YORK -- Octavia "Tavia" Bowers felt like a prisoner in her home.
A knee injury keeps the York woman from running or walking fast. If someone tried to attack her, she couldn't escape, she said. So she led a restricted life.
And she was scared.
"I don't go nowhere," Bowers said. "I go straight home from work and lock the doors. I feel like a prisoner."
Now, she's emancipated. Eight days ago, Bowers completed an eight-hour class to qualify for a concealed weapons permit, allowing her to carry a handgun in a holster or purse.
"I know now that I can protect myself," she said. "I'm not going to be scared."
'Lot of scared people out there'
Bowers is among a growing number of York County residents who are turning to guns to protect themselves, according to store owners and state figures. Merchants report that gun sales have increased up to 25 percent this year. Customers say they are afraid, in part because of a recent series of robberies and shootings, according to the merchants.
Among those buying guns are third-shift clerks, single women and husbands who work out of town or at night, leaving their families home alone.
"That tells me there's a lot of scared people out there who definitely want to protect themselves and their families," said Darren Nichols, owner of Nichols Store on S.C. 901. "They don't want to put themselves in a predicament where they are fearful."
Jane VanDorn of York purchased a handgun about two months ago.
"When my husband works second shift, I'm home alone," VanDorn said. "Having a gun makes me feel safe."
Gun sales at Nichols Store are up 17 percent so far this year, Nichols said. He projects those sales will be up 34 percent by the end of 2008.
Meanwhile, gun sales are up 25 percent at Newport's Sportsman Inc., said owner Blair Wisher.
Nichols and Wisher said a recent surge in countywide robberies and shootings triggered people to arm up.
The shootings included a spree that left four people injured. Police say that over 17 days, one man held up three businesses, shooting two clerks and two customers. Nobody was killed.
On Jan. 28, a gunman demanded money at Rock Hill's Saltwater Seafood Market. Ping Chen, 40, handed over $300 but was shot in the right shoulder and left hand. Chen has since returned to work.
On Feb. 5, a clerk at John Boy's Valero in Fort Mill was shot in the stomach after handing over money to a gunman. The triggerman also shot a customer, former Fort Mill Mayor Charlie Powers, in the face. Powers was treated and released the next morning. The clerk, Yen Nguyen, was treated at Piedmont Medical Center.
On Feb. 14, a customer at Cash on the Spot in Rock Hill was shot in the head and back as she stood in the lobby. The customer, Ida Neal Lord, was treated at Carolinas Medical Center.
Authorities have charged a Rock Hill man in those shootings. Police say Phillip Fleming Watts Jr. confessed to the shootings and seven robberies.
Wisher, of Sportsman Inc., recalled a woman who purchased a handgun during the shooting spree. "She told me that she was a cashier," Wisher recalled. "She said, 'I want to get a handgun so I can protect myself.'"
But some gun control advocates say the dangers of having a gun outweighs the benefit. One study found that a gun in the home is 22 times more likely to be used in a crime, accident or suicide than for self-defense, according to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
Besides gun sales, the number of concealed weapons permits issued in York County also has increased. In 2007, 468 concealed weapons permits were issued in York County, up 45 percent from the previous year. While a permit isn't required to purchase a gun in South Carolina, a permit is required if someone plans to carry a handgun in a holster on their waist, a pocketbook or in a similar manner.
"People are scared," said Todd Gardner, an instructor for the concealed weapons permit class at Sportsman Inc. "Criminals are becoming more and more daring and seem not to care about hurting anybody. People are wanting to arm themselves."
Concealed weapons classes are booked through June at Sportsman Inc. An additional monthly class has been added. Spots are still available for an April class at Nichols Store.
"There's a big demand for it," Nichols said. "Having a concealed weapons permit gives you the lawful right to put a handgun in your purse and walk down a street."
A Davidson College professor who studies gun issues said initial fears about people carrying concealed weapons have proven unfounded.
"The litany of horrors has not happened, and it's not surprising," said Lance Stell, an authority on gun topics related to Constitutional law, ethics and self-defense. "The evidence has proven that since the legal permission has spread across the country, the prediction that it would be a very bad thing and increase violence is proven not correct."
Tommy Pope, former 16th Circuit solicitor who holds a concealed weapons permit, said having a gun can be dangerous.
"Based on my experience as a prosecutor, I've seen many volatile situations that have only been made worse by the presence of a firearm," Pope said. "Unfortunately, in many of the manslaughter cases that I tried, had there not been a gun involved, most likely a life would not have been taken. In the majority of these cases, it was an illegal weapon possession."
York County Sheriff Bruce Bryant supports those who legally carry handguns.
"People have a right to carry a firearm for the purpose of protecting themselves and their family," Bryant said. "I support that Constitutional right.
"We very rarely have any conflicts with the people who go through the training," Bryant added. "They're not the ones out there violating the law."
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