BATTLE LAKE (AP) -- Otter Tail County Sheriff Gary Nelson issued nearly 1,000 permits to carry concealed handguns last year to residents of this west-central Minnesota county, out of a population of 57,159.
"I believe more guns equals less crime," said Nelson, explaining that he has talked to criminals who say they don't mess with people "up north" because it's not clear who is carrying a gun. "They fear an armed citizenry."
There's a different view 150 miles to the southeast, where sheriffs in Hennepin and Ramsey counties, along with Minneapolis and St. Paul police, issued just 348 permits for concealed handguns last year, out of a population of 1.6 million.
A preliminary statewide study released last week mirrors that stark geographic difference in the way permits are distributed.
The tally released by the state Public Safety Department showed that of 12,773 applications for concealed-weapons permits in the 80 counties outside the metropolitan area last year, 9,903 were granted. In the more densely populated seven-county metro area, there were 1,647 applications, of which 1,390 were approved.
Such a disparity illustrate two sides of a debate in the Legislature over making it easier for more Minnesotans to carry handguns in public.
Supporters of wider access to concealed weapons say the imbalance proves applicants are at the whim of local law enforcement officers with widely differing standards. Opponents, however, say the numbers show the current law is working because most people who need the permits get them.
The contrast also illuminates differing lifestyles and philosophies between greater Minnesota and "lesser Minnesota," as one Fergus Falls gunsmith refers to the Twin Cities.
Mike Partain, gunsmith at the Prairie Sportsman in downtown Fergus Falls, said this is hunting territory and people have a healthy respect for weapons.
"I grew up here. It was nothing to put a .22 pistol on, put on my coat and go down ... and practice your target on a Saturday afternoon," said Partain, 51. "I didn't play ball; I hunted, I camped, I went shooting. That was my recreation."
Under current law, applicants for a permit to carry a loaded, concealed weapon in public must demonstrate either an occupational need or a specific personal-safety threat. The law gives local law enforcement considerable latitude in deciding whether to issue permits.
Gun-rights groups, supported by the National Rifle Association, have been pressing the Legislature to eliminate the occupational and personal-safety requirements and to require that permits be granted to anyone who qualifies. Applicants could not have disqualifying criminal convictions or a record of serious mental illness, and must be trained in use of the weapon.
In the Twin Cities, many lawmakers, residents and law enforcement officers have argued that more guns on the streets would only add to crime.
But in Otter Tail County, where the woodlands roll into prairie and the land is linked by more than 1,000 lakes, residents carry handguns as much for hunting as they do for personal protection, says Nelson, the sheriff.
Some of the gun-rights attitude stretches back to the days when their great-grandparents plowed the soil here.
"The first generations of settlers, kids grew up with shotguns and a plow in every sod hut," said Fergus Falls Police Chief John Wagner. "Part of how you made your living is what you raised and what you got from the land."
Generations after the Germans and Scandinavians settled here, weapons remain part of the fabric of the community, where gun-safety lessons for schoolchildren are offered in the same classrooms they learn about reading, writing and arithmetic.
"I'm probably not following the statute to the letter," said Nelson, who cares most whether applicants have criminal records. "They talk about this need and that need, and I believe there is a need to let people exercise their constitutional right."
The sheriff issued 900-plus permits last year and says none of his permit-holders has ever committed a crime with the gun they were carrying. With his shock of white hair, tinted horn-rim glasses and nearly 50 years in law enforcement, the 72-year-old Nelson is known statewide for his conservative views on gun control.
Wagner handed out an additional 134 permits to residents in Fergus Falls, which is the county seat. He scrutinizes each application.
"You can't just come in here and say, 'I'm being harassed,' you've got to prove it," said Wagner, 52.
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