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 require a documented justification, according to a Los Angeles Times analysis of county records.
The upswing means more than 1,640 people are now licensed to carry concealed weapons in Orange County, according to the analysis. Before the ruling there were about 900, a county spokesman said.
According to the analysis, permits are spread throughout the county, but certain cities, including Huntington Beach and Newport Beach, have a higher concentration of licensees. Others, including Santa Ana and Garden Grove, have had fewer approved permits.
In Huntington Beach, 165 residents were licensed to tote guns in public as of the end of August, the most of any Orange County city. Based on population, it has the second-highest concentration of active permits, behind Yorba Linda.
Huntington Police Chief Robert Handy said the number probably stems from the city's political climate rather than a fear of crime.
"I think it draws along political party lines and political ideology, as opposed to trends in crimes," he said. In a heavily Republican city such as Huntington Beach, a strong belief in gun rights "corresponds with the political tendencies of our community."
In Newport Beach — another conservative coastal town — 79 residents had active permits, ranking the city seventh in number and sixth per capita, after Mission Viejo, Orange and Laguna Hills.
Newport Beach Police Department spokesman Lt. Jeff Brouwer emphasized that the agency's first priority is making sure that permit holders have taken all the necessary steps to keep their status up to date, regardless of the permit criteria at any given moment.
"Our stance on it is we pretty much have to deal with whatever the legislation is that comes out," he said.
That said, he added, Newport's high concentration of concealed-weapons permits could have something to do with its higher concentration of wealthy residents.
"We don't have a lot of crime," Brouwer said. "We do have a lot of high-profile people who do travel to different places outside of Newport."
Countywide, the numbers will continue to rise as 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.
Sheriff Sandra Hutchens is one of the few sheriffs in California to relax the permit standards after the court ruling, even as a final decision is 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.
Rush to apply
Hutchens' decision to loosen the rules came as a welcome surprise to 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 that 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 their permits to expire.
One 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 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, more than 3,830 handguns are 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 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.
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, and 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 Orange County chapter of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence said the sheriff is 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 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-weapons permits. The numbers for Los Angeles County were not available.
The February 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 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 also asked for a review.
Some legal experts say the case could end up at 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," Hallock said.
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."