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Get ready for new face of gun owners

They stood side by side, staring intently at the iced tea jugs resting on the ground in front of them. The teacher. The widow. The student, the homemaker and the businesswoman.

It is a Saturday afternoon, and they are among more than two dozen people who have paid $50 to be here. To watch videos, listen to instructors and feel safer than before.

For just a few moments, it is virtually silent. And then comes an explosion of thunder as they begin raising pistols and blasting away at the doomed jugs before them.

• • •

Chances are, someone in your neighborhood carries a gun. Chances are also good that you will come across a stranger carrying a concealed weapon at some point today.

More than 900,000 Floridians are licensed to carry a concealed weapon, including more than 100,000 residents in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties alone.

In the bay area, that works out to about one out of every 25 people.

If those statistics come as a surprise, then you'll want to pay attention. Because the numbers are growing. Daily. Rapidly.

From July 2004 to July 2005, the number of new concealed weapon permit applications in Pinellas County was 1,554. By 2009-10, it had increased 383 percent.

They may not have those exact numbers at their fingertips at the Wyoming Antelope Club in Clearwater, but they are well aware of the trends. Seats for their $50 concealed weapons permit class (CWP) are often filled more than a month in advance.

And you may be interested to see who is sitting in those seats.

Men, yes. But almost half of the class in April was female. Hunters and gun enthusiasts, yes. But there were a fair number of people who had never before fired a gun.

"We advertise it as a concealed weapons permit course, but really it's just a good class for beginners,'' said instructor John Gluck. "We're seeing a lot of women who feel they're no longer safe from the robbers and burglars, and they want some protection.''

It wasn't that long ago that Rose Alonso had no interest in guns. Would have never even considered owning one.

Yet here she is, not too many years later, with her newly purchased revolver and a target in front of her at the April CWP class in Clearwater.

Alonso, 40, is a recruiter for business professionals and has seen firsthand the impact the economic crisis has had on middle class life. And it has left her a little spooked.

"Five years ago, I would have said I could get by with an alarm and a dog and by making smart decisions,'' Alonso said. "But the way things are in society now, I don't think it's all up to me. It's unfortunate, but you have to be offensive as well as defensive.

"I've seen people — good people — who have been out of work for years and are sounding more and more desperate. I thought about it for a good year before I got a gun. I didn't have any 'aha' moment. It was just a gradual feeling that this might not be a bad idea.''

Once the decision has been made, the rest is fairly simple. In some ways, getting a concealed weapons permit is easier than getting a driver's license.

You sign up for an NRA-sponsored course — such as the five-hour class at the Wyoming Antelope Club — and then just fill out the paperwork and pay the fees. As long as your record is clean, there is no state examiner waiting to take you on a test drive.

According to state figures, less than 1 percent of applicants have been denied in the past 25 years.

So perhaps it was good that the volunteer instructors at the CWP class went to great lengths to explain that, despite the ease in acquiring a permit, it is not a license to kill.

There were a handful of shoot-first-ask-questions-later types among the students, but the majority seemed more interested in learning how to avoid conflict.

Debra Butler, 53, was a virtual gun novice before showing up with her husband, Chuck, for the class. The Butlers own a wholesale plant nursery, and the neighborhood is suddenly seeing more transients than a few years back.

A couple of convenience stores down the street had been robbed recently, and Debra was a little uncomfortable about being in the office alone. Even though her husband has owned guns, Debra finally decided it was time for her to be able to defend herself.

"Before I got there I was pretty nervous, but I was impressed by the number of women there,'' Debra said. "By the time it was done I thought, 'I can do this.'

"It wasn't a power trip or anything like that, it was just good knowing I had the knowledge to handle myself if anything were to happen.''

The overwhelming majority of concealed weapons permits still belong to men in Florida. In particular, middle-aged men.

But one look at the folks gathered at the Wyoming Antelope Club, and it's probably fair to say that the demographics are changing.

So forget what you may have thought because it isn't all rednecks and bikers. It isn't all weekend warriors and criminals. It isn't all machismo and ego.

The next person you run into carrying a concealed weapon may be your neighbor.

John Romano can be reached at romano@tampabay.com.

Get ready for new face of gun owners 04/28/12 [Last modified: Saturday, April 28, 2012 11:39pm]

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