The Free Press, Mankato, MN

January 13, 2013

Spear: Do more guns equal more safety or more fear?

By Joe Spear
Free Press editor

— If you’re in a crowded pub in Mankato on a Friday night where about 100-150 people have gathered, it’s likely two or three people are carrying a firearm under their coat.

Same crowd in North Mankato: There’s probably only one or two packing heat.

If you happen to go on vacation to Minnesota’s north woods and stop at a watering hole in Grand Marais, there are almost 10 people likely to be carrying a concealed weapon for every 150 people in the bar. If you’re visiting Rock County in the far southwest corner of Minnesota, barely one person would likely have a firearm in a crowd of 100 people.

See permit numbers, ratios in a searchable report here.

The gun-carrying ratio varies a lot from county to county in Minnesota, and it may offer some clues as to just how safe a community feels to people, depending, of course, on your perspective. Some people would feel safer if more people carried guns; others would feel less safe.

The vast majority of us in Blue Earth and Nicollet County don’t have a permit to carry a gun.

But the news in the recent past has inundated us with tales of how people who lived in what they thought were safe communities found themselves in the midst of horrific gun violence. Twenty young school children gunned down in Newtown, Conn. Dozens injured and many killed in an Aurora, Colo., movie theater. Dozens killed in a rampage at Virginia Tech. A congresswoman shot in the head in a grocery store parking lot.

The solutions were predictable. More guns. Fewer guns.

But some of the more interesting commentary comes from those who point to larger issues, such as a culture where we have to fear just about everything.

Free Press letter writer Larry Kiewel of Belle Plaine described this particularly well. “The events in Newtown, Conn., do not point to a poverty of law. They point to a poverty of spirit. This poverty of spirit shows itself as fear.”

He goes on to describe this fear manifesting itself when it gets so great that loaded guns are left around the house and two children are killed, two teenagers are shot multiple times as they broke into a home, and a grandfather awoken in the night shoots his granddaughter not knowing who she is.

“The NRA is wrong,” writes Kiewel. “When individuals take their safety into their own hands, the community is less safe.”

Of the hundreds of letters I read in a year, I cannot remember one that stopped me like this. But the thesis may be more interesting if we can link it to data. We may be able to link data to this fear quotient and measure how much fear we have by county in Minnesota.

We can assess one measure of fear by taking a look at the conceal-and-carry gun permits issued by each county and dividing that by the number of people in that county who are legally able to get a permit. In this case, we can simplify by using the population over 21 years of age, the age you have to be to get a permit, as the basic eligibility factor.

We can come up with a “fear factor” by county. Those with the more permits per 21 plus population would be considered more “fearful.”

The equation assumes people who carry a concealed weapon have a certain amount of fear. It is a generalization, and possibly an unfair measure, but the results are nonetheless interesting. We used the number of existing permits in Minnesota as of Dec. 31.

The tip of the arrowhead in Minnesota — Cook County — appears to be a place where 1 of every 16 people over 21 has a conceal-and-carry gun permit, the highest ratio in Minnesota. It’s a number equivalent to about 6.3 percent of the over 21 population.

It’s also the site of a December 2011 courthouse shooting where a man convicted of sexual assault opened fired on the county attorney, wounding him and two others. Conceal permits went up by 10 percent from 2010 to 2011 in that county and another 6 percent in 2012.

The county where people feel very little need to have a conceal-and-carry permit is Rock County, about as far away from Cook County as you can get, in far southwestern Minnesota. About 1 in 97 people there over age 21 feel the need to be able to carry a gun under their coat. That’s about 1 percent.

For the nine counties of the Mankato region, we seem to feel little need to pack heat.

Sibley County ranks highest in the fear factor among area counties with 1 in every 33 people over 21 having a carry permit. That’s 43 highest of 87 counties. Other area counties rank in the bottom half of all Minnesota counties for conceal-gun ratios per person over 21. Of regional counties, Brown County is ranked lowest at 85th out of 87.

Of course, many area residents have guns in their homes and may thinks this is the main kind of protection they need, though even the anecdotal evidence of home accidents is troubling.

Still, it’s comforting, in an odd sort of way, to know there are not 10 people in a crowded bar in Mankato who could open fire if they felt the need, but only two.

And let’s hope they are both the so-called “good guys with guns” who could stop the “bad guys with guns.” Let’s also hope they feel that way about each other.

Joe Spear is editor of The Free Press. Contact him at jspear@mankatofreepress.com or 344-6382.