California sheriffs soon may be able to legally pass the responsibility of issuing concealed handgun permits to city police chiefs, the latest salvo in a case of political hot potato for a state that gives local law enforcement agencies wide leeway in deciding who can carry a gun in public.
The bill, introduced by Assemblyman Mark Stone, D-Santa Cruz, and supported by the California State Sheriffs’ Association, is expected to sail through the state Senate when it returns from recess in mid-August.
It came in response to a lawsuit against former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca that challenged his policy that gun owners from incorporated cities must first apply for a permit with their cities’ police chiefs. If denied, the applicant could then try the sheriff’s office.
A judge ruled last year that the policy was not consistent with state law and ordered the sheriff to process applications regardless of whether applicants had applied with their local police department. To get a concealed handgun permit in California, a gun owner must demonstrate “good cause” and be of “good moral character,” although the definition of good cause varies tremendously around the state.
Under current state law, a police chief can require gun owners to apply with the sheriff, but not the other way around. The bill, AB 1134, would change that by allowing sheriffs to pass the buck on applications to local police departments, so long as the police chief agrees to it.
Some sheriffs already have made informal arrangements. San Francisco Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi hasn’t approved a single concealed carry permit since taking office in 2012. He encourages his “dissatisfied applicants” – those he denied – to apply with the San Francisco Police Department, where some have fared better in recent years.
“It was only a problem because other sheriffs could be sued,” said Julie Leftwich, legal director at the San Francisco-based Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. “They wanted to avoid a similar lawsuit.”
Leftwich said the bill would not affect the number of permits approved. In general, sheriffs are more likely to issue permits, she said, in part because of the political pressure they face in some parts of the state. Unlike police chiefs, sheriffs are elected.
Leftwich’s group supports the bill, which she said would not impact public safety.
The gun rights group behind the lawsuit in Los Angeles that triggered the bill remains fiercely opposed to it.
Calguns Foundation Executive Director Brandon Combs – along with the group’s sister lobbying organization, the Firearms Policy Coalition – doesn’t believe local law enforcement agencies should issue permits at all. Instead, he has pushed for state lawmakers to issue permits at the state level.
The latest bill “creates virtually limitless possibilities for the consolidation and rearranging of local powers and duties; a never-ending shell game of delegated authorities, wherein the law-abiding public plays the game’s cup-tipping sucker,” Combs wrote in a letter to Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Oakland – who chairs the Senate Public Safety Committee – urging her to vote no on the bill.
The lawsuit that led to the legislation wouldn’t have been filed in most other states, which generally issue concealed gun permits to anyone eligible. The proposed changes represent the latest tension among officials over the permits. The discretionary permitting system is the subject of a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals case that Second Amendment experts agree has the potential to reach the U.S. Supreme Court.
California has more than 70,000 active concealed handgun permits, with thousands more pending the outcome of that lawsuit.