Story by Shaun Hittle. Graphics by Darren Jaworski.

The number of Oklahomans applying for handgun licenses in 2013 is on pace to significantly best last year’s record numbers, according to data from the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation.

Through the first six months of 2013, nearly 37,000 license applications have been received by the OSBI, compared to about 46,000 for all of last year.

If the 2013 trend continues through the end of the year, the number of annual applications will have nearly tripled since 2011, when 26,000 applied.

The permits allow Oklahoma residents to carry a handgun in public. In 2012, Oklahoma law was expanded to permit the open carry of a handgun in public, whereas the previous law only allowed for the concealed carry of handguns. Certain people, such as felons and those being treated for mental health problems, are not eligible for the licenses.

Oklahoma isn’t alone in seeing a recent increase in handgun and concealed carry permit applications, as states across the country are reporting similar spikes.

Jessica Brown, media spokeswoman for the OSBI, said it’s unclear what is causing the sharp increase in Oklahoma. “We don’t know what is spurring the need. We don’t know why it went up so much,” she said.

Betsy Randolph, state trooper and spokeswoman for the Oklahoma Department of Public Safety, said she thinks that violent acts in recent years, such as the school massacre in Newton, Conn., in December 2012, and talk of more gun control have caused more people to purchase firearms and seek concealed- or -open-carry permits.

“I think the murder of children there, in Sandy Hook (Elementary School), played a part,” she said.

“We appreciated that the Legislature passed laws” to allow residents to be approved to carry handguns openly or concealed. “We know the bad guys have guns, so we don’t have a problem with the good guys having guns as well … We do think it is a deterrent.”

In contrast, the Violence Policy Center, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., said it has uncovered hundreds of non-self-defense shooting incidents involving  citizens with legal permission to carry concealed handguns. Those incidents resulted in 516 deaths since 2007, including the killing of 14 law enforcement officers and 107 people in mass shootings, the center said.

Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the group, said the gun industry and pro-gun forces like the National Rifle Association have promoted concealed-carry laws in order to increase sales and benefit financially. At the same time, the industry and the NRA have exploited violent acts and other events, including the election of President Barack Obama, as marketing opportunities, suggesting to people that “they must buy more guns now because there may not be a tomorrow,” he said.  One reason for the push is that the industry is fighting a decline in household gun ownership in recent decades, he added.

Here’s a look at the recent increase in applications in Oklahoma. Relatively few applications are denied.

Here’s a county-by-county look at the rate of concealed-carry permit applications in 2012, plus a list of the 10 counties with the highest rates. In both the map and chart below, the numbers are applications per 100,000 population.

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