In California, a state with some of the strictest gun laws in the country, Sacramento County has become an oasis for gun owners wanting to carry their weapons in public. Thousands of residents have been issued concealed carry permits by the sheriff, Scott Jones, since he took office four years ago.

During his campaign, Jones promised to loosen restrictions on issuing permits to carry concealed weapons. And he followed through. Gun owners now boast on online message boards that he hands out permits “like candy.”

California’s concealed gun permits

As of Dec. 31, 2014, California had 70,593 residents with an active concealed carry permit. How many concealed gun permits are in your county?

The dramatic change in Sacramento after just one election illustrates the power of local sheriffs, using their own discretion and political views, to control the number of guns carried by residents on their streets. Now, that power is the subject of a potential landmark lawsuit that could redefine the boundaries of the Second Amendment – and the right to carry a gun in public.

When Jones was running for sheriff in 2010, few residents were allowed to carry concealed handguns in California’s capital. That changed when two gun rights groups and Deanna Sykes, a firearms instructor with the gay shooting club Pink Pistols, brought a lawsuit against the county. Armed with a powerful lawyer who won the last two guns cases heard by the Supreme Court, they argued that the sheriff’s permitting policy violated the Second Amendment.

With the challenge looming over the county and the election weeks away, the outgoing sheriff, John McGinness, made a decision to reverse his long-standing policy limiting the number of concealed weapon permits. A claim of self-defense became enough reason to legally carry a gun. The lawsuit was dropped.

Jones believes that anyone eligible to have a gun should be able to carry one to protect themselves and their family.

“It was very early on that I realized this was something on the minds of a lot of people,” Jones said. “My personal feelings were that I would be more permissive. If an applicant is concerned and wants to protect their personal safety, that’s enough” for me.

The situation couldn’t be further removed from the one in San Francisco, where fewer permits are issued than any other county in the state. Three San Franciscans have been issued a permit to carry a concealed gun in the last five years.

A catch in state law gives local law enforcement officials complete discretion to interpret California’s two primary requirements for anyone wanting to carry a concealed gun: that the person demonstrate “good cause” and is of “good moral character.” Some counties grant permits to anyone eligible for one, while others maintain a strict standard that is notoriously difficult to meet.

Those standards are about to be tested by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which last year ruled that requiring applicants to demonstrate good cause beyond self-defense “amounted to a destruction of the Second Amendment right.”

At stake is the government’s ability to regulate which gun owners are allowed to carry a concealed handgun in public. If the decision is upheld after a rehearing of the case next week in San Francisco, it will eliminate the widening gap between counties and force those with strict standards to approve more permits.

The definition of good cause varies widely in California. It’s up to local law enforcement agencies – typically the county sheriff’s office – to come up with a policy that defines the term. As a result, more than half of the state’s active concealed carry permits are clustered in just seven counties.

Most states grant permits to carry a concealed gun in public to anyone who is eligible to own one, with limited discretion in some cases. Others, such as California, give officials discretion to deny eligible gun owners. A handful of states don’t require any permit at all. And some are expanding the boundaries of where guns are allowed, with Texas poised to allow guns on public college campuses.

To understand this fractured set of state laws, look no further than the conflicting federal appeals court decisions on concealed weapon regulations. The rulings are so starkly different that legal experts believe the U.S. Supreme Court will elect to take up the latest case, Peruta v. San Diego County, in an effort to standardize the law.

It would be only the sixth U.S. Supreme Court case in history that directly interprets the Second Amendment.

“It’s hard to overstate the importance of this case,” said Deepak Gupta, a lawyer who represents the gun control advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety, one of many groups on each side of the gun debate that filed a friend of the court brief in the Peruta case.

“There’s a lot that’s up for grabs here. No matter what happens in this case, it’s likely to go to the Supreme Court,” Gupta said.

Sacramento’s loosened policy

With a policy that’s closer to other states’ than neighboring communities, Sacramento County illustrates how much a person’s ability to carry a concealed gun is dependent on the will of one man. Jones’ policy is centered on the notion that the people he serves should enjoy the same access to guns that he does.

“I’m a peace officer. That means I can carry a weapon anytime. I don’t always carry a weapon when I’m off-duty, but depending on what I’m doing, I may choose to,” Jones said. “I think most people would want that option for the same reasons and would use that power responsibly. I enjoy that ability. Why shouldn’t everybody?”

