In the six months since Orange County began issuing concealed weapons permits under a relaxed standard, the number of people licensed to carry guns is close to doubling, and thousands more are awaiting approval.
More than 700 new permits have been issued since a federal court ruling in February led the sheriff to grant permits to those who simply state a desire to carry weapons for personal safety rather than requiring a documented justification, according to a Los Angeles Times analysis of county records.
The upswing means there are now more than 1,640 people licensed to carry concealed weapons in Orange County, according to the analysis. Before the ruling there were about 900, a county spokesman said.
That number will continue to rise as county officials process the stack of pending applications, which had grown to more than 2,800 by the end of August. Thousands more have requested appointments to apply for permits, officials said. In all, more than 7,000 people have filled out applications or requested appointments, sheriff's officials said.
Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens is one of the only sheriffs in California to relax the standards after the ruling, even as a final decision remains pending before the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
If the ruling is upheld, counties throughout California could soon be following her lead and dealing with similar demand.
Those with a permit can take loaded guns to the mall, their workplace and other public places as long as the firearms are not visible and are not prohibited by private property rules. They are restricted from carrying in bars, airports and some schools and government buildings.
Before the ruling, permits often went to business owners, judicial officers, reserve police officers and others who could prove a threat to their safety. Since then, retirees and the self-employed are among the most frequent applicants in the county, according to the analysis. As before the ruling, the overwhelming majority of permits — 95% — have gone to men.
Hutchens' decision to loosen the rules came as a welcome surprise to some residents who were infuriated when she cracked down on concealed weapons after being appointed in 2008. The previous sheriff, Michael Carona, was indicted in a scandal that included allegations he handed out permits to associates and as political favors.
At the time, Hutchens asked hundreds of permit holders to prove a need for a weapon. Some simply allowed them to expire.
One of them was Mike Wells, 49, an assembly technician from Mission Viejo, who was rejected when he resubmitted his explanation for needing to carry a gun. Wells allowed his permit to expire and sold off his gun.
When Hutchens' decision was announced in February, Wells quickly requested an appointment to apply. His application, filed July 11, listed three guns: a Kimber, a Springfield Armory and a Colt. His permit was approved in August.
"I didn't expect to be carrying again, and I was very surprised by how quickly she stepped up once the decision came through," he said.
Like Wells, many permit holders have multiple weapons. According to The Times analysis, there are now more than 3,830 handguns licensed to be carried in public in Orange County, double the number before the ruling.
To keep up with demand, the sheriff allocated $1.5 million and beefed up staffing to 16 from one to process applications. At one point, some employees worked nights and met with applicants on the weekends to catch up, said sheriff's spokesman Lt. Jeff Hallock.
The department also took steps to streamline the process, including waiving an in-person gun inspection requirement, though the county still runs serial numbers to verify ownership.
Despite the progress, the gap between the number of incoming applications and permits granted continues to widen, according to The Times analysis. As of late August, about 75% of the applications submitted since the ruling were still pending.
The Times analyzed data obtained from the Sheriff's Department under a public records request that covered more than 5,000 applications submitted since March 2008.
According to the analysis, permits are spread throughout the county, but certain cities — including Huntington Beach, Newport Beach and Yorba Linda — have a higher concentration of licensees. Others, including Santa Ana and Garden Grove, have had much fewer approved permits.
Chuck Michel, an attorney for the California Rifle and Pistol Assn., which filed the federal case, said gun owners have felt demonized by the state Legislature for years. Now many of them are rushing to get permits because they want to make people understand they have the right and there's nothing to be afraid of.
"It's like a gun pride parade," he said.
Charlie Blek, of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence's Orange County chapter, said the sheriff was putting residents in danger.
"The bottom line is that we are putting more people at greater risk with this policy including her own officers," he said.
In Ventura County, where the sheriff also relaxed standards after the ruling, the department was likewise flooded with applicants and had to increase staffing and streamline operations, Capt. Don Aguilar said.
The county has approved 1,058 permits since the February ruling, compared with 408 all of last year.
Several counties, including San Diego and Los Angeles, have not relaxed their standards, pending a final decision in the case. Currently San Diego County has 1,171 active concealed weapon permits. The numbers for Los Angeles County were not available.
The decision in Peruta vs. San Diego was handed down on a 2-1 vote of a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore, the original defendant, said he would not appeal. But state Atty. Gen. Kamala D. Harris has asked for a full court review of the decision, saying it challenges the state's ability to regulate firearms. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence has also asked for a review.
Some legal experts say it could end up in the hands of the Supreme Court as judges grapple with whether there is a constitutional right to carry weapons in public.
The Orange County Sheriff's Department has told people they can continue applying under the higher cause standard to ensure their permits remain valid if the decision is reversed. Those who offer only self-defense as a reason have been unofficially referred to as "Peruta permits,"' said Hallock, the sheriff's spokesman.
If the decision is reversed, Hutchens said she will consider that permits were issued "at a time when the rules had changed and people have paid a fee and gone through training."
During her tenure as sheriff, she said, the county has not had any problems with those who hold concealed weapons permits. But she remains unconvinced that having more permitted weapons on the streets makes the county safer.
"I know there's arguments on both sides of that equation. There's some that will tell you a jurisdiction is safer the more good citizens that have weapons out there. There are others that will tell you it's not," she said. "My personal opinion is there's so many things that impact the crime rate that you can't point to one thing."