Why does Minnesota’s handgun permit map look like this?

The number of valid handgun permits in Minnesota has passed 100,000. That’s about 19 permits for every 1,000 Minnesota residents.

But permits to carry handguns are far from evenly distributed and, in fact, show up in a fascinating pattern. The highest rate of permit holders is in Cook County in the far northeast corner of the state. The county has only about 5,000 residents but more than 250 of them have permits to carry handguns. It works out to about 52 permits for every 1,000 residents.

Making a pattern as tidy as could be, the county with the fewest permits per capita is in the exact opposite corner of the state. Rural Rock County, bordering Iowa and South Dakota, has almost twice as many people as Cook County but only one-fifth the number of permits. That’s a rate of 6.6 for every 1,000 residents.

And, as this map shows, those two counties aren’t flukes. The northeast generally has a higher concentration of permit holders; the southwest has the lowest in the state. The metro counties fall in the low to middle part of the range, so note that the map is not reflecting simply a rural-metro difference.


We created the map here at Ground Level as part of a project called “The Price of Safety,” launching next week. We were curious whether gun permits in any way reflected changes in the way people connect public safety and their own sense of personal responsibility.

I look at this map and it strikes me that a lot of things follow the same pattern. Soil types, vegetation and farming patterns all follow similar patterns, ranging from the northeast woods and mining to the southwest prairies and agriculture. Even unemployment shows the pattern — lower in southwestern farm country and higher in the north and northeast.

But what does any of that have to do with handguns?

Sheriff Mark Falk in Cook County in the northeast ascribes the geographic concentration of gun permits to a northern Minnesota outdoors culture that is used to dealing with animals, traplines and life in the woods. Guns are part of that culture, he says.

“We’re a community with a lot of outdoor activities,” Falk said. And indeed, county-by-county health rankings compiled by the University of Wisconsin indicate greater physical activity in the northeastern counties.

That’s different from thinking guns are part of one’s personal responsibility to protect oneself, Falk said, and quite a few people in our Public Insight Network echoed that sentiment.

“I think people are out in the woods more in northern Minnesota and having and carrying firearms is part of that lifestyle,” Bill Bryson III, in Cook, told us. “Owning a handgun is (a) very common part of life.”

Dale Ekmark in Angora agreed but added a thought about the availability of law enforcement. “Law enforcement is stretched very thin, especially in our huge rural areas.”

Scott Bunney in Ely emailed, “I carry my hand gun all the time (in the woods) from September to February. There is also a shotgun and shells in both vehicles. During deer season there is a 30-30 with shells in both vehicles. Cased and unloaded. It is because I/we hunt and trap. Many friends and neighbors do the same thing. ”

Another Ely resident, Lisa Pekuri, put a different spin on it. “Paranoia, ignorance, peer-pressure, and because people believe law enforcement officers take too long responding to emergencies….which is true. Many of us live in the middle of proverbial nowhere.”

But in Rock County down in the southwest, Sheriff Evan Verbrugge noted that there are a lot of hunters in his corner of the state, too. He thought maybe people there applied for so few permits because they all know each other and see no need for handgun protection.

“We’re pretty small,” Verbrugge said. “Everybody knows everybody. As far as carrying, I don’t know why anyone needs to carry.”

(To clarify, you don’t need a permit to own a gun, whether it’s a handgun, a rifle or a shotgun. You can keep a handgun in your house without a permit and you can transport it there from the gun shop without a permit. But if you want to carry a handgun around with you, concealed or otherwise, you need a permit issued by the sheriff. Minnesota’s permit law makes no reference to whether the handgun you’re carrying is concealed or not.)

Jim Franklin, executive director of the Minnesota Sheriffs Association, suggested the geographic difference may be the result of proximity to Canada, but he was only joking about a potential invasion. I think. More seriously, he, too, thought the northeast simply has more of an outdoors, live-off-the-land culture that makes it more gun-oriented.

And William Conger, another Cook resident in our PIN, boiled it down to one word: “Machismo.”

“Lack of contact with a variety of people leading to fear of non-white people. People in northern MN are less prone to live with lots of other people and think of themselves more as ‘lone wolves’. This is a field ripe for study.”

At the least, I agree with his last point.

So, self-reliance, outdoors culture, 2nd Amendment appreciation, soil type? What is it that makes the pattern of handgun distribution look the way it does in Minnesota? What’s your idea?

  • politicarl

    There definitely is a gun oriented culture here in NE MN. My perception is that there are several reasons behind high gun ownership in general as well as carry permits. One is the tradition of hunting that has resulted in a comfort factor along with pride. Many people are very comfortable with guns as well as very proud of them, particularly with hunting weapons, and that comfort extends to non-hunting weapons, including handguns. Along with this is a fun factor – it’s fun and exhilarating to go out and plink or target shoot. There is also a significant sense of individuality combined with independence in our northwoods population, and guns can be a strong symbol of that, as well as a way to potentially defend independent individuality. So that blends into another reason, which is protection of property rights, whether or not that reason is real or imagined. If one owns guns and is comfortable using them, then one feels ready and able to defend oneself so carrying a handgun feels right.

    Somewhat distinct from those reasons is a fear factor, whether justified or not. There are many who do not engage in hunting and who are not inclined to define their individuality and independence by owning weapons. Some do, however, fear that they or their property may be attacked at any time and feel a need to carry a weapon to protect themselves. This fear may be heightened by the fact that they live among so many other gun owners, some of who might seem potentially threatening – even if only in their imaginations. In general, most of these folks are not very comfortable with their guns, and probably not very competent with them either. A high level of fear along with a lack of competence with a carried gun is a worrisome combination. I suspect that a high percentage of people in this group are more recent transplants to northeastern MN – most often from cities.

  • Pat Cannon

    The geographic distribution clearly suggests a fear of something crawling out of Lake Superior.

    Although it would also be interesting to compare it to a map of the widely varying fees in the different counties.

  • E. Pelgar

    Two words explain the handgun phenomenon in northern Minnesota: bears, cougars.

  • MinnAndy

    Since the map shows that Cook County has the most permits per capita, why were residents of Cook, the city in St. Louis County, interviewed instead of people from Grand Marais? Or do people in Grand Marais think that the tourist business there might be hurt if they knew how many guns are around in that area?

  • Dave Peters

    MinnAndy — We sent the question to people all over the state, not only Cook County. As I say in the post, it’s not simply a phenomenon of one county. The whole northeastern part of the state tends to have a higher concentration of handgun permits.

  • jay sieling

    It would be interesting to see if there is any historical correlation to this distribution of carry permits. Before the new conceal/carry law went into effect, permits to carry were issued by local law enforcement almost at their discretion. In some counties it was virtually impossible to get a permit because local law enforcement didn’t see the need or the need wasn’t persuasively demonstrated.

    The new law changed the parameters for awarding the permits. If somebody takes the training class, they will be awarded a permit. Perhaps this concentration in the north and northeast has a historical underpinning….there were more carry permits to begin with. The need to have a carry permit is more demonstrable: bears, wolves, coyotes etc. So it was easier to achieve one before. Just a a thought.

  • http://www.mnprogressiveproject.com/ Grace Kelly

    I think this would be best followed up with a survey of gun permit holders, if they ever had to use or threaten to use their gun. Did they ever run into bears, cougars, invading Canadians (just humor) or other threats?