After a couple of break-ins and with her husband out of town on business at times, Kim Smith Worley decided to take her safety into her own hands.
Just as millions of other Americans have in recent years, she bought a gun and got her concealed carry permit, which allows her to legally carry the weapon on her or in her car, as long as she abides by state laws.
"I just wanted something for protection," Worley said. "I never grew up around firearms, but when I got married, my husband, he had grown up around them and he shoots a lot, so he got me used to them."
Initially, she really didn't want anything to do with them, though. But the break-ins at their west Buncombe residence changed her mind.
"With me being here by myself sometimes, I figured I need to get over that fear," Worley said. "I started going to the gun range with my husband, and I decided to take the course."
Whatever the reason for getting a concealed carry — self-defense, political beliefs about the right to bear arms, worries about terrorism, crime or societal implosion — the numbers of concealed carry permit holders keep rising.
That mirrors a national trend in which the number of concealed carry permit holders rose by 136 percent from 1999 to 2014, when it passed 11.1 million.
In Buncombe County, the number of permits issued in 2010 was 1,238. Last year it was 2,491, a 101 percent jump.
The rise comes amid proposals in the General Assembly to make the process for buying a handgun less burdensome. One would remove a requirement for a county Sheriff's Office permit. Another bill that would create a special class of concealed carry permit holders that would have to undergo extensive training but would then be allowed to carry essentially wherever law enforcement can, with the exception of courtrooms.
Concealed carry permits are good for five years, with the holder having the option to renew with another background check and fee payment. The current number of concealed handgun permit holders in Buncombe stood at 9,662 as of April 22, according to the Sheriff's Office.
"The biggest thing I see is it's all ages now," said Jeff Stucker, co-owner of On Target Shooting Range in South Asheville and a gun instructor for 20 years. "It used to be 40- , 50-year-old guys, maybe some in their 20s and 30s. Now, it's almost as many women taking it as men. That's the biggest thing — they want it for self-defense for their home or car."
Getting a permit requires taking a daylong class from a certified instructor, which includes a video, hands-on training and passing a test. Permit holders also have to pass a background check, which includes approval from a doctor, and they must agree to put their fingerprints in the system.
It used to be Stucker would have one or two women in a class of 14 or 15; now it's about half and half, men and women. Stucker charges $75 for the class, and permit applicants also have to pay a $90 fee to the Buncombe County Sheriff's Office.
Numbers rise regionally
Henderson County has seen a spike similar to Buncombe's, with 547 permits issued in 2010 and 1,384 in 2014, a 153 percent rise. Sheriff Charlie McDonald said he suspects two factors are at work.
"I think people feel more of a sense of responsibility for their own personal safety," McDonald said. "And there's a fear, certainly with (the Obama) administration — and I'm not sure they will need it now — but they're not sure how long the opportunity will be there (to carry concealed)."
North Carolina had 570,464 concealed carry permit holders as of May 2014, ranking 11th in the nation by percentage of population, according to the Crime Prevention Research Center, a nonprofit research organization based in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania.
While Buncombe and other mountain counties have seen a huge increase, national figures depict a similar rush to carry.
The Crime Prevention Research Center released a report last July, based in part on a Government Accounting Office study, that put the number of concealed carry permit holders nationwide at 11.1 million, noting it's likely much higher because figures are not available for some states, including New York, and five states and most of Montana do not required a permit to carry concealed.
All 50 states now allow concealed carry, although the rules vary significantly, and permits have skyrocketed.
"Initially, the increase in permits was relatively slow, growing from roughly about 2.7 million permit holders in 1999 to 4.6 million eight years later in 2007," the Crime Prevention Research Center's authors wrote. "But the number of concealed handgun permits has exploded during the Obama presidency. For December 2011, the federal Government Accountability Office estimated that there were at least 8 million concealed handgun permits. By June 2014, it had grown to well over 11.1 million."
In Transylvania County, Willem Veenhof, owner of the Bear Arms range and gun shop in Brevard, said most of the concealed carry permit applicants they see coming in are "really, really, really concerned about home defense," but plenty of others do worry about Barack Obama.
That fear, in Veenhof's assessment, is overblown now, considering Obama and the Democrats controlling the Senate were unable to pass restrictive legislation in the wake of the horrific Newtown, Connecticut, school shooting in 2012 that left 20 children and six adults dead.
Veenhof said Obama had talked a tough game on guns and made moves to curtail them, so some fears among gun rights advocates had a foundation. But still, talk has not translated into action, at least nationally.
When a couple in their 60s came in and were interested in concealed carry, Veenhof said he was a bit shocked when she mentioned as her reason for getting a concealed carry permit and gun that she wanted to act "before Obama takes them away."
