For more than 20 years, Mike Askew has never left home without it.
In his car, it stays by the driver's side door. On the street, it's at his side in a holster underneath a shirt or jacket.
It is his form of insurance.
"I don't always have it on me," the Augusta resident said. "I might have it in the car. But I do carry one with me all the time."
Meet Mr. Askew's .357 Magnum Smith and Wesson handgun. In public, you're likely to never see it. But in the Augusta area, it's one of hundreds of concealed weapons hidden among the garments of men and women.
And to those who carry one, it's a matter of personal protection.
"It was a privilege, and I went and got one," said Bob Holm of Evans, referring to his .45-caliber semiautomatic Colt handgun. "But it has become a case of personal protection because of the current conditions in society."
Mr. Askew agrees.
"You want to be able to defend yourself," he said. "You definitely don't want to be helpless."
But while some gun toters never go without their pistols, others are "occasional carriers" such as Mr. Holm, who has had a gun permit for seven years.
"I take it with me if I'm going on a trip," he said.
And depending on where you live, those approved to carry concealed weapons varies.
"My estimation would be more men because of hunters and stuff like that," Columbia County Clerk of Probate Court Gloria Crosby said. "But there are a good many women coming in for theirs, too."
In Richmond County, there were 1,207 gun permits approved last year - 226 more than in 1998. So far this year, the number is at 681 with 14 applications turned down.
In Columbia County, there was an increase of 179 permits from 1998 to last year, for a total of 340. This year, a Probate Court judge has issued 321 permits with five applications rejected.
The numbers in Aiken County have dropped. There, 176 were issued in 1998, 159 in 1999 and 138 to date this year. Seven have been denied in 2000.
In each of the counties, the permit allows residents who are at least 21 years old to carry a handgun either in open view or in certain concealed positions, including in a shoulder or waist belt holster, hip grip, handbag, purse, briefcase or other closed container. However, in Georgia, handguns can be carried in a car without a license as long as the gun is in full view or in a glove compartment. In South Carolina, the gun must be in a closed console.
There are also restrictions on where the gun can be taken. Off-limits areas include schools, publicly owned buildings, private residences without permission, law enforcement offices, courthouses, churches, polling places and hospitals.
And the restrictions sometimes leave gun toters scrambling.
"I work for the Labor Department, and we don't carry them in the office or anything," Mr. Askew said. "And you're not supposed to take them anywhere that serves alcoholic beverages. But that's kind of hard to call sometimes."
RESIDENTS INELIGIBLE for a gun permit in Georgia and South Carolina include those who have been institutionalized or convicted of a felony, misdemeanor drug charge or weapons-carrying violation.
In Columbia County, Probate Court Judge Pat Hardaway said, the No. 1 reason permits are turned down is a prior misdemeanor drug conviction. But in states such as Alabama and Connecticut, applicants also have to prove they have a legitimate reason for carrying a gun. In Vermont, residents can carry a handgun without a permit.
Georgia residents have been legally carrying weapons on the street since the mid-1970s, making the state one of the first to recognize a right-to-carry law, according to the National Rifle Association's official Web site. It wasn't until 1987 that a Florida law set a precedent for 22 other states to enact carry laws. In 1996, Georgia and South Carolina modified their laws, giving a Probate Court judge ruling over permits, as opposed to a circuit court judge.
Today, right-to-carry laws can be found in 31 states, according to the NRA.
For Mr. Holm, getting a permit wasn't enough. He decided to enroll in a Natural Resources Hunter Safety Instructor Training Program and said he believes all concealed weapon owners should do the same.
"Firearm safety requires a conscious effort," he said. "And just because a person owns a firearm does not necessarily mean that they are safe."
But in Georgia, concealed weapon laws require only that residents fill out an application and have a background check done by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and the FBI.
In South Carolina, residents follow the same guidelines. with the addition of having to pass a mandatory State Law Enforcement Division gun safety course.
THE PROCESS OF getting an application approved in Georgia can take from 12 to 16 weeks, Mrs. Crosby said.
Sohail Abdulla, owner of the Sportsman's Link in Martinez, said his customers usually get a permit because it opens up a loophole that makes it easier to buy guns.
Once someone has been approved for a concealed weapons permit, they can purchase as many guns as they like without an instant background check until their permit expires.
