ST. PAUL -- There may be snow on the ground before Euric Rutherford can even submit his application in person for a new permit to carry a firearm.

“Getting a permit to carry right now — it’s ridiculous,” said Rutherford after speaking with someone from the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office. “And they tell me it’s going to take four months to turn in my paperwork.”

The Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office hasn’t yet replied to an MPR News request for comment. However, a spokesperson for the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office said high demand and the need for spacing out in-person visits due to COVID-19 have led to long wait times. A person seeking an application appointment this week in Hennepin County will have to wait until December before they can turn in their paperwork.

Whenever Rutherford is able to submit his application, he’ll become one of the thousands of Minnesotans applying for new permits this year. In Ramsey County, where Rutherford lives, the number of new applications in June, July and August rose sharply over the summer of 2019. In July, Ramsey County received 567 new permit applications, an increase of nearly 250% over July of 2019. The data do not indicate how many people had never carried a permit before or, like Rutherford, didn’t renew permits in time before they lapsed.

Hennepin County also saw a huge increase in permit applications over the summer. In June, the county received 1,588 applications for new permits, 371% more than the number applied for in June of 2019.

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Reported violent crime has also gone up in Minneapolis and in St. Paul. Rutherford said his Frogtown neighborhood in St. Paul is relatively quiet, but he wants to get a new permit to carry because he travels to parts of Minneapolis that have seen more violence.

“As far as I can see there’s been an uptick in shootings, muggings, robbings,” he said. “Also it’s a right that you can carry a firearm. It’s not a privilege. It’s a right.”

Firearms industry professionals say the current rash of violence in the cities, the unrest following the police killing of George Floyd and the coronavirus pandemic is driving a growth in new customers.

“We’re seeing an influx of people who have never thought they would own a gun before — never shot a gun before,” said Chris Williamson, who works at the Osseo Gun Club. “And they’re coming in for personal protection, home protection.”

The club offers the classes required by state law for people seeking permits to carry. Williamson said new gun owners and new permit holders need to get familiar with different types of guns in order to find the right one and learn how to safely handle and store them. And he said people really need to embrace the responsibility that goes along with carrying a firearm in public.

“If they use it, it’s going to change their lives. And we recommend they don’t use it,” said Williamson. “A lot of people who come in actually end up buying Mace and Tasers. And we recommend they use the Mace and Tasers first.”

Gun sales also on the rise

In March there were more than 96,000 FBI point of sale background checks conducted in Minnesota, a 28% increase over last March. Those numbers remained high throughout the summer. The number of background checks is widely accepted as an indicator of gun sales, but the FBI warns the number of checks does not correspond one to one with the number of guns sold. A person undergoing a background check may buy one or more guns or buy no guns at all.

Certain types of firearms require the buyer to first obtain a permit to purchase from a local law enforcement agency. Minneapolis police say they’ve received more than 2,500 applications through the end of August. That’s an increase of 159% over the same period last year.

Gun sales have been happening at a fast clip since March at Bill’s Gun Shop stores in Robbinsdale, Circle Pines and Hudson, Wis. Owner John Munson said customers are telling him they’re looking for guns for protection in the midst of the unrest and the pandemic. But he said they are also worried about the upcoming election and the potential for new restrictions on firearm ownership.

“The (Joe) Biden camp has come out and said that they believe in a ban on AR-15s and assault-style weapons and high-capacity magazines,” said Munson. “That stimulates the purchasing. Even for people who don’t necessarily want that product. They want to get it because they don’t want someone to tell them they can’t later.”

According to the campaign website, Biden is promising to ban the manufacture and sale of assault-style weapons and accessories among other firearm-related policies.

Munson said one of the most important things that gun buyers should consider is how to keep their guns out of the hands of children and others who shouldn’t have them. He said his staff teaches customers how to properly lock and store guns and ammunition.

“You can’t be complacent with that responsibility,” he said. “That’s by far No. 1 for me.”

While people buy guns to protect them from outside threats, firearms often pose more of a threat to people inside the house, said Kate Havelin, who chairs the Protect Minnesota advocacy board. The organization supports mandatory background checks for all gun purchases as well as a so-called “red flag” law that would allow law enforcement to remove firearms from the homes of people showing signs they will harm others or themselves..

Havelin points to data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showing that a gun in the home is more likely to be used on someone in the house rather than on an intruder.

And she points to data from the state Health Department showing that most gun deaths in Minnesota are the result of suicide.

“Suicide attempts with guns usually end in death,” Havelin said. “And people who try and kill themselves with any other method, it’s much more likely they’ll survive.”

Mental health experts have also said the uncertainty and economic hardship caused by the pandemic is taxing the emotional health of everyone. And they fear adding a firearm to that mix is potentially lethal.

Medical professionals warn gun owners to take extra care keeping firearms out of the reach of children, who are spending more time at home during the pandemic.

Euric Rutherford said he keeps his guns safely stored, but doesn’t hide them from his children who are 9 and 14 years old.

“I showed them the firearm. I didn’t allow them to touch the firearm,” said Rutherford. “And I explained to them, ‘if they ever see a firearm out, run and get an adult.’”