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Local law enforcement officers are encountering more people illegally possessing guns, especially in drug crimes; at the same time, they are seeing more people legally carrying guns for protection.

Maj. Todd Noblitt, spokesman for the Bartholomew County Sheriff’s Department, said it was an oddity to come across a weapon when he started his law enforcement career 22 years ago.

The situation today is much different, he said, especially in the illegal drug trade.

“There are definitely a lot of weapons out there,” Noblitt said. “It is not uncommon for our officers to find weapons.”

Top counties

Indiana counties with the most active gun permits:

Marion: 60,194

Lake: 33,391

Allen: 20,645

Hamilton: 15,810

St. Joseph: 15,283

Hendricks: 12,475

Johnson: 11,886

Porter: 11,729

Vanderburgh: 11,647

Elkhart: 10,915

Lt. Matt Myers, public information officer for the Columbus Police Department, said city officers, too, are seeing more guns during criminal investigations and routine traffic stops.

Myers said CPD is issuing more gun permits this year than in the past because people are buying more guns for protection as they see news reports about violence across the country.

According to Indiana State Police, 5,824 Bartholomew County residents had a gun permit as of Oct. 2. That’s about one per every 13 residents, much lower than in other counties, such as Morgan (Martinsville), which had one gun permit for every eight residents.

CPD issued 430 gun permits in 2010, 361 in 2011 and 422 this year through mid-November.

Gun permits in Indiana used to expire after four years, but today Hoosiers also can buy lifetime permits.

Noblitt said law enforcement expected to see a drop in applications because of lifetime permits. Police figured that many people who regularly renewed their four-year permits would switch to lifetime permits, and that requests for permits therefore would decrease.

“That’s not been the case,” Noblitt said. “It’s staying constant.”

Steve Von Hoene, owner of Von’s Pawn Shop, 1750 State St., said gun sales have gone up about 20 percent in the past couple of years. He added gun sales make up about 35 percent of overall sales at his shop.

“They think the government is going to take away our weapons,” said Von Hoene, who has been in business since 1996.

Police officers said they worry much more about people without permits.

“People with permits are usually the honest ones,” Noblitt said.

Nonetheless, the officers said, people with permits, too, must take precautions to prevent misunderstandings, injuries or worse.

During traffic stops, for example, motorists should inform police officers if and where they have weapons in the vehicle. When a motorist fails to inform the officer, who then opens the glove box with a gun inside, that can be a little unnerving, Noblitt said.

‘You do get some funny looks’

Myers and Noblitt also said they are getting more calls about people carrying weapons openly in public, such as at the fair or at a convenience store.

Officers respond to those calls, Noblitt said, although Indiana has no laws that forbid gun owners from carrying weapons openly or concealed.

Noblitt said that sometimes when people see guns in public, they just get concerned because of shootings they hear about on the news.

Police officers will talk to the gun owners, check their permits and explain that people sometimes get nervous when they see guns in public, Noblitt said.

People usually cooperate, Myers said.

Chris Imel, who lives in Bartholomew County, said he has owned a rifle since he was a child and bought his first handgun when he was in his mid-20s.

Now 36, Imel said he carries a handgun for protection.

“I carry a handgun with me almost all the time,” he said.

He said he occasionally carries the gun openly but mostly conceals it a little bit when he’s in public. He said he thinks that if people can see the gun, it will be more likely to deter others from trying to harm him.

“You do get some funny looks occasionally,” he said with a chuckle.

Imel said he also uses handguns and rifles at shooting ranges and shotguns for hunting. He also sells weapons and accessories part time online.

Phil Swam, 22, of Columbus, said he got his first permit in summer 2011 and uses guns primarily for protection and in competitions. He said that when he carries a weapon around town, he usually tries to conceal it.

“That way I don’t draw attention to myself,” he said.

However, he said concealing weapons gets more difficult in summer.

‘Safety is paramount’

Paul Clear, 49, of Columbus, said he has carried a handgun since age 21. He carries the weapon primarily for self-protection, in part because he has been the victim of break-ins.

Clear said he usually carries his weapon openly but tries to conceal it when he goes into businesses because he does not want people to feel uncomfortable or threatened.

Jim Richardson, of Seymour, said he has a license and uses guns primarily for sport; although, he often carries a concealed handgun for protection.

Richardson said he and his wife sometimes take walks along the canal in downtown Indianapolis, for example, and he likes to carry a gun just in case they get attacked.

He does not like to carry his weapon openly.

“I think that intimidates people. It scares them,” he said.

Both Imel and Richardson said they have never had to draw their weapons for self-defense, and they hope they never do.

Noblitt and Myers also encouraged gun owners to get training and to store their weapons safely.

“Safety is paramount,” Noblitt said.

People sometimes are injured or killed by guns accidentally because of the operator’s inexperience, he said.

Although Indiana requires no training for a gun permit, Noblitt and Myers said gun owners should take a firearms safety course.

“Safety and storage are our main concerns,” Myers said.

‘Kids will find them’

Gun owners also should keep their weapons locked up and away from children, he said.

They certainly should not leave them in their vehicles, because they can easily be stolen and used in criminal activity.

And in the home, guns should be locked away — not just stored on a high shelf that is, or so the gun owners might believe, out of the reach of children.

Just this year, a 3-year-old accidentally shot and killed his dad, Myers said.

“Kids will find them,” he said. “Always keep your gun in a lock box.”

Imel said that in his home he carries the weapons either on him or stores them in a locked safe to keep them away from his stepson, who is 14. He also has taught his stepson how to handle a weapon.

Richardson said that he keeps a handgun in a case next to his bed. A magazine is loaded at all times, but no round is chambered.

“It stays in the bedroom,” he said. “I can get it within seconds.”

Though he has grandchildren, Richardson said the opening mechanism of the case prevents access by small children.

Swaim, who keeps his guns in a safe, said he agrees with police that people should make sure they have the proper training to be able to effectively use their weapons.

Deciding to carry a weapon is a great responsibility, Swaim said. People who carry a weapon without knowing how to handle it are as dangerous as people who drive a vehicle without any driver’s education.

Gun owners can obtain storage and safety literature at Columbus Police Department.

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