Say you’re a jeweler living in Sacramento County. You’d like to carry a concealed handgun for security reasons. If you apply for a concealed weapon permit, you are very likely to be issued one. A jeweler living in Lodi would likely be successful, too.
But one living in San Francisco is out of luck. San Francisco very rarely issues permits. In fact, there are only two in a city of 700,000.
Getting a concealed weapon permit in California is a roll of the dice, a News-Sentinel investigation has found.
Standards vary wildly from agency to agency. The San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Office, for instance, rejects more applicants than they approve, while the Calaveras County Sheriff’s Office approves more than 90 percent.
Today, almost no continuity exists among the dozens of agencies entrusted to issue permits in California. The differences can reflect the political outlook of a sheriff or police chief, or the amount of money an agency chooses to spend processing applications.
The result: A jurisdictional welter in which some residents can get a permit as easily as filing a tax return, while others are left waiting months for near-certain denial.
The issue is heating up in California, as gun laws are debated and many residents want guns for their own safety and protection.
A number of residents are suing restrictive agencies of violating equal-protection rights.
And in light of the News-Sentinel’s investigation, some California lawmakers say reform is needed.
“There shouldn’t be such significant variance in how many permits are allocated,” said Assemblywoman Kristin Olson, a Republican representing the 12th District, which includes numerous communities, including Lockeford. “(Law enforcement agencies) should be issuing concealed weapons permits to people who apply for them, unless there is a legal reason not to. So if that is not being followed throughout the state ... then perhaps we do need some clarifying criteria and standard at the state level.”
Why a concealed weapon?
Californians apply for concealed weapons permits for a variety of reasons.
A father may want to protect his wife and children. A retired judge or law enforcement officer could fear retribution. And there are those who feel self-defense is their constitutional right.
When a citizen applies for a concealed weapons permit, agencies require them to pass a background check, a shooting proficiency test and a psychological evaluation. The applicant must also submit a sworn affidavit explaining why they need to carry a concealed gun.
If granted a permit, the applicant can carry a pistol, revolver, or other firearm capable of being concealed in public. Even if the applicant is denied a permit, they can still store a weapon at their home.
Today, more than 55,000 Californians — nearly the population of Lodi — are permitted to carry concealed weapons.
In most states, law enforcement agencies issue permits based on a statewide standard.
But in California, each agency, from the tiniest police force to the largest sheriff’s department, develops its own standard. It can be based on politics, population, personal opinion, budget cuts — and at anytime, for any reason, an agency can change its policy.
For many years, obtaining a permit through the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Office was so difficult many residents didn’t bother to apply.
But when budget cuts forced Sacramento County Sheriff John McGinness to lay off 122 deputies in 2009, he decided that residents living in his jurisdiction should have the ability to protect themselves in the event of an emergency.
Almost overnight, McGinness reversed the department’s stance on concealed weapons permits. One of the state’s most restrictive agencies in the state became one of the most permissive.
“Gone are the days that a bus drivers or traveling jeweler will be denied a permit,” Sacramento County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Jason Ramos said. “If you want to protect your family, that’s a good enough reason for us.”
Today, the Sacramento Sheriff’s Office approves roughly 90 percent of applications. Within the county, there are more than 3,500 permit holders — up from 800 in 2011.
The department also plans to approve nearly all of the 4,000 residents currently waiting for their applications to be reviewed.
A patchwork system
A woman wanting to carry a firearm for protection would likely receive a permit in Sacramento County.
Her reason isn't likely fly in other jurisdictions, though, including San Joaquin County.
As of May, there are 327 holders through the San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Office. In addition, the sheriff’s office received 41 new concealed weapons applications between January and March of this year, but approved only five.
Lodi’s Dave Wellenbrock is a former chief deputy district attorney and deputy public defender for San Joaquin County who has seen the concealed weapons issue from different angles.
He says some former prosecutors have obtained concealed weapons permits for self-defense.
Getting a permit varies “incredibly” throughout the state, he said.
“It’s really pretty arbitrary and varies with the scene,” he said. “There’s not many guidelines on who has them and who shouldn’t get them at the state level. It depends on who the head of the local agency thinks should have one. And because there are no guidelines on who should have one, it creates a wide range of discretion.”
In fact, getting a concealed weapons permit in some areas is nearly impossible.
