CHARLESTON - The number of concealed weapons permits issued annually in the state has more than quadrupled in the past five years.
In 2009, county sheriffs' departments issued 11,160 permits allowing residents to carry concealed handguns in most public places. In 2013, that number had jumped to 44,981.
The largest increase was from 2012 to 2013, when the number of permits issued annually increased by more than 15,000, up from 29,712 in 2012.
Those numbers, compiled by the West Virginia State Police, represent all active permits. The number includes both new permits and renewal permits.
While some may have been revoked or surrendered, a total of 126,514 permits were issued or renewed in the five years including 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013.
Law enforcement officials say they can't attribute the sharp increase to any one factor, noting that it coincides with numerous high-profile violent incidents around the nation and heightened conflict over the politics of gun control.
The West Virginia State Police received the following Concealed Weapon permits for the years of 2009 through 2013. These are numbers from the date the sheriff issued the permit. The West Virginia State Police receives permits after they are issued.
In West Virginia, several debates have brought attention to the issue in the past year.
The state House of Delegates passed a bill, H.B. 4310, during this year's general legislative session that would have made information about applications and issued permits confidential except for law enforcement purposes. A similar bill died in a Senate committee.
Many states already have passed bills limiting the public's access to such information, specifically names of people who have applied for or been granted permits.
The West Virginia Legislature did, however, pass a bill in March (S.B. 317) that restricts cities from banning concealed weapons in city-owned recreation facilities.
That change was criticized by Mayor Danny Jones of Charleston, where several of the city's recreation centers house childcare programs. Charleston is in Kanawha County, which has seen one of the largest increases in concealed carry permits.
In 2009, the Kanawha County Sheriff's Department issued 825 permits. Last year, that number had jumped to 4,653.
Cpl. Brian Humphreys, spokesman for the Kanawha County Sheriff's Department, said the county has not experienced a dramatic increase in shootings over that five-year period.
The county reported 68 shootings in 2009 and 72 in 2013. There was actually a decline to 53 in 2012 before the number rose again in 2013.
Similarly, Humphreys said the number of suspected gunshots reported has not changed dramatically over the same period, going from 914 in 2009 up to 931 last year.
The county with the largest proportional increase in permits was Upshur, which issued 698 last year. That's more than six times the number issued in 2009, when only 101 were handed out.
Other counties where permits rose dramatically included Braxton, from 75 in 2009 to 395 in 2013; Harrison, from 353 to 1,847; Lewis, from 93 to 491; Monongalia, from 294 to 1,667; Pocahontas, from 48 to 242; and Putnam, from 372 to 2,048.
On the state level, law enforcement officials say they aren't alarmed by the increase.
"What you have to remember is these are law-abiding citizens going through the proper process," said Lt. Michael Baylous, spokesman for the West Virginia State Police. "The criminals don't go through the proper process to get a permit.
"Do we encounter more people in traffic stops who have weapons? That might be fair to say," Baylous said. "But nine times out of 10, they do the right thing and inform us they're carrying."
Baylous said his experience reviewing incident reports from around the state causes him to believe the number of shootings classified as "self-defense" has increased in recent years, but specific data was not immediately available.
"Just from what I've seen, I have seen more people standing up and protecting themselves," he said.
Baylous said he believes national attention to high-profile violent crimes might be spurring more people to want to arm themselves in public.
"It's clear to me, just from the position I'm in, the moral fabric of our country seems to be wearing thin, and you see more heinous acts being committed each day," he said. "(Carrying a concealed weapon) is a personal choice, and I see why more people might be making that choice."
There seems to be a similar trend nationwide.
A report released last month by the Crime Prevention Research Center, founded by economist and gun rights advocate John Lott, estimated 11.1 million people nationwide now have concealed weapon permits, up from 4.6 million in 2007. Those figures were based on the most recent permit numbers available from each state, with some of the data dating back to 2010.
The report shows that in 2011, about 92,000 West Virginians had valid permits.
The fee to apply for a permit is $75, and it is non-refundable. If a permit is issued, an additional $25 is due.
Portions of the money go to the state's general fund, the State Police, county sheriffs' departments and to each county's Courthouse Facilities Fund, used to maintain public buildings.
Last year's fees generated more than $4.4 million.
People applying for a permit must fulfill a number of requirements, including being at least 21 years of age; never having been convicted of a felony, a violent misdemeanor involving a deadly weapon or a crime of domestic violence; having completed handgun training; and never having been found mentally incompetent by a court.
In the past year, the state Attorney General's office also has added seven more states to the list of those with reciprocity agreements with West Virginia, meaning residents with permits in those states may carry concealed weapons here. A total of 31 states now have such an agreement with West Virginia.