The number of firearms licenses issued in Massachusetts has climbed by more than one-third in the past five years, a marked shift in a state known for its antigun reputation.
Since 2007, the number of Class A permits — the largest and least restrictive category that allows possession of all legal handguns, rifles, and shotguns — has risen to nearly 260,000, the latest state records show, a 36 percent jump that extends from cities to bedroom communities to small towns.
Longstanding concerns that the federal government will tighten gun control laws are a driving force behind the increase, gun shop owners and firearms instructors say. In the aftermath of the Newtown, Conn., school shootings, renewed calls for gun control, at both the federal and state level, have deepened the fears.
Increased gun ownership also reflects broader fears. Years of economic turmoil, terrorist attacks, and intense news focus on horrific crimes have stirred considerable anxiety, leading more people to seek personal protection.
“There’s a general sense of unease with the current situation,” said Steven Moysey, a firearms instructor in Worcester. “People are just nervous, and don’t want to be victims. I’ve seen it over and over again.”
In virtually every community in the state, more residents own weapons, and in many cases carry concealed handguns.
In Boston, the number of these permits, which allow the possession of all legal handguns, rifles, and shotguns, has risen more than 60 percent since 2007, while in Somerville they rose by 66 percent.
Many communities — including Duxbury, Falmouth, Franklin, and Northborough — saw 50 percent increases. In Pembroke, a suburb within 30 miles of Boston, permits doubled.
While several law enforcement officials said they are more concerned with illegal weapons, supporters of stricter gun control said the increase in gun licenses was worrisome.
“In my view, there are too many guns in private hands,” said David Linsky, a Democratic state representative from Natick. “We need to look in a very serious way what the standards are for issuing those gun licenses and whether the standards are too lax.”
Mike Burchman, a firearms instructor in Hopkinton, said high-profile home invasions in Connecticut and New Hampshire in recent years have spurred interest in guns for self-defense. One recent student, a woman from the small town of Groton, was worried that her house, set back down a long driveway, was too remote for police to reach quickly. Other instructors say they have seen many more women taking gun classes in the past two years, at times making up a majority of the students.
“People are feeling a little helpless, and they have decided to do something about it,” he said. “They are starting to realize police can’t be everywhere at all times.”
Since the Newtown shootings, several area gun shops have reported increased business. Ted Oven, owner of Northeast Trading Co. in North Attleborough, said some buyers were picking up four or five boxes of ammunition instead of their usual one. “Everyone is hoarding,” Oven said.
Jim Wallace — who directs the Massachusetts-based Gun Owners’ Action League, an affiliate of the National Rifle Association — said people are “legitimately afraid” of a crackdown on firearms.
“They are taking hints from the president that something big is on the horizon,” he said.
In Massachusetts, local police departments decide whether to issue firearms licenses to applicants who complete a certified safety course and pass a background check, a process that can take months.
Gun advocates have long complained that some police chiefs are too arbitrary in awarding permits. In some communities that have seen sharp increases, law enforcement officials say they are following the law to the letter.
“We do it the way the law says,” said police Lieutentant Brian Reid, the licensing officer in Falmouth, where the number of licensed gun owners has grown nearly 80 percent over the past five years. “We don’t impose a doctrine or an attitude.”
In Quincy, where permits are up 60 percent, Police Chief Paul Keenan cited a similar shift.
“We just follow the law,” he said, adding that about 15 people a year have their license revoked because of a domestic violence incident, a drug arrest, or other reasons, he said.
Massachusetts’ gun laws are among the nation’s tightest and feature an assault weapons ban modeled on the now-lapsed federal law. But gun control advocates say the ban should be tightened to include all types of military-style rifles like the one used in the Newtown shooting.
“That needs to be fixed,” said John Rosenthal, founder and president of Stop Handgun Violence.
Rosenthal said the surge in gun licenses is the result of a vicious cycle that can only be stopped by stricter regulation.
“Bottom line is these are very high-powered, semiautomatic weapons that can fire a huge number of shots in a very short period of time,” Linsky said. “In my mind, that type of weapon has no legitimate use in a civilized society.”
Some gun owners agree.
Russell Reeves of Hingham owns three guns that he bought after a high-profile deadly home invasion in Cheshire, Conn., in 2007. Reeves, whose military commander father taught him about gun safety, said he keeps his guns locked away and only uses them for target practice. On his way in to Hunter’s Trading Post in Weymouth Wednesday to look for 12-gauge dud shells for practice, he said the Newtown massacre was tragic and that he would favor an assault weapons ban.
“Why would anybody in this country need an assault rifle? I mean the definition of assault rifle is insulting to me,” Reeves said. “There’s just too many weapons out there today.”
A spokesman for Suffolk District Attorney Daniel Conley said the overwhelming majority of shootings and homicides in Boston during the past five years were committed with illegally possessed firearms, not licensed weapons.
“Keeping those weapons out of the hands of violent offenders has to be a priority at the local, state, and federal levels,” said Jake Wark, the spokesman.
Mike Sheppard, owner and manager of North Shore Firearms in Middleton, predicted a modest increase in gun purchases after Newtown, but said the state’s gun control laws could not get much stricter.
“I don’t think they can do anything else to us here,” he said.