The San Francisco County Sheriff’s Office has approved one application in the last 30 years (it expired in 2008). Today, there are just two permit holders within the county, and both were obtained through the police department.
In general, rural counties are quicker to approve permits than urban counties.
Between 2011 and 2012, the Calaveras County Sheriff’s Office approved 93 percent of applications, while the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Office approved just 36 percent.
In recent years, the Lodi Police Department has granted permits to the majority of applicants, including 11 in 2011 and nine in 2012.
According to Lodi Police Lt. Fernando Martinez, applicants must work with large amounts of cash or prove there is a specific and imminent threat against their life in order to receive a permit.
“The way our policy works is you have to show just cause to be issued a (concealed weapons permit),” he said. “For the mere purpose of protecting yourself or family without any threat, that reason is kind of vague. You have to show that you’re in some kind of threat because of what you do or because you’re in danger.”
Writing their own rules
Throughout the state, agencies write their own rules, and some lawmakers think that’s wrong.
“To me it’s pretty cut and dry,” Olson said. “We shouldn’t need anything more than the Second Amendment in order to have a clear criteria. Obviously at this point, that hasn’t been sufficient in California, because I, too, have heard many reports of arbitrary standards as to when they’re issued and when they aren’t in many counties.”
Some legislators, including Olson and Dan Logue, a Republican representing the third district which includes Chico, believe the regulatory patchwork is unconstitutional.
Olson, however, says a statewide standard isn’t the solution.
And while a clear solution doesn’t yet exist, Olson says California lawmakers need to at least prevent agencies from stone-walling applicants.
“I and other legislators should look into whether we should introduce legislation to make it very clear ... that (law enforcement agencies) should be issuing concealed weapons to those who apply for them unless they are a prohibited person,” she said. “And in that instance, they absolutely should not issue them.”
Concealed weapons in other states
In Oregon, things are different.
Each permit application is reviewed by the sheriff’s office. Unlike California, police chiefs cannot issue permits.
Each applicant is subject to a background check. And once the process is complete, every applicant is approved or denied based on a statewide standard.
“It ensures that you don’t have 36 counties with local politics playing a factor in this one issue,” said Chief Deputy Jason Gates of the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office. “It’s a statewide issue. We’re all doing it the same way so we know the (concealed weapons) holder has gone through the same background process. We know that the process has been followed.”
In Multnomah County, which incorporates Portland and Gresham, the first and fourth most populated cities in Oregon, there are 24,000 permit holders — almost half the number that exist throughout California.
Gates says that in Oregon, a “shall issue” state, agencies approve more applications than they deny. In other states, like Arizona, residents don’t even need a permit to carry a concealed weapon.
But throughout the country, the majority of states approve applicants based on a statewide standard.
Gates says adopting the process followed in California would create “chaos” in Oregon.
“It would be a huge step backwards from the process we have now,” Gates said. “It’s a waste of time to separate the law by county. I would be very opposed to that occurring in Oregon. It’s going to take law-abiding citizens and make them criminals. It criminalizes someone who has a legal basis for carrying their firearm concealed.”
Emotions complicate reform
About three dozen bills related to firearms were introduced in the California Legislature this year.
None addressed the growing debate over concealed weapons permits.
Based on a string of mass shootings nationwide, Olson says the sentiment of lawmakers in Sacramento is to strengthen gun control.
But lawmakers should begin addressing the array of standards.
“The emotion surrounding the gun debate unfortunately supersedes logic in many instances,” she said. “There have been some horrific tragedies that have happened in the last couple of years in the United States that cause all of us to react in horror. But unfortunately, many lawmakers make decisions based on emotion rather than logic.”
Five years ago, San Francisco resident Jeff Levinger looked into getting a concealed weapons permit.
He says crime in his once-peaceful neighborhood had skyrocketed. He frequently heard stories from friends and neighbors who’d been assaulted merely walking home.
Wanting to be prepared in case he was ever in danger, Levinger investigated the process to carry a concealed weapon. He couldn’t find anyone who could even walk him through the application process, and he knew the chances of moving forward were close to nil.
Discouraged, he gave up.
But Levinger said that if the law is ever changed, he’d try again.
“It’s my right as an American,” he said. “There are times and places that it’s quite appropriate to be prepared in that way.”