Jones acknowledges his policy conflicts with his counterparts’ around the state, whether it’s urban San Francisco or rural Yolo County nearby, where a lawsuit against the sheriff over his strict policy remains ongoing. “Weird political vortexes,” is how Jones describes it.

In Sacramento County, applications continue to come by the hundreds every month.

The number of active concealed carry permits in the county has risen steadily in the four years since Jones took office. He approved 500 permits in July 2014 alone, internal records show. That’s more than the total number of active permits in eight other California counties combined.

Concealed gun permits as of Dec. 31, 2014

The volume is so high that Jones doesn’t have time to personally review every application. Instead, he’s assembled a committee to vet each applicant for him. The three-person panel reviews applications once a month and has full discretion to approve or deny them.

As is the case everywhere else in the state, Jones isn’t the only one who can issue a concealed carry permit in Sacramento County. Local police departments can, too. But in most cases, that responsibility falls to the sheriff.

The reason, Jones said, is twofold. Having a single agency issuing permits is more efficient than splitting up the task between multiple departments. And carrying concealed guns is an increasingly polarizing issue. While a sheriff is elected, a police chief doesn’t enjoy the same political protection. If a local police chief doesn’t have to deal with concealed carry permit considerations, he or she is less likely to make political enemies.

“For sheriffs, it comes down to personal ideology,” Jones said. “Obviously, we’re accountable to voters. Police chiefs are accountable to a whole other set of people. They serve the city manager. It’s a different dynamic.”

The connection, or lack thereof, between violent crime and civilian gun ownership is at the core of many states’ concealed carry laws. It’s the subject of countless hours of courtroom testimony in the handful of lawsuits decided by federal appeals courts around the country.

It’s also one that Jones is confident exists, even if he can’t prove it. According to Jones, the rates of burglary, aggravated assault, rape and murder in Sacramento have dropped since he started issuing more concealed carry permits.

“As much as I’d love to say that’s the reason, it would be wildly speculative for me to ascribe some causation and say that’s why,” Jones said.

Whether there’s a positive or negative correlation – or none either way – Jones sees more concealed carry permit holders as a good thing.

“I look it at as giving folks the ability to protect their families, knowing that we can’t be there to do that in all situations. Can someone with a permit have a spectacular screw-up? Sure,” Jones conceded. “Anytime you inject a gun into a volatile situation, it increases the odds that something will go wrong. But that hasn’t happened yet in Sacramento.”

Denied applications rule in San Francisco

About 90 miles away down Interstate 80, San Francisco’s permitting process is a world away for gun owners. There’s no team of staffers to approve applications. No monthly statistics to update. And no permits to issue.

A thin stack of denials is all that was released when San Francisco Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi’s office was asked for copies of every concealed carry application in the last five years. That’s because Mirkarimi hasn’t approved a single one since he took office in 2012.

If he’s re-elected, Mirkarimi said he intends to keep it that way.

“I would like to make San Francisco a model of gun control,” he said, adding that he is blown away by how many permits are issued in places like Sacramento. “In a country that’s weak on gun control and has really subordinated itself to those who believe in almost unfettered access to guns, this is the last vestige of gun control we have.”

The last person issued a concealed handgun permit was former Sheriff Michael Hennessey’s top legal counsel, James Harrigan, in 2008. The irony of the man assigned to craft the sheriff’s permit policy being the only one to have received one was not lost on the gun rights community.

The firearms policy group Calguns Foundation threatened to sue Hennessey in 2011 over his lack of a written policy. Soon after, Hennessey’s office published a formal policy. But it didn’t change the outcome for applicants.

Permits are issued so infrequently by the sheriff’s department that the staffers who process applications wouldn’t know what to do next if one were approved.

“I’d have to make some phone calls,” Senior Sheriff’s Deputy Dan Wilson said with a laugh.

Wilson took over the background investigation unit that handles permit applications in 2011. He often goes six months without receiving a single one, he said. And Harrigan’s permit has lapsed, Wilson confirmed, leaving the department with zero active permits.

Applicants haven’t fared much better at the San Francisco Police Department, where Mirkarimi often sends “dissatisfied applicants.” Denials are common.

Take the former Del Norte County deputy district attorney, for example, who wrote in his application that some of the people he helped put behind bars as a prosecutor might seek him out once they are released from prison.

