Gun permits tied to wealth and politics
By John Tedesco, Brandi Grissom and Matt
Stiles - Express-News
Posted: 10/03/2010 12:00 CDT
Permits to carry concealed weapons
cost $140 for the license fee. People getting them also pay $100 or
more for a 10-hour instruction class. Edward A. Ornelas/Express-News
and Adam Kelly live on opposite sides of San Antonio. They both own
guns, they've never been in serious trouble with the law and they'd both
like to have a concealed handgun license — just to be safe.
But like many of his
neighbors on the low-income South Side, Hartsfield hasn't applied for a
gun permit, which costs $140 for the license fee and $100 or more for
the 10-hour instruction class.
“I'd like one,” said
Hartsfield, 22, who works at a shooting range on Pleasanton Road called
A Place to Shoot. “It's the cost and time to get it.”
Kelly, 36, lives on
the North Side — one of the most popular areas for concealed handgun
licenses. Two weeks ago, he attended the mandatory class to obtain his
“It's the right thing
to do if you're going to have a gun,” Kelly said.
When Texas lawmakers
approved the concealed handgun statute 15 years ago, they promised it
would help law-abiding Texans defend themselves from criminals.
But in a pattern
that's playing out in San Antonio and other major cities in Texas,
residents in low-income neighborhoods aren't taking advantage of the
concealed-carry law as often as residents living in wealthier, more
The pattern surprises
some gun owners, who wonder why more law-abiding citizens aren't
applying for concealed handgun licenses in the inner city, where rates
of violent crimes are higher.
The trend didn't
necessarily come as a surprise to Texas Land Commissioner Jerry
Patterson, who wrote the 1995 bill that created the concealed handgun
license when he served in the state Senate. But he said socioeconomics
weren't at the top of his priority list when he developed the measure.
“You're talking about
disposable income sufficient to take the course, pay the fee and buy a
firearm,” he said. “I think it would be certainly better if we could
lower the fee.”
Haves and have-nots
The Department of
Public Safety doesn't identify permit-holders, but it publishes data
showing the total permits issued in ZIP codes across Texas.
The Texas Tribune, an
Austin-based nonprofit news organization, obtained a copy of the data
and compared it to income levels and past presidential election results
in each ZIP code and voting precinct in Texas.
The Tribune's analysis
found the number of gun permits in a neighborhood often correlates with
how much money residents make, how they vote and where they live.
The outskirts of Bexar
County and many North Side neighborhoods had the highest rates of gun
permits — 10 or more permits per 1,000 residents were issued or renewed
last year in ZIP codes such as 78259, a suburban maze of cul-de-sacs and
winding streets outside Loop 1604.
The median household
income for residents in the area was nearly $100,000, and voters
predominately cast their ballots for Republican John McCain in the 2008
presidential election. The North Side neighborhoods in that ZIP code had
a low rate of violent offenses — four incidents per 1,000 residents.
Meanwhile, in the West
Side ZIP code of 78207 near downtown, the rate for violent crimes such
as aggravated assault and robbery was nine times higher than the violent
crime rate in 78259.
But only 27 people out
of 57,000 residents living in the West Side ZIP code received a
concealed gun permit last year — that's less than one permit per 1,000
residents. The median household income was $25,000, and residents tend
to vote for Democrats — Barack Obama won most voting precincts on the
emerge in Dallas, Houston, Austin and El Paso.
In the Houston suburb
of Sugar Land, 12 of every 1,000 residents was licensed to carry a
concealed handgun last year. The median household income there: nearly
$92,000. And residents chose Republican McCain over Democrat Obama in
downtown Houston in a ZIP code where the median income is nearly $25,000
and voters in 2008 supported Obama, only about three residents in every
1,000 obtained handgun licenses.
When the gun-permit
data are viewed on a map, the pattern becomes a kind of Rorschach test
that can mean different things to different people.
Is it a sign of a
stark divide between liberals and conservatives? Between the haves and
have-nots? Between those who embrace Texas' gun culture and those who
don't understand it?
At least one expert
says it's probably some amalgamation of all those factors and others,
too, including individuals' perceptions about crime and guns, their
likelihood to be involved in crime and even the number of single-parent
households in an area.
probably would believe that those elements could be important, but
there's probably a lot else that's going on as well,” said Matt Nobles,
an assistant professor of criminal justice at Sam Houston State
Responsibility of owners
Concealed handgun instructor Michael
Arnold knows how some people might view the high number of gun licenses
on San Antonio's North Side — that residents there are paranoid and
But he says the reality is far different.
People who obtain concealed handgun licenses have to pass a criminal
background check. So the process weeds out people who shouldn't be
legally allowed to carry a gun in public.
Students who take his mandatory concealed
handgun classes learn the importance of using a handgun as a last
resort. It's not easy taking a human life. Arnold makes sure his
students learn that lesson.
