BELLINGHAM - If you ask Harwin Gamez-Mendoza, pistol sales have cooled off.
Eight months ago, in the days after a gunman killed 12 people at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., the Bellingham Trading Post sold so many handguns the shelves were bare, said Gamez-Mendoza, a burly Venezuelan expatriate employed at the store, 5250 Guide Meridian.
Now, even though pistol sales seem to be returning to a more regular clip, the number of people getting concealed carry licenses steadily continues to swell.
About 50 new permits per week have been issued in the county in the past two months, slightly outpacing the rate between June 2012 and the first week of February 2013, when a string of mass shootings reinvigorated a national debate over gun control.
Whatcom County had a 12.8 percent increase in concealed pistol licenses in that time. Overall, 5.4 percent of county residents have a permit to carry a concealed handgun.
Putting the apparent spike into context, however, isn't as straightforward as it might seem. The state Department of Licensing keeps a list updated to the minute, showing the number of concealed handgun permits by zip code, but almost no historical data. (The statistics in this article were compiled from public record requests at three different times.)
But it's been enough that last month the Whatcom County Sheriff's Office, swamped by permit requests, announced people must make an appointment to get fingerprinted for a license, rather than just walking into the lobby at a designated time as they did before.
Right now, everything's booked through late April.
Like many of the others who showed up for fingerprints last week, Richard Walter, of the Lynden area, expects the fallout of the mass shootings might - misguidedly, in his opinion - mean tighter restrictions on firearms, like where and how they can be carried. He strode to the receptionist's window at the sheriff's office Tuesday, March 26, and asked if anyone had cancelled their appointment. Someone had. As he waited for his turn, Walter said he'd been thinking for a while about getting a concealed carry permit.
"But in light of everything, seems I better hurry up," he said.
In February, for example, a federal appeals court ruled that "carrying of concealed firearms is not protected by the Second Amendment." The case involved a Washington state resident who tried to get a permit in Colorado.
On Tuesday morning, hardly a minute went by when Whatcom County residents, in bunches of twos or threes, weren't filling out paperwork for a license at 311 Grand Ave.
A father-and-son pair of hunters from Everson said they don't want to get in trouble if they keep their rifles and ammunition together in the bed of their pickup. A U.S. Army soldier from the East Coast wanted to ensure his paperwork is in order when he's staying in Washington, even though he already had permits in two other states.
James Rhoades, of Birch Bay, said on a recent hunting trip he came across some sketchy characters on the east side of the Cascades: They threatened him, claiming he was trespassing on their property, even though he had permission from the real landowner.
"I swore I'd never let that happen again," he said. "But I'm not one of those guys that's going to run around with my gun in my pocket at Haggen."
Tim Surratt, a target shooter and longtime holder of a concealed carry permit, doesn't believe more guns mean more violence. Asked if he thinks the permits, in general, make people safer, he paused.
"All things considered, yes," he said, nodding slowly. He went on to say he goes horseback riding on trails off Mount Baker Highway and often carries a pistol with him to stay safe from any threat, animal or otherwise, that might cross his path.
His compatriots at the Plantation Rifle Range, where they shoot handguns together on Tuesday evenings, treaded lightly when answering the same question. Sometimes, using a firearm for self-defense is appropriate, said Scott Correa, of Mount Vernon.
"But it has a whole hell of a lot more times when it isn't appropriate," he added. "I don't believe this is the Wild West. People don't need to strap a gun on to go walking around town."
As a sharpshooter - Correa calls his guns his "golf clubs" - he has other uses for his concealed carry permit. To a gun dealer, it's a sign that he has undergone a thorough background check by the local police chief or sheriff. That means he can walk into a gun shop and walk out with a handgun. Anyone buying a pistol without a permit, however, must wait up to five days before they can take the gun home, under Washington state law.
Nationwide, the monthly number of background checks for firearm sales more than doubled by the end of last year, according to FBI statistics. Our corner of the state has felt ripples of the rush to stock up on guns and ammunition that could be banned in the event of stricter federal laws.
At the trading post on Guide Meridian, the assault rifles have to be restocked every few days, Gamez-Mendoza said.
"Over there," he added, "we have a 60-round clip (selling) for three times what it used to."
Gamez-Mendoza, a U.S. citizen who has lived stateside since Sept. 10, 2001, has carried a Glock on his hip for the past 11/2 years.
"The gun, in itself, doesn't make me feel safer," he said. "When it hits the fan, the main thing is keeping cool."
These are the requirements to get a Concealed Pistol License under Washington state law.
Permit holders must be 21 years old and must pass a background check.
Nobody convicted of a felony or a domestic violence crime can have a gun, period, until that right is restored in court.
It costs $52.50 to apply for a new CPL. Permits expire after five years and cost $32 to renew.
PERMIT INFO BY LOCAL AGENCY
Bellingham Police Department: cob.org/services/safety/police.
Ferndale Police Department: ferndalepd.org.
Lynden Police Department: lyndenwa.org.
Whatcom County Sheriff's Office: Call 360-676-6650.
For a list of gun safety classes available at the Plantation Rifle Range, click here.
The local chapter of the League of Women Voters has postponed its April program, "What is Responsible Gun Ownership," to ensure a popular speaker can attend. It plans to hold the program in the coming year.
A look at the increase in concealed pistol permits issued in Whatcom County, and the percentage of residents in each community who have one:
|Zip||City||Population (2010)||CPLs in June 2012||CPLs in late March 2013||Increase since June 2012||Pop. with CPL in late March 2013|
|* Data is identical because zip codes were combined|
|** A small percentage of this population lives in Skagit County|
|*** Part of this zip code juts into Whatcom County, but almost all of the population is in Skagit County|
|SOURCES: U.S. Census; Washington state Department of Licensing|
Plans for the League of Women Voters' gun ownership program were updated April 1, 2013.