About a dozen people sat in the smallish classroom at Down Range Concepts in Key West on Thursday, ready to begin learning the ins and outs of Florida's concealed carry law, firearms safety and the legal liability that accompanies carrying a weapon.
Among the students was Rob Nevius, a boat captain and fishing charter guide who has been on the waters around Key West for more than 15 years. The time had come, the captain said, to inquire about guns and learn the law.
"There have been boat hijackings," Nevius said. "It does happen out there."
Standing before the group was John McGee, a security contractor, Monroe County sheriff's deputy, Big Coppitt Gun Club investor, and a Florida concealed carry permit and firearms instructor.
"You may be surprised how many boat captains have taken the course," McGee said.
The issue of concealed carry, particularly in Florida, recently was catapulted into the national debate by the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla. Neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman, 28, a concealed carry holder, has been charged with second-degree murder.
Monroe County ranks second in the state in the number of concealed carry weapons permits issued per capita, according to the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which administers the permits. There were 5,370 concealed carry holders in the Keys as of March 31, which was 7.3 percent of the population, according to the state agency's website.
The rankings were compiled this month by the News Service of Florida, which found Dixie County leading the state with one in 10 residents having concealed carry permits. Statewide, the per capita average is 4.2 percent. Calhoun, Gilchrist, Glades, Lafayette, Liberty, St. Johns and Sumter counties all have the lowest per capita concealed weapons rates, all under 3 percent.
"It does surprise me, because the demographic here is more live and let live and most of the demographic here doesn't seem to be the type to carry a weapon," McGee said of the Keys. "It doesn't seem to be something that people here think about."
Still, McGee couldn't argue with the numbers, or the fact that his business has been doing well.
"I do get quite a bit of interest from people about what's involved and all the requirements on the legal side," McGee said. "Before, I would hold a class of six to eight people once every month or so. Now I'm holding classes every week or two weeks."
Natalie Maddox was another of McGee's students. A worker with the Visiting Nurse Association & Hospice of the Florida Keys, Maddox does a lot of fundraising and driving up and down the Keys.
"I'm out of town, staying in hotels overnight a lot," Maddox said, adding that as a female, she also wanted to learn more about how to protect herself.
Maddox's concerns would make sense to Monroe County Sheriff Bob Peryam, who couldn't account for the high number of concealed carry permits in the Keys off the top of his head, but he offered a guess.
"I don't really know, but I think there's a good size of the population here in the Keys that travels a lot and that may account for those numbers, but I'm just speculating," Peryam said. "There's certainly no indication that I can find to suggest this impacts crime statistics one way or another."
Nor has the number of concealed carry permits had much impact on deputies in the field, the sheriff said.
"We stress officer safety at all times, regardless of how many concealed carry permits are issued," Peryam said. "Law enforcement officers need to be paying attention at all times, regardless."
At Real Deal Jewelry & Pawn, owner Sean Condella was going over the most popular guns he sells to concealed carry holders. They are mostly the small .380- and .38-caliber variety that can fit in most men's clothes pockets or women's purses.
Condella, his parents and his wife are all concealed carry holders, he said. Operating a pawn shop can sometimes lure unsavory elements and burglars.
"I carry for the safety of myself, my family and my business," said Condella, who also owns the Big Coppitt Gun Club. "In my opinion it doesn't have an impact on crime. Concealed carry holders have to go through all the background checks and everything else that comes with that."
Condella added that concealed carry holders tend to be people more educated about the law, more aware of their surroundings and more law-abiding people in general. He was not surprised to learn that the Keys are second in the state for per capita permit holders.
"I would say on a weekly basis, I get 20 to 30 people in here asking about basic shooter classes at the range and other courses on guns, including concealed carry," Condella said.
One of McGee's students, Rob Kessler, said he was interested in obtaining a concealed carry permit to protect his Second Amendment right, which states: "A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed."
"I want to have one if they ever decide to do away with them (concealed carry permits) and I want to exercise my right to exercise the privilege," Kessler said.
McGee also emphasized the difference between rights and privileges.
"There's a lot of nationwide politics and trends at play," McGee said. "Civil liability is one of the biggest things I really try to drive home with people. Just like driving is a privilege, so is this. Owning a gun is a right. Carrying one is a privilege. Once you launch a bullet down range and hit the wrong thing or person, what then? Well, everyone needs to be educated on the real-life criminal and civil implications. And that's what I do here."