Transylvania has seen applications for concealed carry rise from 268 in 2010 to 534 in 2013, after Obama's re-election, tapering off to 358 last year. McDowell saw a similar jump, from 187 in 2010 to 650 in 2014.
Veenhof and Stucker say besides the political motivation and self-defense concerns, gun owners are flocking to concealed carry permits in part because the equipment and guns have gotten much better in recent years.
Polymer handguns are much lighter in weight and smaller, and while a good middle-of-the-pack gun can still run $400 or more, they have become more affordable.
Critics say violence increases
While proponents of concealed carry say it creates a safer environment, critics of ubiquitous concealed carry permits contend more guns, even in the hands of concealed carry permit holders, translate into more homicides.
"Clearly, the presence of these guns turns what normally would be a routine argument over a parking space, or over a woman or neighbors fighting over a boundary on a property line, those sorts of disputes escalate from a shouting match or fist fight into a homicide because guns present," said Kristen Rand, legislative director of the nonprofit Violence Policy Center in Washington, D.C.
The organization started an online resource called "Concealed Carry Killers" that it says "includes hundreds of examples of non-self defense killings by individuals with permits to carry concealed handguns in public."
"Individuals with permits to carry concealed handguns in public are responsible for at least 743 non-self-defense deaths since 2007, a number that likely represents a fraction of the actual total ..." the Violence Policy Center stated in a recent press release. The report includes seven homicides in North Carolina, two mass shootings, one murder/suicide and one suicide.
Nationally, the report offered this breakdown:
•Overall, Concealed Carry Killers documents 561 fatal incidents since May 2007 in 36 states and the District of Columbia, resulting in the deaths of 743 people.
•Twenty-nine of the incidents were mass shootings (three or more victims), resulting in the deaths of 139 victims.
•At least 17 law enforcement officers died at the hands of concealed carry permit holders since May 2007.
Rand said the upshot is even though the screenings for concealed carry are more rigorous than those for buying a gun, they cannot predict behavior, especially anger.
"There are way too many people who are law abiding until they're not," she said. "They get into an argument where otherwise they would not, and they get really, really angry and have a gun handy, and then pull it. Background checks cannot screen for anger or potential anger."
John R. Lott Jr., president of the Crime Prevention Research Center, and his co-authors on their report, say the Violence Prevention Center has used inaccurate information regarding concealed carry.
While Lott acknowledges that crime rates have been falling nationally since 1991, he also contends that statistics make a clear case that violent crime decreases where concealed carry permits number are higher.
"The six states that allow people to carry concealed handguns without a permit have much lower murder and violent crime rates than the six states with the lowest permit rates," Lott contends. "Indeed, the murder rate is 23 percent lower in the states without permits. The violent crime rate is 12 percent lower. The murder and violent crime rates are also lower in the 25 states with the highest permit rates compared to the rest of the U.S."
Don't carry lightly
Locally, people who teach gun safety and concealed carry classes say people should not go into a class with the idea they'll be a hero one day, slaying would-be armed robbers or home intruders. They might, but the decision to carry a loaded firearm — and being willing to pull that trigger and end someone else's life — doesn't come easy to most people.
"I've had several people in my class break down and cry," said Bennett Greenberg, a concealed carry instructor at Bear Arms and a competitive shooter for over 30 years.
Greenberg he says he tries to crystallize the deadly seriousness of shooting someone, and its unanticipated consequences, for those in his class. Bystanders can be shot, or a gun-wielding maniac may turn out to be a desperate father whose wife is dying of cancer.
Even if the shooting is justified and you're not charged with an offense, "when you put your head on the pillow, you're going to think about what you did," Greenberg said. He suggests first turning to pepper spray or mace, or maybe a Taser or other non-lethal weapon, or trying to retreat if possible.
Worley, who keeps a gun in her purse and in her car, certainly does not take her responsibility as a concealed carry permit holder lightly, but she also believes "every woman in this country ought to have it."
"Our cops, they have to deal with so much, with crime skyrocketing and criminals outgunning our cops," she said. "As a woman, I feel like I need to have it. In the time it takes the Sheriff's Department to get to my house after I call 911, a lot can happen, whether it's two minutes or 10 minutes."
Concealed carry permit requirements in Buncombe County:
An applicant must:
•Be a U.S. citizen.
•Be a resident of Buncombe County and a resident of North Carolina for 30 days prior to the application being filed.
•Be at least 21 years of age.
•Not suffer from any physical or mental weakness that prevents the safe handling of a handgun.
•Have successfully completed an approved firearms safety and training course.
You must also provide a Firearm Safety Training Certificate, a valid driver's license or ID card, a $90 fee (no personal checks), $75 fee for renewals; or a DD214, if discharged from military. Applicants must also get an approval from a physician and agree to be fingerprinted.
•Allow 90-120 days for issuance or denial of the requested permit.