“There is no way to know if they are armed. … I wish to be able to protect myself and my family should one of these defendants … try to kill or physically harm us because of my service as a prosecutor,” he said.

Other applicants cited violence in their community, like the retired man who said in his application: “The police can only do so much to protect us. I feel that I have a right … to feel safe and therefore I should be issued a CCW (carry concealed weapon) permit.”

Some detailed specific threats, such as the corrections officer who, having been denied a permit by the sheriff’s department twice before, applied again in October 2013. This time, he included a supplemental report signed by an investigator at the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office in Redwood City, where he worked. The investigator found no “reason that would preclude” him from being issued a permit and referenced as supporting evidence an incident involving an inmate who threatened the applicant, telling him, “I’m going to hunt you down, and I’m going to fuck your wife and kill her in front of you before I kill you.”

None were allowed to carry a concealed handgun.

In fact, only three permits have been approved by the San Francisco Police Department since 2010; two remain active.

One belongs to a jewelry wholesaler who said in his application that he had been followed in the past and needed a gun to protect himself from being robbed. His renewal, submitted in January, is pending approval, a department spokesman said.

The other permit holder is a retired Army veteran and former firearms training instructor, who said in his application that he had received death threats and had “been advised that my personal security is in jeopardy as a ‘high value target.’ ”

Defining ‘good cause’

Mirkarimi doesn’t want to ban carrying concealed guns in public entirely and said reviewing each application on a case-by-case basis is most appropriate. When pressed for an example of good cause that Mirkarimi would recognize by issuing a permit, he hesitated, then offered none.

“That’s tough,” he said, pausing to look up at the ceiling of his corner office on the fourth floor of San Francisco’s City Hall. “I think that would be a little slipshod of me.”

Although Mirkarimi wouldn’t discuss any specific applications or his reason for denying them, he said he takes threats to personal safety seriously. He noted cases of individuals being threatened by someone they know and seeking a restraining order as a particular reason for concern.

But Mirkarimi doesn’t think carrying a gun is the only answer in these situations.

“I’d much rather this city work to make people feel safe” than let everyone have a gun, he said. “To me, it’s a civil liberty to be safe. I just don’t think the Second Amendment has to be the reliant factor that upholds that safety.”

One recent application with the San Francisco Police Department turned Mirkarimi’s hypothetical stalking scenario into reality. A self-employed certified notary public noted that she had a criminal protective order and feared for her safety.

“I am basically on my own in this situation,” she wrote in a detailed letter to the police department. “I can’t keep hiding to avoid these people. I have a life to lead and a business to run.”

Her application still is pending nearly nine months after it was submitted, a spokesman for the department confirmed.

Mirkarimi knows what it takes to legally possess a gun and how quickly that gun can be stripped away.

After a highly publicized domestic dispute with his wife just days before he was sworn into office in January 2012, Mirkarimi was charged with domestic violence, dissuading a witness, false imprisonment and child endangerment. In the end, he pleaded guilty to false imprisonment, a misdemeanor that later was expunged from the court record. The agreement with prosecutors enabled him to continue carrying a gun for work.

But as a result of the incident, Mirkarimi was forced to turn in his personal collection of handguns – a Sig Sauer P229 pistol, a Beretta 92G pistol and a Smith & Wesson Model 19 .357 Magnum revolver – to the police department property clerk’s office, where they remain to this day.

“They can keep them as far as I’m concerned,” Mirkarimi said.

As a staunch advocate of retaining the good cause requirement, Mirkarimi believes California’s concealed carry law was made to be pliable. If the Peruta decision is upheld and the good cause requirement upon which Mirkarimi relies to deny permits is repealed, he’d likely need more staff to process what he expects would be a flood of applications.

“But we’d also need a change in San Francisco’s perception of guns,” Mirkarimi said. “I’m not sure that happens overnight.”

Matt Drange is a reporter for Reveal, covering the business of guns. He previously reported on Silicon Valley and the intersection of technology and the environment. He won a James Madison Freedom of Information Award from the Society of Professional Journalists' Northern California chapter for his work on the Toxic Trail investigation, which exposed how mismanagement of Superfund cleanup sites often leads to substantially more harm than good. Prior to joining Reveal, Drange worked for the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, where he wrote about malfeasance in state government and the influence of money in politics. Drange started his career covering police and courts for the Eureka Times-Standard in California. He earned a master's degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and did his undergraduate work at Humboldt State University. Drange is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.