By Rich Cholodofsky TRIBUNE-REVIEW Western Pennsylvania residents are going to local sheriffs' offices in record numbers to fill out paperwork that allows them to legally carry concealed weapons. A Tribune-Review analysis found that more residents in the Pittsburgh region are permitted to walk around with concealed weapons than in any other part of the state. Through March, Allegheny County issued almost 49,000 permits, the most in the state, report the Pennsylvania State Police. Westmoreland County ranks second with nearly 34,000 permits issued. Philadelphia ranks third with 28,000. Statistics show that 92 out of every 1,000 people carry a gun in Westmoreland County -- a higher rate than any place east of the Mississippi River, according to Westmoreland County Sheriff Chris Sherer. story continues below "The way this world is today, there are a lot of screwballs with guns. There are an awful lot of nuts running around. If one comes to my house, he's going to be dead," said Ed Stoner, of Scottdale, as he applied for a concealed weapon permit at the Greensburg courthouse. Stoner, who has been around guns for most of his 80 years, keeps a handgun in his desk drawer with ammunition nearby in case he needs it. Maxine Woods, 63, of Clairton, started carrying a small handgun about two years ago, after her 15-year-old grandson was gunned down in the streets near his home. "My family is afraid," Woods said. "I don't feel safe and I don't particularly like guns, but I feel I need one." The number of newly issued concealed weapon permits has been increasing every year. More than 589,000 permits to carry concealed weapons have been issued to state residents, according to the Pennsylvania Sheriffs Association. In 2000, there were 86,706 concealed weapon permits issued throughout the state. Last year, the number swelled to 101,643, a 17 percent increase. Allegheny County issues about 10,000 new and renewed permits every year. Westmoreland County, since 2002, has issued an average of more than 2,100 new gun permits each year. Another 2,000 permits are renewed every year. The licenses can be renewed every five years. Since 2002, Westmoreland County has issued permits to nearly 400 people between the ages of 81 and 100. Women account for more than 18 percent of the gun permits issued in Westmoreland. "Westmoreland County people take their right to carry firearms seriously," Scherer said. "We have a county well-versed in firearms and they know the value of keeping them, and keeping them safe." Diane Edbril, executive director of CeaseFire PA, a nonprofit group that works to prevent gun violence, conceded that most weapons involved in violent crimes are not legally licensed firearms. But she expressed surprised at the number of gun permits issued in Western Pennsylvania. "That's a lot of people carrying concealed weapons," Edbril said. The demand for licenses in Westmoreland County has become so large that Scherer designated a corner of his basement office to accommodate the hundreds of people who come to the courthouse every week to apply for or renew licenses. On a Wednesday morning in October, more than a dozen people applied for permits over three hours. "It's like this all the time," said Deputy Sheriff Ed Moro. Allegheny County residents line up at the Downtown courthouse, where a separate office has been set up to deal with the growing number of applicants for gun permits. Deputy Sheriff Gail Carter said more than three dozen applications are processed daily. Last year, the state raised the fee for licenses by $6, to $25. Photo identification cards laminated in plastic eventually will replace paper permits with names and addresses. Officials hope the new licenses will better track guns. In April, Allegheny County started conducting its own background checks, in addition to those required by the state. Since then, Allegheny has disqualified about 20 percent of applicants previously approved by the state, Carter said. "I just want to make it more difficult to get a gun in Allegheny County," said acting Sheriff William Mullen. According to state police, there were 14,280 violent crimes committed last year in Pennsylvania with firearms, but Westmoreland County District Attorney John Peck said those crimes are rarely tied to people legally carrying concealed weapons. Donald Baker, 43, a North Huntingdon union carpenter who frequently travels in Pittsburgh for work, said he routinely carries his 9 mm Glock or his .44-caliber Magnum handgun for safety. "With all the shooting and stuff going on there, I wouldn't want to be caught in a crossfire without being able to protect myself," Baker said. Many people applying for concealed weapon permits say they feel safer having a gun close by. "I don't even know how to shoot one," said Anne Allen, 70, of McCandless, as she renewed her permit last week. "Just knowing I have it in my hand makes me feel safer." Cash and carry Pennsylvania law sets no restrictions on the maximum age for someone to carry a gun legally. Applicants for a permit to carry a concealed weapon must be at least 21. Applicants can be turned down for a permit if they have a prior criminal conviction or a documented history of mental health problems. Not every crime will disqualify an applicant from getting a concealed weapon permit. But most felony convictions --- such as weapons offenses, murder, assault, robbery, sex offenses and drug counts -- will prevent someone from receiving a carry permit. It can take minutes to win approval for a carry permit through the Pennsylvania Instant Checks System. The average length of an automated check is just under 4 minutes. In April, Allegheny County implemented its own background check, and anyone with a prior arrest on certain felony and misdemeanor charges is disqualified from receiving concealed gun permits. Allegheny's system delays the issuance of permits up to 45 days. To get a carry permit, an applicant must pass a background check and pay a $25 application fee. Pennsylvania is one of a handful of states that requires no safety training before a weapon can be purchased or a user permit is issued.