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In Florida and Illinois, concealed-weapons debate lays bare the politics of gun control

Seth Perlman / AP file

Gun owners and supporters rallied for Illinois Gun Owners Lobby Day in Springfield on March 7, 2012.

Two states, two takes: Even as Illinois officials are lamenting a court order requiring them to let state residents carry concealed weapons, Florida officials are boasting about just how many hundreds of thousands of state residents are carrying concealed weapons.

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam happily announced Wednesday that some time next week, Florida would become the first state with more than 1 million residents holding "active" concealed-carry permits. That's proof, said Putnam — whose agency administers the permit program — of Florida's "strong tradition in upholding Second Amendment rights."

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As Putnam spoke at a news conference Wednesday, anguished officials in Illinois, including Gov. Pat Quinn, were strategizing how to respond after the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday ordered state lawmakers to write a law legalizing concealed carry to uphold Second Amendment rights.

It's quite a dichotomy: Illinois for the moment is the only state where you can't legally carry a concealed weapon (the court gave Illinois lawmakers 180 days to come up with a law legalizing it).

By contrast, Florida is quite proud of being the most heavily armed state, at least in terms of concealed weapons permits.

Putnam, a prominent Republican strategist during five terms in Congress, where he headed the party's Policy Committee, called reporters to Tallahassee, the state capital, to highlight that slightly fewer than a million "active" — that is, unexpired and valid — concealed-weapons permits were in circulation. With his agency issuing new permits at the rate of 10,000 to 15,000 a month, he said, the 1 millionth permit was on course to be issued next week.

Putnam said demand for permits was so high that he's had to hire more staff to handle the workload under a "fast track" system that lets gun owners get their permits more quickly. It now takes about 35 days, compared to about 12 weeks before he became commissioner in 2011, he said.

State figures show that requests for permits spiked in late July after a gunman opened fire in a crowded theater in Aurora, Colo., killing 12 people. That's when the Agriculture Department started issuing occasional updates on the race to 1 million.

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Other factors appear to have played their parts in making the program so popular. For one thing, the Legislature made it cheaper to carry a concealed weapon, dropping the fee from $85 to $70 last year.

Then there's the persistent belief that President Barack Obama wants to take away everyone's guns — despite his repeated reassurances that he supports the Second Amendment and even though during his first term he signed a law expanding the federal lands where guns are allowed.

Ed Hensen, owner of the St. Lucie Shooting Center in Port St. Lucie, Fla., said his gun sales had risen consistently 30 percent every month during the last four months, when the presidential campaign was at its most feverish.

"People panicked, and rightfully so," Hensen said. "They're concerned about their Second Amendment."

Jeanne Rochester of Port St. Lucie told NBC station WPTV of West Palm Beach this week that she was taking shooting lessons at Hensen's store to qualify for a permit because "I want to have protection for myself for the future, and I know that guns are going to be hard to get."

Hensen said letting people pack hidden heat made the state safe, because "if you have educated people, well-trained people with a firearm, it may eliminate some of these bad guys."

In Illinois, however, officials generally warned that allowing residents to carry concealed weapons would make the state more dangerous.

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"What we're doing is going to legalize guns, and then guess what? A lot of those guns are going to end up in the wrong hands," Democratic state Rep. Charles Jefferson told NBC station WREX of Rockford.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel called a news conference at City Hall to offer his city's advice and resources to any effort state Attorney General Lisa Madigan planned to challenge the court ruling. Madigan said she was studying whether to seek new hearing or to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"This ruling runs counter to not only common sense but what every police chief in the country says, which is we should not allow more guns on the street," said Emanuel, who called the opinion "wrongheaded."

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In fact, law enforcement isn't nearly as united as Emanuel claimed. In 2009, for example, the Illinois Sheriffs' Association passed a resolution supporting a concealed-carry law in Illinois.

Macon County Sheriff Tom Schneider told NBC station WAND of Springfield this week: "I believe the argument would be in favor of the fact that by having people that are trained to protect themselves out there on the streets, they're going to be more inclined to do the right thing and not the wrong thing."

"Cops can't be on every corner ... and law-abiding citizens should have the right to protect themselves,"  he said.

Each side argues that crime figures support its argument, but the reality is there's no clear evidence either way, the National Academy of Sciences reported in its last comprehensive overview of the issue, in 2004. 

The study found "conflicting estimates" of the impact of such laws, concluding that "it is not possible to determine that there is a causal link between the passage of right-to-carry laws and crime rates."

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