OKLAHOMA CITY — With Oklahoma preparing for a much-debated new law that allows people to carry their previously concealed firearms out in the open, state officials say they’ve seen a big increase in the number of residents seeking a handgun license.
Oklahoma’s open-carry law goes it effect Thursday. It allows the estimated 141,000 Oklahomans with a license to carry a concealed firearm to also carry their weapons openly in a holster or belt.
It’s not clear if the spike in handgun applications is due to the new law. But over the past year, the number of residents applying for a handgun permit has increased by about 40 percent, said Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation spokeswoman Jessica Brown.
The Republican-controlled Legislature approved the law and Republican Gov. Mary Fallin signed it earlier this year.
Don Spencer, a certified firearms instructor and the deputy director of the Oklahoma Second Amendment Association that lobbied hard for the new law, said he believes the increase in applicants is connected more to the deadly movie theater shooting in Colorado in July that left 12 people dead and dozens more injured.
“The interest in open carry is there, but when that (theater shooting) happened, my classes filled up, and I’ve heard the same thing from many other instructors,” Spencer said.
While the state’s increasingly conservative Legislature has been clamoring for open carry for years, the arrival of the new law is causing some consternation among law enforcement and businesses.
“There certainly is some concern,” said Rogers County Sheriff Scott Walton, who was a Tulsa police officer for 27 years before being elected sheriff. “There’s a lot of unknowns, and the law enforcement profession has a lot of questions about this, and citizens have a lot of questions about it.”
Walton’s biggest fear is that the required one-day training course to obtain a handgun license is inadequate to properly prepare most people for the dangers associated with carrying a gun. He also said problems could easily arise if someone inadvertently carries a gun into a school or other prohibited place.
“What if a guy went into a school and forgot that he had his gun on?” Walton said. “If you want to see people get in the freak-out mode, mention gun and school in the same sentence, and we’ve all got immediate concerns.”
Most police and sheriff’s departments have provided additional training to officers on the street to prepare them for the law. Each of the officers in the state’s two largest police departments — Tulsa and Oklahoma City — have received extra training.
Oklahoma County Sheriff’s Lt. Dan Stow said that while officers will be prepared, it still might take a while for some people to get used to armed citizens carrying firearms in public.
“It will be different and maybe a little bit of a culture shock for people to see that,” Stow said. “It will be an unusual visual initially, but we’ll adapt to it.”
Guns still will be prohibited, concealed or not, in several places, including government buildings and public meetings, bars and taverns, schools, college campuses, and professional sporting events.
Businesses also can ban firearms on their property. Many high-traffic retailers such as banks, restaurants or convenience stores likely will take that course, said Roy Williams, president and CEO of the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce.
Applicants for a weapons permit must be at least 21 and undergo a criminal background check, in addition to take the firearms training course.
A little more than 24,000 Oklahomans successfully applied for a concealed-carry permit in 2011. Nearly 1,000 applicants were denied, mostly for providing false or misleading information on their application, according to the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation.
Not everyone in Oklahoma is eager to see people carrying weapons in public. State Sen. Jim Wilson opposed the bill and said it sends a negative message to the rest of the country.
“The only reason to openly carry is for intimidation or to impress the girls,” said Wilson, D-Tahlequah. “It makes Oklahoma look silly with all these cowboys running around with guns. And there’s just no data that shows being armed helps at all with public safety.”