“Finger off the trigger, safety on and holster.”

It’s a phrase you’ll hear dozens of times on the gun range if you take a concealed carry class with Chris Medlin of Your Best Defense.

Medlin has taught the class for five years and has graduated some 1,600 concealed carry permit holders. He said safety is paramount in his instruction, not only during the eight hours of the course but in the carriers’ operation of their firearms after they leave.

The S.C. State Law Enforcement Division reported in January that the number of first-time applications for a concealed carry permit statewide nearly tripled from 24,661 in 2011 to 61,766 in 2012, according to the Associated Press. In 2012, there were nearly 187,000 active concealed carry permits in the state.

“Oh, my goodness,” Medlin said of the increasing number of people wishing to take his class and obtain a permit. “From what the customers are telling me, it’s concerns over the state of our society. People are mean and they’re afraid of crime, afraid of being broken into and not being able to defend themselves. The economy is feeding some of that.”

He added that some people are purchasing guns and obtaining permits for “political reasons.”

“They’re afraid they’re not going to be able to hold on to their guns, and they want to get a permit now while they can, before the process gets shut down for some reason,” he said.

‘We have to train them from the ground up’

Between 30 and 50 people take the course each month, which is taught on Saturdays, Medlin said.

The course itself is $100, and permit holders must pay a $50 fee to SLED to obtain the permit, which they usually receive within 90 days of taking the course.

The first part of the day is spent in the classroom of a local church learning about gun laws, gun safety and gun handling.

To get a permit, a person must be at least 21 years old, be a resident of South Carolina and attend an eight-hour class.

Medlin explained that a concealed carry permit allows the holder to carry a handgun concealed on their self when they’re “out and about.”

In addition to your home, a permit is not required to have a gun in your vehicle, as long as the gun is stored in the console, glove compartment, trunk or a locked box.

Permit holders cannot carry into several places, including government buildings, schools, day-care centers, businesses that serve alcohol for consumption, or any place that has a sign posted prohibiting concealed weapons.

The state legislature is currently debating a bill known as the “Constitutional Carry Act of 2013.” If passed, the bill would let anyone carry a gun, open or concealed, without a permit.

A similar bill also being debated, Senate Bill 308, would allow concealed carry permit holders to carry their weapons into businesses that sell alcohol unless otherwise posted by the business owner.

South Carolina has what is known as a castle doctrine that designates a person’s abode – including their home, vehicle and place of business – as their castle.

In the United States, a “stand your ground” law states that a person may justifiably use deadly force in self-defense to prevent loss of life or serious injury.

“If they’re in a place and they have a right to be there, especially in their home, their workplace and their occupied vehicle, they can stand their ground,” Medlin said. “You don’t have to run out the back door when somebody’s kicking your front door in.”

Medlin said the law doesn’t cover someone shooting an intruder that is in the process of fleeing.

“You are no longer threatened,” he said. “The law says you have to stop with the use of deadly force against an attacker who has broken off his attack and is attempting to flee.”

With Aiken being a retirement community, Medlin said a large number of his students are retirees from other states, many of which don’t allow concealed weapons. Many students, regardless of age, have never fired a gun before.

“We have to train them from the ground up,” he said of new gun owners. “They go to buy a gun and don’t know what they’re getting. They don’t know what to look for or what to ask for, so a lot of gun stores tell them, ‘Go take a class with somebody first.’”

In the classroom, Medlin discusses the types of concealed weapons and ammunition, as well as holsters – including purses designed to hold a concealed weapon.

“We give them a head start on those things and let them put on some holsters, let them handle them and see a number of different kinds of guns,” he said.

35 out of 50

  After taking a 50-question exam, the classroom portion ends and the students head to the gun range. There, they must pass the state-mandated 50-round qualification course.

Before firing, Medlin instructs them on shooting stance, marksmanship and gun handling.

The students fire at silhouette targets while first standing 3 feet away, gradually stepping back together and increasing the distance up to 15 yards. To qualify, a student must hit the silhouette portion of the target 35 out of 50 times.

“It’s really not very difficult with a little bit of instruction,” Medlin said.

He tells the students that starting out on the gun range is similar to learning to drive a car or ride a bicycle.

“It’s like a driver’s ed course. You get more comfortable the more time you spend with it,” he said.

The people taking the class come from all age groups and walks of life, Medlin said. They’re teachers, doctors, housewives, engineers, bankers, hairdressers and retirees.

J.D. McCauley, of North Augusta, took the course along with his wife, Catie.

“It’s a class that teaches you more about guns and gun safety,” he said. “So my wife and I took it to know more about our weapons and the right way to carry them, where we can and where we cannot (carry). Overall, safety is the main reason we came out today.”

“My husband got me a gun, and I wanted to make sure I’m safe,” Catie said. “We learned a lot about the types of bullets. That was interesting and wasn’t what I was expecting.”

Nikki Grant, of Aiken, received a gun for her birthday and took the course for the first time on Saturday.

“I’m a single mother,” she said. “It’s just for protection at home. It’s just a precaution.”

Aiken resident Frank Moore had a different reason for taking the course.

“In my case, I would like to go deer hunting with a pistol,” he said. “How do you carry a stand and everything else and a pistol in your hands? You need the holster for the pistol underneath your hunting coat, so it’s concealed.”

Medlin said his course can accommodate a variety of people. He’s had students as old as 91 make the trek out to the gun range; others have suffered the loss of a limb or are confined to a wheelchair, but they successfully complete the course.

South Carolina has a reciprocity agreement with 17 other states that allow concealed carry firearms, which means that residents of those states can carry concealed weapons in South Carolina as long as they abide by South Carolina laws. Additionally, South Carolina permit holders can carry in any one of those states as long as they familiarize themselves with that state’s law.

Georgia is not on that list because it doesn’t require a course to get a concealed carry permit, Medlin said.

“Only a background check,” he said. “Pay your money and, ‘Here you go, here’s your permit. Have fun.’

“You sit down in the class, and in the first hour and a half, you learn enough that you’ll be glad you came to the class,” he said.

Students are even provided a booklet during the classroom portion that details all the state laws on firearms, which they can take with them after the course. Medlin advises them to continue going to the gun range to practice shooting.

For those who wish to continue their training, Your Best Defense also offers an advanced class, which covers topics such as firing in the dark, firing on a moving target and moving through your home while investigating a suspicious noise.

‘Bad guys don’t use holsters’

  Concealed carry instructors have the discretion to deny training to a person, according to Medlin.

“If somebody comes in and they’re doing crazy stuff and they’re not acting right, SLED advises us to give them their money back and turn them away,” he said, adding that in five years, he’s only come close to turning someone away once.

“You can pick up on little cues in somebody’s behavior, their language, how they carry themselves, to what they’re about and why they’re there,” Medlin said.

A shooting at a Connecticut elementary school in December that claimed the lives of 20 children and six adults sparked a new discussion on the use of guns in society – and a firestorm of debate on possibly regulating that use.

Medlin said more restrictive laws aren’t necessary, and that society can be safer when “law-abiding” citizens are allowed to carry – as long as they’ve gone through the proper training.

“In my experience, anybody that’s carrying a gun in a holster is a good guy. The bad guys don’t use holsters,” he said. “These are good guys (taking the course). The bad guys don’t care about the laws. The bad guys are gonna find a way to harm people. It levels the playing field, and there’s an old saying that an armed society is a polite society.”

Medlin said he never hears of negative encounters between permit holders and law enforcement, adding that they “rarely” happen.

“You just don’t have these law-abiding citizens that go through this process to get their permit doing stupid stuff that will get their permit taken from them,” he said.