"Most people who get a concealed gun permit, they mainly do it because they don't want to have to worry about the Brady Bill gun check," he said. "It's an inconvenience."
Louise Ciamillo, a concealed gun permit owner and local gun safety trainer for women at the Columbia County Sheriff's Office, was not one of those. Mrs. Ciamillo, whose husband is Columbia County sheriff's Chief Deputy Lou Ciamillo, said she got her first permit several years ago while running her own business.
"I had a gun shop on Fury's Ferry at Baston Road for about five years when I first moved here," she said. "And I was always very concerned."
She said most women who attend her classes are leary of guns at first, but often get a permit after becoming more familiar with a gun.
"A lot of women have them who work in jobs where they feel their security is at risk when they're leaving their job or going home," Mrs. Ciamillo said. "And there's a lot of single people, older people whose husbands have died."
THIS JUNE, Columbia County Animal Control Director Linda Fulmer joined the group of women who carry pistols.
She had never owned a gun, but after her department was threatened she took matters into her own hands.
"After talking to several of the guys at the sheriff's department, they're telling me even at night, if I get called at home to go out on a dog case or animal case it's a good idea to have some kind of protection on me because you just don't know this day in time," she said.
So far, she says, she hasn't regretted her decision to get a gun and hasn't had to use it.
Augusta resident Phil Williams, who is a personal protection training instructor for the NRA and former member of the organization's national board of directors, argues that people such as Mrs. Fulmer are characteristic of most concealed weapon owners.
"You only really have honest citizens doing what's required," he said. "I think that's the reason so few people with concealed weapons ever get charged with anything."
According to the NRA, four-tenths of a percent of gun permits issued in South Carolina from August 1996 to January 2000 were revoked. Numbers for Georgia were not available.
Columbia County sheriff's Capt. Steve Morris said that in his county officers rarely have problems with gun permit owners.
"There's the phrase, `An armed society is a safer society,"' he said. "We are of the opinion that that phrase has some merit."
AS A STATEWIDE instructor of personal protection classes for the NRA, Mr. Williams began noticing a rise in people getting concealed weapon permits in about 1996. Since then, he said, it seems those numbers have dropped throughout the state. He credits the drop to a lack of interest in permits since the 1996 law change and the increasing negative perception of guns.
"A lot of people don't even want you to know they have one because it's not the politically correct thing these days," he said.
However, Mr. Williams said his gun has come in handy through the years.
He recalled an incident several years ago where he and his wife were eating at a restaurant and a group of young men entered threatening to rob the store. He said he positioned himself in his booth, ready to draw.
"One of the guys recognized me and noticed it," he said, referring to his gun.
Mr. Williams said the men didn't rob the store and quickly left. He feels without the presence of a gun there that day, the story might have ended differently.
And while he said he understands some people see concealed weapon laws as a return "to the Wild Wild West all over again," he believes that the war against crime is one best fought with an army of well-protected residents.
"The real saving grace to this whole thing is 99 out of 100 times, someone presents a handgun and the situation is over," he said. "Just the mere sight of it ends it."
Number of approved concealed weapon permits by county for the past three years in the Augusta area:
2000: 681 (to date)
Turned down this year: 14
2000: 138 (to date)
Turned down this year: 7
2000: 321 (to date)
Turned down this year: 5
How to get a permit
Visit your county's Probate Court and ask for a permit application. You must be 21 and a resident of the county.
You will be asked to answer all questions truthfully. If you don't, no matter what shows up on a background check, your request will be rejected.
You then must go to your local sheriff's department for fingerprinting.
From there, it's a waiting game. The fingerprints are sent to the GBI and FBI for a background check.
The results are sent back to a Probate Court judge, who then informs you if you've been approved.
Make a visit to the Probate Court office and pay $24 for your first permit or $15 for a renewal. Renewals are every five years and involve the same approval process as new permits.
In South Carolina:
The steps are essentially the same as Georgia's with the exception of having to take a State Law Enforcement Division-officiated gun safety course. Those with proof of completing an eight-hour SLED course in the past three years are exempt.
You also must obtain the permit through your local SLED office rather than Probate Court. Cost is $50.
Reach Preston Sparks at (706) 868-1222.