SUMMERVILLE — An older couple in one of Bill Hayes’ concealed-weapons classes will have to learn how to shoot after they finish the classroom work. Neither one has previously owned a gun.


Active concealed-weapons permits in South Carolina:2012 186,9162011 148,6142010 119,3402009 98,2102006* 30,787*Earliest year published onlineNew permit applications in South Carolina:2012 61,7662011 24,6612010 28,3632009 36,144Source: SLED

They are among new gun buyers in the Lowcountry and the state who have driven the number of concealed-weapons-permit applicants to levels never seen before.

“People whom it totally surprised me (that) they were carrying a gun,” said Hayes, who teaches at ATP Gunshop and Range near Sangaree. He finds himself teaching more females than ever, more married couples, more elderly, pastors, deacons, leaders who run church schools.

“Many who have never had a gun, never shot a gun,” he said, and who aren’t necessarily comfortable with the idea. The couple did not want to speak to a reporter for this story.

About three times as many people have permits now as had them in 2008, about six times as many as had them in 2006.

In the past year, in the wake of recent mass shootings, while controversy raged over possible restrictions of gun ownership, the number of new permit applications in the state nearly tripled from 2011.

Hayes’ load has jumped from 15 to 20 students he normally sees this time of year to 50 to 60 on Saturday. The class is required for permit applicants; it includes instruction on aspects such as safety and the law, as well as accuracy shooting the gun on the range. Instructors can and do disqualify applicants who don’t measure up.

On a weekday evening, Hayes has 12 people in class ranging from young to older adults; two were women.

A number of them are like Wayne Headden of Summerville. The class was a Christmas gift from his wife, at his request. Why does he want to be able to carry a concealed weapon?

“Number one, it’s my legal right to do so,” said Headden, an avid hunter. “I’ve wanted to do it for some time. You know, things are getting a little crazy now. I figured with it being my legal right, I want to have that security for my own protection.”

Safety does appear to be a driving concern, said David Fox, a former public safety officer who teaches at OneShot Firearms Training in Mount Pleasant and has instructed concealed-weapons classes for more than 25 years.

“I’m sure it’s in reaction to these horrific things going on,” he said. “People just want to protect themselves, that’s all.”

But there’s a layered concern under that precaution: Worry that if they don’t get the permit now, federal laws will restrict the right.

A lot of people in the Lowcountry are people like Richard Wright, who grew up in Awendaw surrounded by guns, and didn’t know anybody around him who did not. When he was a baby his mother drove off chicken thieves by firing over their heads.

“We never considered calling a policeman for protection,” Wright wrote in an email. “We always felt (I still do) that a person is responsible for his or her own protection.”

Wright earned his concealed-weapons permit years ago, when he and his wife used to walk nights. People appreciate the Second Amendment right to bear arms more when they learn how to handle a gun, he said.

Fox grew up in east Tennessee. His grandfather taught him to shoot as an older child, then gave him five cartridges for his rifle. Do what you want with them, granddad told him. But if you come home with a rabbit, you get another cartridge.

That’s the sentiment, and proposed federal restrictions rub that heritage raw.

“People are scared. The whole country is scared of the direction we’re going in and the things that are happening,” Hayes said. Smoking gets restricted, then Nativity scenes, he said.

“We’re being pushed toward socialist government. People see those rights being eroded away. Guns for them are the last right they see the government taking. If they take guns, it’s all over, when the government tells you if you own a gun you are a radical right wing extremist,” he said.

Restricting large-magazine guns isn’t going to stop mass shootings, he said. With practice, a person can change out a magazine within a second or two. “I wish people on both sides (of the restrictions debate) would deal in facts and not fear.”

Hayes is a retired teacher and principal in Charleston County schools. In his school days, he never would have seen himself teaching concealed-weapons classes, he said. He took a job at ATP and found he liked it, just another kind of teaching.

His classroom podium has a National Rifle Association poster of the head of a glaring bald eagle. “Join here,” the poster says. His instruction takes place to the intermittent crack and boom of gunfire from the nearby range.

Showing the class the difference that makes the legally defensible threat of serious harm that allows using a gun, he taps one student with a ruler, then holds the ruler over him like a knife.

“I tell them, your goal is to die of old age with the same bullets in the gun you put there,” he said before class. In class, he was starker.

“I’ll tell you what I told you before,” he said. “Shooting someone is never easy. You’re going to live with it the rest of your life, whether it’s on the battlefield or in your house.”

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744.