COLUMBIA — The South Carolina Law Enforcement Division is being swamped by applications for concealed weapon permits.

A House panel advanced a bill Wednesday that allows gun owners to apply online, speeding up the process. The measure also raises the $50 application fee to $75, largely to help the agency pay for the technology. SLED hopes to have an automated system in place within six months, though paper filing would continue to be an option for those who aren’t computer-savvy.

“There are a lot of positives about automation,” SLED spokeswoman Kathryn Richardson said. “It’s just faster. It’s more efficient.”

According to SLED’s statistics, the agency approved nearly 42,600 new permits in 2012. That’s almost 18,000 more new permits when compared to the previous year.

The agency is also considering creating a second shift of workers just to process the applications, Richardson said.

As introduced, the bill sought a $100 fee, but sponsoring Rep. Mike Pitts said he was fine with lowering that, recognizing that was the lone provision drawing fire. The issue, he said, is making the program self-sustaining so SLED is not using investigative resources for paper processing.

The bill updating the 17-year-old law would not change the requirement that SLED issue a permit or denial within 90 days. It adds a requirement that SLED notify people at least a month before their permits expire.

Pitts, a retired law enforcement officer, said people often don’t apply to renew their license because they forget the four-year expiration date, and carrying a concealed weapon on an expired permit is the same as not having one. The automated system would help with that notification process.

Roughly 200,000 people hold concealed weapon permits from South Carolina. SLED processed more than 64,400 permit applications last year, including nearly 20,000 approved renewals and 1,100 denials.

The bill deletes the specification that classes for a concealed weapon permit last eight hours.

Pitts, who teaches permit classes, said setting the time in state law creates an issue for instructors, since the time taken should depend on the students’ familiarity with weapons. He gave an example of a recent class he taught filled with former law enforcement offices and military service members.

“I could’ve taught that class in five hours,” said Pitts, R-Laurens. “You get no questions on cleaning a firearm or firearm safety or storage, and when I used a term, they knew what it was.”

But in another class filled with inexperienced gun owners, including several legislators, he called them back for a second day of instruction, he said.

He said he’s not surprised that people of all levels of experience are seeking concealed weapon permits. He noted the attacks Tuesday at a suburban Houston community college, in which a 20-year-old man is accused of stabbing more than a dozen people.

“In the climate we’re in now, people want to protect themselves,” Pitts said.