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Today's West is wilder than ever

The wild old West might have been a tamer place than the Texas of today.

For one thing, there's the number of Texans walking the streets now with legally licensed concealed firearms. At last count it was 151,433.So one in every 121 modern Texans is secretly packin' iron.

This is according to the Violence Policy Center, a non-profit citizen watchdog group in Washington, D.C., which has been keeping count of the number of Texans licensed by the state to carry concealed guns.

Of course, lots and lots of Texans in the olden days kept hideout guns up their sleeves and under their frock coats - and nobody bothered with permits or keeping count. Another difference, though: those were two-shot derringers and single-action Colts and these days hidden pistols are more likely to be semi-automatic Glock-9s.

The center also has been keeping tally, based on data from the Texas Department of Public Safety, of what Texans have been doing with the pistols in their pockets.

More than 940 individuals with concealed handgun licenses have been arrested in the past two years since Texas' "shall-issue" law took effect.

Their offenses: 263 felony arrests, including six charges of murder or attempted murder involving at least four deaths; two charges of kidnapping; 18 charges of sexual assault; 66 charges of assault; 48 cases of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon; and 42 other weapon-related charges, plus 683 misdemeanor arrests, including 215 instances of driving while intoxicated.

"The National Rifle Association will be quick to argue that the 940 arrested are less than one percent of those with concealed weapons permits," says Josh Sugarmann of the Violence Policy Center.

His associate, Susan Glick, who did the study, contends the more accurate way of gauging the violence is by comparing arrest rates of those with concealed carry permits and those without. "We find the weapon-related offense rate among concealed handgun-license-holders is more than twice as high as the general population of Texans ages 21 and older," says Glick.

The center did a study last year on Florida, which has been freely giving permits for 12 years, and found 200,241 Floridians had received licenses to carry concealed firearms.

That was one in every 69 Floridians with a hidden gun as of July 1995.

At the time of the study, 469 individuals had committed crimes ranging from murder to kidnapping, either before or after getting the Florida permits. The study also found that hundreds of criminals had applied for Florida licenses and many had received them.

Currently, 31 states issue some form of permits for concealed weapons. They are Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia and Wyoming.

Exactly how many people have gotten the permits nationwide is unknown. The center says each state has various ways of keeping count, and many have confidentiality laws that veil the records. No count is being kept by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, because the permits fall under state law, and there is no federal issue at stake.

Yet by the most conservative reckoning, at least a million Americans today are going about publicly with handguns concealed in their clothes.

And with modern weaponry, every one is almost sure to be packing more firepower than either Billy the Kid or Sheriff Pat Garrett could imagine.

"It's a scary number of them," says Glick, "whatever it is."