On July 1, 2013, a new state law took effect that sealed all records related to concealed handgun permit applications filed in Virginia’s circuit courts. Harrisonburg’s Sen. Mark Obenshain (R), now running to be the state’s next attorney general, introduced the legislation, which easily passed both houses of the legislature with bipartisan support.
Like most gun-law issues, public access to concealed handgun permit information has been a controversial topic in Virginia and beyond. In the spring of 2007, the Roanoke Times sparked a fury when it published, and then retracted, a list of 135,000 names and addresses of all the state’s concealed handgun permit holders. By 2009, the General Assembly passed a bill blocking public access the state police’s database of concealed handgun permits, but allowing such records on the county level to remain open. This somewhat-restricted access to information about concealed carry permit applicants was supported by the Virginia Freedom of Information Act Council as reflecting “the proper balance between privacy and public access.”
The Sandy Hook school shootings, and the subsequent renewal of fierce public debate over guns, Constitutional rights and public safety, occurred just prior to the 2013 General Assembly session. Controversy over public access to gun ownership records was also renewed in late 2012 when a newspaper published personal information about gun owners in New York – a move that Obenshain described in a subsequent interview part of “a larger effort to stigmatize and vilify gun owners in this country.”
After Obenshain’s bill was signed into law this spring, Old South High decided to learn more about the geography of concealed carry permit applications in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County, before the July 1 deadline sealing all such records. Over a several-week period, we collected zip code information from 1,138 concealed handgun permit applications, both first-time and renewals, filed at the Rockingham County Courthouse between Jan. 1 and June 28, 2013 – the last business day before a new law took effect.
The following map shows the prevalence of concealed carry permit applications within each zip code in Rockingham County, calculated by dividing the number of permit applications from each zip code by the total number of adults ages 21 and older living within each zip code (or portion thereof located within Rockingham County). Darker shading represents a higher rate of application.
The small portion of the Weyer’s Cave zip code that lies within Rockingham County had the highest rate, with 3.4 percent of the over-21 population applying for a concealed carry permit during the first six months of this year. Bergton (2.8 percent) and Mount Crawford (2.7 percent) had the second- and third-highest rates of application.
The overall rate of application in all of Rockingham County and Harrisonburg was 1.4 percent. Perhaps the most notable aspect of this analysis is the difference in application rates between residents in the City of Harrisonburg and Rockingham County. While 1.8 percent of adults in the county over 21 years old applied for a concealed handgun permit during the first six months of this year, just 0.6 percent of Harrisonburg adults did so.
Note that these figures represent applications during a six-month period, not the overall prevalence of concealed handgun permits in the area. In some of the smaller zip codes (e.g., Weyer’s Cave, with just 145 adults over 21), one or two more or fewer applications could have a noticeable effect on the application rate. At the same time, given the large total number of permit applications filed, the varying application rates between city and county residents points to different behaviors between the two with regard to a divisive and highly-charged political and cultural issue.