Armed and Ordinary : To Thousands of Californians, Carrying a Gun Illegally Has Become an Acceptable Risk

Times Staff Writer

She is a Woodland Hills wife, a mother of adult sons, a generous and gregarious woman who fears God and abides by all laws except one--she does not have a permit to carry the loaded, snub-nosed Smith & Wesson revolver that is in her purse.

“I’m having to weigh observance of the law against my own life,” she said. “It (carrying a concealed weapon) worries me terribly . . . but we are all potential (crime) victims and this is the way we have to live.”

She has friends who carry concealed weapons. An actress and her husband. They know others. A journalist, a politician, a jeweler.


“You’d be surprised at how many people are walking around armed,” the woman said. “I mean, I am, (a friend) is, so many others are. . . . We have no choice. We have to provide our own answers.”

They may be providing a typical answer.

For, according to statistics taken by the National Rifle Assn. from national studies of handgun ownership, more than 250,000 Californians regularly carry concealed handguns. Yet, said a state Department of Justice spokesman, only 32,405 people are licensed to carry concealed weapons in California.

‘Silent Majority’

That leaves more than 217,000 citizens who form a “silent majority . . . who just don’t come to the attention of police officers because they are not carrying to commit a crime,” said Dave Marshall of Sacramento, NRA’s California coordinator and lobbyist.

“They are normal businessmen, gun owners very familiar with firearms, who are carrying them because hell be damned if they are going to be jeopardized by that (street crime).”

Marshall--who is lobbying for a state Senate bill that would relax and standardize the process for obtaining permits to carry concealed weapons--said he knows “three or four people who carry illegally, two businessmen . . . another fellow who has his wife carry . . . but they are never going to come to the attention of the authorities.”

Numbers support Marshall’s belief.

Last year in Los Angeles, only 377 people were prosecuted (with 361 convictions) for carrying concealed weapons. More than half, said City Atty. James K. Hahn, involved gang members and street criminals.

That leaves “30% to 40% you would call average citizens . . . no record, carrying a concealed weapon for their personal protection,” he said. “We still have cases--a couple of dozen a year--coming out of Los Angeles International Airport of people going through the metal detectors.”

The sad significance of this, said Hahn, is that some women “have gotten so used to having a gun in their purse they don’t even think about it when they walk through a metal detector at the airport.”

For the misdemeanor of carrying a concealed weapon, Hahn said, “first-timers generally pay a fine, probably between $250 and $500, and have the weapon confiscated . . . plus summary probation for a period of one year to two years.

“Where you have your gang member or your crook, he is going to have a criminal history that is going to subject him to a significant amount of jail time.”

An Acceptable Risk

It is this differential favoring the generally law abiding, say many gun owners, that makes carrying their weapons an acceptable risk. (Mindful of the fact that they are committing a crime, most of those interviewed for this story agreed to discuss their reasons for carrying only on condition of anonymity.)

“If I am caught with it, it will be a slap on the wrist,” said one gun owner. She recently traded her .25-caliber automatic for the “greater stopping power” of a .38-caliber revolver. “They (police) will look at our records, see what good kids we are and know we’re only carrying for self-defense.”

Said another woman, an author, also a wife and mother who lives in a middle-class and supposedly safe Los Angeles suburb, “Most cops will tell you and have told me: ‘Carry the thing. The most you will get is a $100 fine.’

“They have said it unofficially, on an informal basis, at a party at a friend’s house where we were discussing obtaining permits (to carry a concealed weapon).”

In California, the responsibility for approving and issuing permits to carry concealed weapons rests with police chiefs and county sheriffs--but a permit issued by one jurisdiction is honored in other areas of the state. That system, said a spokeswoman for the firearms control section of the Department of Justice, makes for a “varied, ridiculous” hodgepodge of loopholes and imbalances.

As a result, she said, many people in cities with rigid gun controls are carrying weapons on permits issued by the more liberal sheriffs of outlying counties.

Los Angeles County, for example, issued or renewed only 366 permits to carry concealed weapons in 1987. But in Kern County, she said, 3,943 permits were granted. In the City of Los Angeles, Hahn said, no permit to carry a concealed weapon has been issued in more than a decade.

And, a police spokesman confirmed, zero permit growth remains the Los Angeles Police Commission’s unyielding policy.

Yet Arthur Kassel, founder and president of the chic Beverly Hills Gun Club in West Los Angeles, says he carries a concealed weapon.

“I have a permit,” Kassel said.

How did he obtain one?

“It is up to the police chief or the sheriff.”

Was his permit issued by Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates or Los Angeles Sheriff Sherman Block?

“Issued in the county of Los Angeles,” Kassel said.

By whom?

“I really don’t want to do this. I appreciate your method of interview but I don’t want to do this.”

Before ending the interview, Kassel acknowledged that his club’s 2,000 members fall into two categories. There are those who consider handguns a hobby and target shooting “a relaxation.” There are others who are “scared to death and they want to be proficient and they want to practice with a firearm.”

“And I would say that a good percentage of those people probably carry that firearm when they are not supposed to do it,” he said.

Advises Against Breaking Law

Kassel said he does not condone the illegal carrying of firearms, his members are advised against doing so, and they are not allowed to enter the club (“unless they have a permit or they are a police officer”) with a loaded firearm.