“If you knew the people who had licenses,
one of the things you would come away saying would be, ‘They're the most
polite people I know.' Because they got more to lose if they're not
polite,” he said.
On a recent Saturday morning, Arnold made
that key point to a concealed handgun class of 14 students — 12 men and
two women. The group gathered in a corrugated metal building at the
Bexar Community Shooting Range outside San Antonio. In the classroom,
the muffled drumbeat of gunfire could be heard outside at the practice
Arnold stressed how a handgun owner
should avoid pulling the trigger unless there's no other choice. The
tall, folksy Texan paraphrased the Chinese military genius Sun Tzu to
make his point:
“You'll win the fight if you avoid the
That lesson hit home
for Robert Fletcher when he took the concealed carry class in 1998.
Fletcher, 52, who lives in northwestern Austin, said the class
reinforced the responsibility of gun ownership.
“As a consequence of
that, I've really looked at things differently, and I make it a big part
of my life not to get into it with people,” Fletcher said. “There are so
many ramifications when that occurs, you can't even begin to
conceptualize all the headaches.”
Fletcher decided to
get a handgun license when his two daughters were young. He wanted to be
able to protect them in a threatening situation. Now that they're grown
and he doesn't often find himself in dangerous areas, Fletcher said he
rarely carries his gun with him — it's cumbersome and just one more
thing to worry about. But he almost always has one in his vehicle. “On a
day-to-day basis, I don't feel very threatened where I go.”
The cultural divide
In Texas, the training
is outsourced to private instructors who must follow an approved lesson
plan, and they set their own fees.
Arnold's rates start
at $105 per student. Some instructors charge more. And students in Texas
also must pay a $140 licensing fee, which is more expensive than most
“There is an expense
involved in getting a concealed handgun license, and that may have some
direct relationship to why in lower-income neighborhoods, people aren't
getting them,” said Wayne Christian, a gun instructor who teaches annual
classes to the San Antonio Bar Association and is running as a
Republican to be a county court judge in the November elections.
Christian doesn't see
political ideology playing any role in the distribution of gun permits
in Texas. But other gun owners say it's probably a factor. Conservatives
tend to be raised around guns, are more comfortable with them and are
more likely to be educated about what's involved in getting a concealed
“Part of it may be
kind of a cultural thing,” said Robert Buchmann, a salesman at Nagel's
Gun Shop on San Pedro Avenue in San Antonio. “Some people look more
toward themselves to protect themselves. Some people look more toward
others, such as police. It is kind of cultural or political.”
says it makes sense to him that more Republicans would be licensed to
“I know Democrats who
are hunters and own guns, but to a large extent, people who believe in
firearms and think we should have a right to use them are going to be
Republicans,” he said.
The crime factor
Crime rates in a
neighborhood often have little bearing on whether residents opt to get a
“Crime rates and
licensed-handgun concealment are not closely related,” said John
Kilburn, a professor at Texas A&M International University who
co-authored a 2004 study about gun permits in Louisiana. “Because we're
talking about a human emotion of fear of victimization. And that
Matt Nobles at Sam
Houston State University said individual opinions about guns also may be
different based on where a person lives and the crime rate there. For
those who live in gritty urban neighborhoods where gang violence is
prevalent, guns could be associated with crime and death. Residents in
suburban areas may see guns as recreational and as a means of
And, he said, in areas
where the crime rate is higher, more people could be disqualified from
getting a license because they have a criminal history.
What's more, Nobles
points out, is that gun ownership and concealed handgun licenses don't
necessarily go hand-in-hand. Texans can legally keep guns in their homes
and cars without a license. And then there are those who don't care
what's legal and just carry a gun anyway.
“This could be a very
subtle and nuanced kind of phenomenon,” Nobles said.
It remains unclear,
though, whether high rates of concealed handgun permits in a
neighborhood actually deter crime — something lawmakers hoped would
happen when they approved the law that allows licenses.
Researchers such as
John Lott, author of “More Guns, Less Crime,” argue that violent
offenses dropped in states where concealed-carry laws were adopted.
Other researchers disagreed with Lott's conclusions and argue that
legalizing concealed handguns has little impact on crime rates.
“It may be just that
the inner city may have more crime in general, regardless of whether
people get licensed,” Nobles said.
Since the point of a
concealed handgun permit is to legally carry a firearm in public, then
even residents in the safest gated communities still might want a permit
for when they travel, said Timothy Wallace, a concealed handgun
instructor at Dury's Gun Shop in San Antonio.
“I could live in the
Dominion and never have a problem in the world there,” Wallace said.
“But I might have to work elsewhere where there might be lots of
Kristin Cortese said she and her husband both are avid bikers, and they
sometimes venture into areas less savory than their quiet Houston
suburb. That's one reason why they both decided to get concealed handgun
licenses six months ago.
Now, Cortese said, she
misses her gun if it's not close by.
“You never know what
you're going to come up against in life,” she said.
Database Editor Kelly Guckian contributed to this report.