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Published April 05 2012

Firearm permits surge in Oil Patch

BISMARCK – Cindy Sanford has worked in big cities, but it wasn’t until she landed a job in North Dakota’s booming Oil Patch hub of Williston that she began worrying about her safety.

Now, the 55-year-old single woman has a concealed carry permit and is shopping for a handgun. She’s among a burgeoning group of residents authorized to pack a weapon in North Dakota for self-defense.

“I did it out of awareness,” said Sanford, who also takes other precautions, such as altering her daily commute to work at the Job Service office in Williston.

The number of concealed carry permits in North Dakota has more than tripled in the past decade, to more than 16,000. State Bureau of Criminal Investigation records show the agency issued almost 5,500 concealed carry permits in 2011, up 40 percent from the year before. Williams and Ward counties in western North Dakota had about 1,300 concealed weapons permits issued last year, or about 50 more than in Burleigh and Cass counties, which are the state’s most populous counties and located outside the Oil Patch.

Sanford said she never considered carrying a handgun when she lived in Atlanta and Denver.

“The difference is that in big cities, people have housing,” she said. “Here, some of them have been living in campers for two years, and there are people who are financially stressed and mad at the world.”

Permits are on the rise statewide, and officials particularly expect the upward trend in western North Dakota to continue. Among the reasons: the case of a missing Montana teacher whose body was found in Williston last month – a grisly slaying that has worried residents who already were concerned about the influx of newcomers to the region in search of work.

Michael Spell, 22, and Lester Van Waters Jr., 48 – who authorities said had traveled to the area looking for a job in the oil field – have pleaded not guilty to aggravated kidnapping and await trial. The men are being held on bail of $2.5 million each.

North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said his office has been getting 150 to 300 concealed carry applications per day. Most of the applications are coming from the Oil Patch, and many are from women, he said.

“Personal protection is a concern, especially in the western part of the state where the population is increasing and so is crime,” Stenehjem said. “It doesn’t look like the crime rate is up, but the number of crimes has increased as the population increased.”

There are about 40 instructors authorized to teach the state’s mandatory concealed carry classes.

Applicants can get a concealed carry permit by completing an hourlong class and passing an open-book test. The classes cost about $100.

Andy Anderson, owner of Scenic Sports & Liquor in Williston, said firearm sales of all types are up at his store, from handguns to deer and assault rifles.

“It’s because of the oil boom and all the money the people have,” he said of sales. “People, even some little old ladies, are buying a lot of handguns and piles of mace and stun guns because of the crime.”

Stephanie Samford, a spokeswoman for the National Rifle Association, said about 7 million U.S. residents have concealed carry permits and the number is growing.

“People are placing a higher premium on personal safety with the economic downturn,” Samford said. “Police officers are being laid off, and prisoners are being furloughed. Law enforcement can’t always be there when a crime occurs, so it falls upon us for personal safety.”