Nobody knows why, but Texans in increasing numbers are applying for licenses to carry concealed handguns. The crunch has led to delays of several months before the Department of Public Safety can issue or renew them, far longer than the period mandated by law.

Despite some farfetched speculation that the 39 percent spike in license applications is linked to the election year and the possibility that the next president might push gun control, the likely reason is closer to home. Violent crime continues to be a public menace, even if rates in Houston are down this year. A front page story in Thursday's Chronicle documented a rampage by armed carjackers who stole four cars within minutes.

Another reason handgun licenses might be more attractive is the Texas Legislature's decision last year to make the records confidential. When the concealed weapon statute was first passed in 1995, those documents were considered public records. When access to the gun permit data was withdrawn, Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas board member Joel White rightly criticized the action as a bad idea.

”This has nothing to do with whether you can carry a concealed weapon,” White said, ”but we need as citizens to know whether authorities are granting handgun licenses to the right people.”

The Legislature also liberalized circumstances under which people with a concealed weapon may use it to defend themselves. Under the so-called ”castle” doctrine, citizens may use a firearm to protect their vehicles as well as their homes.

With more people packing lead, enforcement of the state law's restrictions will continue to be needed, even if issuance of the license is delayed. People charged with or convicted of a crime cannot carry concealed weapons, and license applicants must pass a gun-handling course taught by a certified trainer.

Perhaps those tempted to road rage will think twice before they threaten other drivers, considering that firing from a motor vehicle can be construed as self-defense.

URL: http://www.chron.com

—Houston Chronicle