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Virginia's online classes make it easy for out-of-state gun owners to get permits

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Sarah Bard, of Gilbert, shoots at Caswells Shooting Range, Tuesday, April 6, 2010 in Mesa, Ariz. in preparation for her upcoming concealed weapons test. Gov. Jan Brewer has signed into law two bills supported by gun-rights activists. One of the bills signed Monday would broaden the state's current restrictions on local governments' ability to regulate or tax guns and ammunition. (AP Photo/Matt York)

Virginia is issuing a rising number of concealed-carry gun permits to people who live in other states in a trend that may be helped along by online gun classes.

The commercial courses allow applicants to seek a permit from Virginia that is valid in their state, but without having to meet tougher requirements their home states may impose, such as firing a gun with an instructor.

Virginia State Police issued 1,632 concealed-carry permits to nonresidents through the first half of 2012, topping the previous year's total of 1,321 nonresident permits. There was no corresponding increase in demand for resident permits, with just under half the previous year's number reached by mid-2012.

There are no hard numbers to explain why nonresident permits are soaring because state police do not track how many people take online training compared to other types of training.

However, state police note that the increase came after Virginia law was changed and coincides with online marketing campaigns targeting states that impose tougher training standards for their own permit applicants but also will honor Virginia's easy-to-obtain licenses

"The statute was amended to require the commonwealth to accept certificates issued online as proof of competency, and that's when the increase started," said Donna Tate, manager of the state police Firearms Transaction Center.

One of at least two Internet sites that offer the training, www.onlinegunclass.com, highlights on its home page the eight states that allow residents to carry a concealed weapon if they get a permit from Virginia.

"You heard me right -- Virginia," a pitchman says in an online promotional video outlining the process for potential customers.

Their home states may impose more stringent requirements, he tells prospects, but they can get a Virginia permit simply by paying $39.99, reading five chapters about firearms and correctly answering 15 of 20 true-or-false questions on a quiz. The customer receives a certificate to be mailed along with other application materials to the Virginia State Police. After passing a criminal background check, the applicant receives a permit to carry a concealed weapon in his or her home state and 26 others that have reciprocity agreements with Virginia.

Customers can take the test up to four times if they have trouble passing, the man in the video says, adding: "I don't think it's going to be a problem."

Sample questions on the website seem to bear that out.

"The first step in cleaning your firearm is to make sure it is unloaded," says one true-false offering.

"Always keep firearms pointed in a safe direction," says another.

A competing online training course offered by the Concealed Carry Institute at www.concealed-carry.net also concludes with a 20-question quiz, mixing true-false with multiple choice and fill-in-the-blank formats. The institute says more than 99.9 percent of customers pass the test the first time they take it.

Andrew Goddard, president of the Virginia Center for Public Safety that lobbies for gun control, doesn't carry a firearm. But he obtained a resident permit by taking the online training so he could speak authoritatively about it to state lawmakers.

"I swear it's third-grade level, and I could have answered every one of the questions right without ever watching the video," Goddard said. "The funny part is the certificate that I printed out says I met the proficiency requirements, but how can you prove proficiency by answering some silly questions?"

The Virginia General Assembly amended the state's concealed-carry statute to specifically allow the online training in 2009 because localities differed over whether those classes met the legal requirements. Lawmakers overrode a veto by then-Gov. Tim Kaine, who said there were no safeguards against cheating.

Lori Haas, who became a gun-control activist after her daughter Emily was wounded in the 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Tech, shares that concern.

"Your blind grandmother could take the online test because who knows who's really pushing the buttons," she said. "It endangers public safety in an immense way."

The law authorizing the online training imposes no specific standards and does not require applicants to actually handle a firearm. A spokesman for Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, who sponsored the amendment when he was a member of the state Senate, said that Virginia's concealed-carry program has never required hands-on training because its goal is to teach gun safety, not proficiency.

The only requirement for the online classes: The instructor must be certified by the state or by the National Rifle Association.

Ryan Willis of Shepherdstown, W.Va., the NRA-certified instructor who runs onlinegunclass.com, said he is pleased that he has been able to help many non-Virginians obtain the state's concealed handgun permit.

"I just feel like we're making a difference, making safer communities by supplying responsible citizens with concealed-carry licenses," he said.

Willis acknowledged that Virginia "makes it easier than some" to obtain a license, but he noted that Vermont allows citizens to carry a concealed handgun without a permit and has a relatively low crime rate. Vermont's population of about 626,000 is a little more than double the number of Virginia concealed handgun permit holders: 282,591.

Among the states Wills targets on his website is Texas, which requires applicants for its concealed handgun permit to complete a 10- to 15-hour course. Along with passing a written exam, applicants must score at least 70 percent in firing 50 rounds from a handgun at three different distances.

Or, they can avoid all that by spending a little over an hour taking the Virginia training on the Internet. Statistics suggest many have done just that. According to the Virginia State Police, the number of nonresident permits issued to Texans has increased 96 percent since the online training provision took effect three years ago.

Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, who authored the state's concealed-carry law in 1995 when he was a member of the state Senate, said hands-on training isn't the only thing Texans are missing if they opt for a nonresident Virginia permit.

"The most important thing in the license application to me is not the practical firing of a firearm, it's knowing the laws that relate to deadly force and where you can lawfully carry," he said. "I'm more concerned that the online course doesn't give folks the knowledge they need to have about Texas law than I am about them not being proficient."

Four of the other states that Willis's website targets -- Tennessee, North Carolina, Ohio and Missouri -- have seen increases ranging from 63 percent to 95 percent in the number of nonresident Virginia permits. Kentucky, Oklahoma and Arkansas have not joined the trend.

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