Gun rights key issue in sheriffs races
March 1, 2010
By JOHN SEILER
In the past two decades in America, a strong movement has grown to liberalize “concealed carry” laws for guns. These are laws that allow a person to carry a concealed weapon; this is different from the also-controversial “open carry” laws, in which the gun must be displayed in the open.
Currently, two states allow any adult not a felon to carry a concealed weapon without a license: Vermont and Alaska. Thirty-nine states follow what is called “shall-issue” laws, in which law enforcement “shall” issue a concealed carry permit to any law-abiding adult, usually after a firearms safety course is taken.
Another nine states have what is called “may issue” laws, meaning it’s at the discretion of law enforcement. According to Wikipedia, three of those states effectively have “shall issue laws,” three states effectively have “no issue” laws and three states have laws with permits issued at the discretion of law enforcement. California has the latter, in which state law gives local sheriffs complete discretion over who gets a “may issue” permit.
As one would expect, the more liberal large counties issue almost no permits. As of a 2006 tally, here is the number of permits in some of these counties: Los Angeles County – 1,289; San Francisco County – 8; Marin County – 55.
Some more rural counties have what are virtual “shall issue” policies. But what’s ironic is that Orange County, the most conservative county in the state with a large population, long has had tight “may issue” policies. It did so under 24-year Sheriff Brad Gates, who issued permits mainly to campaign conributors. His successor, Mike Carona, last year convicted on federal felony charges, also issued permits mainly to political allies, but was somewhat more accommodating to regular citizens.
Current Sheriff Sandra Hutchens, appointed to take Carona’s place, sharply tightened policy, rejecting the renewals of many permits issued under Carona. With a population more than 3 million, just 1,100 concealed carry permits have been issued. Her policy has become an issue this year in her re-election campaign.
It’s also an issue in the sheriffs’ campaigns in other counties, such as El Dorado. Sam Parades, executive director of Gun Owners of California, a gun-rights group, told me that “the seven candidates in El Dorado are tripping over themselves” backing shall-issue policies.
Legislative pot shots
Gun rights advocates periodically attempt to change California law to “shall issue.” One current bill is by Assemblyman Bill Knight, R-Palmdale is AB2115, which would adopt a “shall issue” policy for military veterans. The thinking on the latter is that veterans already have firearms training, and have been safely entrusted with weapons in the past.
But these bills will go nowhere in the Legislature. According to a “Scorecard” by the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, California has by far the most restrictive gun laws of the 50 states. It garnered a score of 79 out of 100 points. The group notes:
In 2009, California further strengthened its laws by passing legislation to regulate the sale of handgun ammunition in the state. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed AB 962, sponsored by Assembly Member Kevin DeLeon, D-Los Angeles. It was the top priority of the California Brady Campaign Chapters and Women Against Gun Violence.
Concealed Carry: Pro and Con
There is much controversy over whether or not concealed carry weapons reduce crime.
One benefit of “shall issue” policies, Parades said, is that “there then are no special weapons permits for campaign contributors. It’s just like a driver’s license. You just can go get it. Most chiefs and sheriffs don’t want to lose that power.”
An opposing view comes from Karen Arntzen, California Chapter Services coordinator for the Brady Campaign. She told me:
Our position is that we like the California concealed carry law the way it is, where the individual sheriff makes the determination. We’re absolutely against shall-issue. We feel the local law enforcement person has a better feel for the local community. They have the authority and the judgment. If there’s an incident [of a concealed carry permit holder using a gun to commit a crime], the sheriff also can be held accountable, at least in the court of public opinion.”
A major controversy is over whether concealed carry laws increase or reduce crime.
One of the best known books on the issue is “More Guns, Less Crime,” by John Lott, a scholar at the University of Maryland. He told me, “The second edition of More Guns, Less Crime” shows that for jurisdictions with the most permits do have greater reductions in violent crime,” based on comparisons among the states.
The contention is that, when honest citizens are armed, criminals won’t know which potential victim is carrying a concealed gun, and which isn’t, and so will commit fewer crimes. Lott told me:
I have looked at county level crime data for the whole U.S., but I don’t have the county level permit data for all the counties in the California. I am the only one who has looked at the relationship between the number of permits and crime rates. That said, the second edition of “More Guns, Less Crime” shows that jurisdictions with the most permits do have greater reductions in violent crime. If you knew the starting level of permits, it would be possible, with sufficient time, to figure out the change in crime from having more permits. One could estimate how many more permits that you would get with different permitting rules. As I say, though, no one else has looked into this.
That looks like a ripe area for California crime scholars to examine.
Lott did provided me with a study of crime in Orange County from the third edition of “More Guns, Less Crime,” due in May. It showed that, if Orange County’s sheriff adopted a “shall issue” rule, the county would see, over the following six years, crime reductions by 19 homicides, 45 rapes, 866 robberies and 906 aggressive assaults. Total reductions: 1,836 crimes.
The full data from his analysis are in the Appendix.
In rebuttal, Arntzen referred me to the national Brady Campaign’s November 2009 report, “Reported Crimes and Misdeeds by Concealed Weapons License and Permit Holders [.pdf].” It contends (boldface in original):
The gun lobby claims that only law-abiding citizens. have concealed weapons licenses or permits. From that assumption, the gun lobby argues that having more people carrying loaded, concealed firearms makes society “safer.” Both claims are false.
In fact, too many dangerous people have obtained licenses to carry concealed weapons and used their firearms in violent or irresponsible acts. According to one Utah official who processed concealed carry license applications, “I would hazard a fairly educated guess that better than 50 percent of the applicants have a criminal background of some kind…. The only ones who get denied are the ones who have very current offenses or serious offenses”….
Studies by reputable academics who study this problem have discovered, “[T]he weight of the evidence is now firmly behind those who have found that right-to-carry laws do not reduce, and may even increase, the overall level of crime.”
The last sentence includes a footnote to the study, “The Final Bullet in the Body of the More Guns, Less Crime Hypothesis [.pdf],” which criticizes Lott’s book.
The sheriff’s prerogative
I wondered if the board of supervisors of a California county could compel a sheriff to adopt a “shall issue” policy. For example, a board might appropriate funds for a sheriff’s budget specifically to issue shall issue permits, the expenses to be repaid by those getting the permits.
“No, it’s not possible,” Joseph Silvoso, an attorney in Long Beach and an expert in state gun law, told me. He added:
Any such law by a board of supervisors would be pre-empted by Penal Code Section 12050, legislation giving absolute discretion to the sheriff. The Legislature puts the decision-making authority of what “good cause” is in hands of the law enforcement official. If local county supervisors tried to force his or her hand, I don’t see how that would be legal.
Law enforcement may set the standard for “good cause” and if law enforcement wants to, it can put “good cause” close to the “shall issue” line as it likes.
So any vote by county supervisors, under current law, would be only advisory.
I wondered if a local county-level initiative, mandating that a local sheriff must use “shall issue” rules, would have any effect. No, Silvoso replied. Only a change in state law, by the Legislature or a statewide initiative, could change county-level “may issue” to “shall issue.”
May 21, 2013