And so walks and rides Los Angeles. Armed and potentially dangerous. Apparently living in fear of rape, assault, muggings and freeway shootings despite police department statistics noting a 7.2% drop in major crimes (with the exception of gang murders) during 1987.

“It’s still too much,” a noted television actor said. So he carries a .45 automatic beneath the seat of his car.

“I mean to continue owning a gun,” a single parent living in Glendale said. “I have read the statistics and this was the deciding stat: when they ran the check on 911 and found out they (the police) don’t respond to a quarter of the calls. That’s it.”

‘Very Conscientious People’

A career saleswoman travels California with a Heckler & Koch 9-millimeter pistol in her purse. She has a permit from the San Diego sheriff’s office. But she knows of a private investigator, a dental assistant and a former civilian employee of a police department who carry concealed weapons without permits.

“These aren’t people who would fly off the handle,” she said. “They aren’t people who would get mad at someone and just shoot them. These are very conscientious people who don’t want to be made vulnerable by the mentality of the streets these days.”

The precise number of Californians who illegally carry handguns remains a matter of educated guesswork.

That NRA estimate was extrapolated from several sources--including a 1979 study of national handgun habits by the Center for the Study and Prevention of Handgun Violence (now the Eisenhower Foundation) and a 1977 survey by the Florida Bureau of Criminal Justice Planning and Assistance.

Paul Blackman, an NRA research organizer, says that in 1985, after the New York subway shootings by Bernhard Goetz, a “flurry of studies . . . suggested something like 7 million Americans are carrying (handguns) regularly.”

Sketches of a Trend

Yet even if totals are sketches, the experts agree, the indications of a steady trend are undeniable.

Jim Carpenter of Reno, president of the Shotgun News Trade Show Assn., visits 15 major cities a year with his exhibitions. In Los Angeles, Miami, Chicago and Detroit, he said, “the primary sales are centered on small, concealable hand weapons.”

This spring in Miami there was a fashion show sponsored by the Bang Bang Boutique of Ft. Lauderdale.

It featured a woman’s handbag with a built-in pistol compartment and models wearing holstered handguns beneath a full line of outfits from evening gowns to bikinis. The fashion message, said organizer Jack Bilsker, was that a woman “can carry a concealed weapon and still look good.”

Gun Leather Sales Up

John Bianchi, a former police officer, is the founder of Bianchi International of Temecula, the world’s largest manufacturer of gun holsters. Bianchi gun leather is sold worldwide through 3,000 stores. And sales are up.

“We are selling more concealment holsters,” he said. “We are selling a couple of thousand shoulder holsters a year . . . yet there are only 500,000 police officers, sheriffs deputies, government agents and others with a need for concealment holsters.

“I can tell you that there are hundreds of thousands of women from all walks of life, from doctors down to adult students walking campuses late at night, who are firmly convinced that they can’t be protected when they need it most by duly constituted law enforcement authorities,” he said.

Authorities are resolutely opposed to the public carrying and concealment of weapons. They say there are too many guns on the street. In the hands of an untrained owner, they claim, a gun only increases the dangers of street crime.

May Be Shot With Own Gun

“I doubt that many people are that proficient with that kind of (street) situation to be able to deal with it effectively,” Hahn said. “Probably, for the most part, (they) are going to end up getting shot with their own gun.

“But you can never convince anyone of that because they always believe that a gun in their possession gives them some kind of competence level, some kind of personal safety that can’t be gotten any other way.”

Conviction of carrying a concealed weapon carries a maximum penalty of $1,000 and a year in jail.

“We would like to see . . . sentences be a little closer to that end of the scale,” Hahn said.

Los Angeles police spokesman Cmdr. William Booth would like to see the charge of carrying a concealed weapon elevated to a felony.

L.A. Streets Becoming Calmer

But what of the police department’s traditionally overstretched resources versus a citizen’s right to self-protection?

“That is not the most rational of thinking,” Booth said. “What they (citizens) are doing is increasing the amount of lawlessness by engaging in lawlessness themselves.”

The Santa Monica woman, however, believes she may have been one who was saved.

Revolver Scared Assailant

It was night and she had been walking her dog. A youth on a bicycle rode past and turned a corner. She turned that same corner. The bicycle was across the sidewalk. The youth, she said, was facing her from some bushes.

She pulled her revolver. The youth fled.

“The fact is, the gun scared him off,” she said. “He saw me. He cased me. He followed me. I would have been attacked. I’m quite sure of that.”

But if he had attacked, could she have fired?

“That’s the whole problem,” she said. “If you are one of those law-abiding citizens . . . how are you going to shoot a kid?”

Senate Bill Provisions

The bill before the state legislature--which unanimously cleared the Senate Appropriations Committee on Monday--would allow, according to lobbyist Marshall, the issuance of concealed weapon permits to the store owner carrying cash to night deposit, to a high-risk witness in a criminal case, “to the woman who works a midnight shift or the wife who has been subjected to threatening telephone calls.”

But he warned: “This doesn’t mean that everybody and their uncle is going to get one. It does mean that in many instances where they (applicants) are currently denied and where they can demonstrate a good cause . . . it’s going to be pretty tough for law enforcement to deny them a permit to carry concealed.”

Under those conditions, he said, it is unlikely that any handgun carrier mentioned in this story would qualify for a permit.

Nervousness at night and a general fear of the streets, he said, would not be sufficient cause.