) actually allow permissive “open carry”—carrying a firearm on one’s person in plain sight without a permit—than concealed carry. Virginia allows permitless open carry for both handguns and long guns, with restrictions on certain weapon features in several cities and counties.
Jerry Pownall, an instructor and current chair of the Training Committee at the RRPC, stressed that most classes are not “concealed carry courses,” even if they bill themselves that way. “We don’t teach ‘concealed’ anything—that part is a lot of legalities about where and how a person can carry a concealed weapon in Virginia,” he said. State law allows only concealed handguns (not long guns), and prohibits CHP holders from carrying a concealed gun on school property, in courthouses, in places of worship (without a “good and sufficient reason”), and in bars and restaurants if the permit holder is consuming alcohol. A permit is not required in a gun owner’s home or their own place of business, nor in their vehicle if securely stowed.
Though Virginia’s required safety class must now be taken in person, there is no requirement for an applicant to actually shoot a gun to get a permit. “The rules in Virginia are that any NRA course will meet the requirement, including a basic home firearm safety class [that doesn’t include range time],” said Pownall. “We [at RRPC] didn’t think that really does much to teach how to handle a gun, so we include shooting in our course. And to be honest, most people are more interested in those courses where you do get to shoot.”
Explanations for the increased demand for carrying concealed weapons are as diverse as the people buying and carrying guns. Some local gun safety trainers have seen a spike in interest in tandem with the Covid pandemic. “When the pandemic hit, we canceled our classes for a month or two before coming back with masks and all that, and we had a 60-person waitlist to get into our [basic pistol] class,” said Pownall. “That continued through most of 2021, and now we’re still at about a 30-person list.”
Pownall said that while most people buy a gun initially for self-defense, many find they enjoy recreational shooting and then want to conceal carry as well. “I think maybe a lot of people were spending their [federal] stimulus money on guns last year. Most people who come to our classes are looking to get a concealed carry permit. Even if they have experience with guns, they may not have the documentation they need to get the permit, so they need the class.”
Circuit Court Clerk Zug pointed to a recent change in permit requirements as another source of increased requests. Prior to this year, a 2009 state law allowed applicants to be able to satisfy the gun safety course requirement by taking an online class that culminated in an online exam, but that option was precluded as of January 1, 2021, and many people hurried to apply online before the new law took effect. “We had a huge increase, particularly in December of 2020, as a result of a change in the law,” said Zug. “We went from receiving fewer than 20 applications per week to well over 70 per week.”
Eaton said that the desire to hold a CHP appeals to a diverse range of people. “We get folks from 18 up to 65 and 70 years old,” he said. “They come in coats and ties and they come in cutoff jeans, all walks of life from lawyers to ditch diggers, all ethnicities, and I’d say about half are women.” The RRPC currently has about 2,000 members. “You’d be surprised by some of the people you run into every day that have carry permits. Very surprised.”
Kim Smalley is a certified NRA pistol instructor and one of two female “shoot bosses” in Virginia for Project Appleseed, a nonprofit organization that teaches rifle marksmanship and American Revolutionary War history. She says that she’s seen an increase in women interested in obtaining a CHP for personal protection. “Right now, women are one of the biggest markets for guns and ‘gun stuff,’” she said. Smalley and another woman at the RRPC are co-chapter leaders for a group that supports women who wish to arm themselves.
“It started for women who were victims of domestic abuse, and then expanded from there,” she said. “We meet every month and we use firearms and do drills, but we also talk about a lot of other things like how to take care of yourself in an emergency—for example, in a storm.” Smalley is a registered state firefighter and an active EMT and she has a background in psychology, which she said helps her understand the recent uptick in people seeking more personal protection.
“I think it boils down to people perceiving a threat, however they define that threat,” she said. “Some people feel threatened by rising crime, some by the government, some by political change, and women, especially, are becoming more aware of that. Through the pandemic year there was so much uncertainty about the future, even about whether you could get supplies and your basic safety. A young student in a pistol class told me recently that she realized, now that she’s out of school and on her own, that the only person who was going to take care of her was her.”
Dozens of research studies have examined the correlation between permissive concealed carry permit laws and crime rates, with widely mixed results. The Rand Corporation conducted a survey of 22 studies, 16 of which found a decrease in violent crime in “shall issue” states. Rand characterized the evidence that “shall issue” permit laws may increase violent crime as “uncertain,” and said that the research to date does not prove a causal link either way. A 2013 study in the American Journal of Public Health using Texas data found that permit holders “were much less likely than non-licensees to be convicted of crimes.”
Concealed carry of firearms will likely continue to rise in the U.S. as additional legislative bodies in states such as South Carolina and Louisiana consider switching to “constitutional carry” systems. New York’s restrictive permit law is currently being challenged in the U.S. Supreme Court, and if overturned would have implications for other “may issue” states such as California and New Jersey. As for Virginia, incoming governor Glenn Youngkin has not yet outlined his plans with respect to firearms, but has in the past promoted expanding gun rights.