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Sheriff says handgun permits cause no problems
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Auto repair shop owner Ron Heikes got a concealed-carry permit as a political statement. He also says it's reassuring to have his pistol with him when goes to the bank after work to deposit the day's earnings. (MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson)
Minnesota's new handgun law takes effect at the end of the month. The change may give thousands of Minnesota residents permission to carry a concealed handgun. Some argue the state will be less safe with more people carrying guns. That should make Ottertail County the most dangerous place in the state.

Fergus Falls, Minn. — Ottertail County is a quiet place. On average, there's less than one murder a year. But more people have permits to carry handguns here than anywhere else in the state.

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Image Sheriff Brian Schlueter

It's a county of farms, small towns and lake places. About 60,000 people live here year around. Thousands more migrate to the lakes in the summer.

Most days, two or three sheriff's deputies patrol a county bigger than the state of Rhode Island. About 1,300 people have permits to carry a concealed handgun. That's 2 percent of county residents.

About three days a week, Ron Heikes carries a .45 Beretta pistol to work. Heikes owns an auto repair shop in Fergus Falls. For several years, he's had a permit to carry a concealed handgun. Heikes says the main reason he got a concealed-carry permit was to make a political statement. He thinks law-abiding citizens should be able to carry a weapon.

But there's a practical reason too. Heikes says he sometimes carries large amounts of cash when he leaves his shop late at night. He doesn't expect to be robbed in Fergus Falls. But he says it's reassuring to have his gun tucked in the shoulder holster.

"I can't say I expect to ever draw it for any use other than target practice. I hope I never have to," says Heikes. "I'm confident if a situation arose I could handle it correctly."

The fear that everybody's going to be walking around packing a gun, and the minute they get in an argument they're going to be shooting it out, I think is really unfounded.
- Ottertail County Sheriff Brian Schlueter

Ron Heikes is one of about 1,300 concealed-carry permit-holders in Ottertail County.

Former Sheriff Gary Nelson was an outspoken supporter of gun rights. He consistently handed out more handgun permits than any other sheriff in the state.

Sheriff Nelson retired last year, and was succeeded by the new sheriff, Brian Schlueter. He continues the practice of freely handing out conceal carry permits. Schlueter says handguns simply aren't a problem in Ottertail County.

"In the last 16 years there hasn't been a permit-holder that's committed an offense with a weapon. There hasn't been any," says Schlueter.

Sheriff Schlueter says guns are part of the rural culture. Most of the handgun permits he gives out are for convenience. He says people simply want the option of carrying a gun if they choose. He says very few pack a pistol on a daily basis.

"It's inconvenient. You have to conceal it. When you're at the grocery store, who wants a gun hanging on their belt?" says Sheriff Schlueter. "People just don't carry them. So, the fear that everybody's going to be walking around packing a gun, and the minute they get in an argument they're going to be shooting it out, I think is really unfounded."

Schlueter says there's no evidence handguns contribute to crime in his county.

It's not clear if 1,300 gun-carrying county residents deter criminals. Sheriff Schlueter can't recall a citizen pulling a gun to stop a crime.

Fergus Falls police chief John Wagner remembers one such incident.

"It was a smash-and-grab theft of a local supermarket," says Wagner. "A group of individuals came in late at night and ran through the store with duffel bags. They were grabbing stuff and throwing it in the duffel bags."

A store employee with a concealed-carry permit pulled his handgun and tried to stop the theft. Wagner says the thieves ignored the threat and ran off.

Chief Wagner approves giving out handgun permits. But he also teaches a handgun safety class. He challenges people to think about what it means to carry a concealed weapon. "It is the most awesome responsibility -- to carry that with the intention of using it to defend yourself or another," says Wagner. "The potential is tremendous for making a mistake."

When the new Minnesota concealed-carry law takes effect, Ottertail County Sheriff Brian Schluetter doesn't expect a big rush for gun permits. The sheriff says it's likely most county residents who want to carry a gun already have a permit.

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