Is Chief Trigger-Happy on Gun Permits? : Safety: Some criticize Isleton’s generosity in allowing concealed weapons.


The tiny city of Isleton has some weighty problems, but crime is definitely not one of them. The most loathsome lawbreakers here, locals say, are bicycle thieves and adolescent vandals with mischief on their minds.

Yet despite its peaceful streets, Isleton has become notorious in the world of law enforcement. In less than a year, the city’s police chief has handed out 700 concealed weapons permits--enough to arm every man and woman in town.

In reality, most of the permits have gone to people who live elsewhere in Sacramento County, not in Isleton, a sleepy burg wedged between wheat fields and the quiet, green waters of the Sacramento River. About 7,000 other crime-weary Californians are on the Police Department’s waiting list, aiming to carry a gun just as soon as their applications are approved.

To these people, Isleton Police Chief Eugene Byrd is a hero, a man who recognizes the terrifying realities of modern life and believes law-abiding citizens deserve the right to pack a pistol for protection.

Others say Byrd has stepped over the line. Critics--including many who wear a lawman’s badge--say the chief is too generous with the gun permits, arming just about anyone who can squeeze a trigger.


“It seems like this guy is giving a permit to anybody who asks,” said Ron Scott, police chief in the Bay Area city of Livermore. “Would we all be safer if everyone carried a gun on the street? I don’t think so.”

Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren has similar qualms, and recently accused Byrd of breaking the law by charging an excessive fee for the gun permits. This month, Lungren said the state will stop approving Isleton’s permit applications until the chief explains why he charges $150 per permit--50 times what Lungren says the law appears to allow.

The attorney general’s crackdown puts Isleton, population 833, in a perilous bind. In a curious civic twist, the city makes a good piece of its living off the gun permits. At last count, permit fees accounted for nearly one-third of the city’s meager municipal budget.

Without that income, no one is quite sure what Isleton would do. Once a thriving village known as the “Asparagus Capital of the World,” the city is now one of the poorest in the state, struggling to supplant its withering farm economy and stay fiscally afloat.

“We are counting on money from those permits--there’s no denying it,” said Mayor Vern Longhofer, a stout, affable man with a neatly clipped white beard. He concedes that relying on such a funding source may not represent the best in civic stewardship, but notes: “Beggars can’t be choosers.”

Not surprisingly, Longhofer and most of Isleton’s other city fathers have backed their police chief 100%. The City Council gave him two meaty raises--hiking his annual salary from $24,000 to $36,000 this year.

As for Byrd, he is defiant. “It’s going to take more than some silly threat from the attorney general to scare me,” he fumed in an interview. “If he’s serious, he’s going to have to throw me in jail.”

Located 45 miles south of Sacramento, Isleton is not a place that normally finds itself in the headlines. In a typical year, the biggest event in the picturesque town is the annual crawdad festival, during which 125,000 visitors feast on crustaceans found in river waters a stone’s throw from downtown.

But Byrd’s stance has plopped the town in the midst of a grand battle, one that has spawned legislation in the capital and attracted the attention of disapproving law enforcement officials statewide.

Under California’s penal code, an applicant for a concealed weapon permit must be of good moral character and pass a criminal background check. Anyone convicted of a felony is ineligible. Applicants must also demonstrate a justifiable need for carrying a gun, such as a proven threat from an estranged spouse or evidence of stalking or some other imminent danger.

In addition, many sheriffs and police chiefs require applicants to complete a course in firearms training, provide letters attesting to their good character, obtain the written endorsement of their family physician, and undergo a psychiatric exam--all at their own expense.

Byrd’s demands are less burdensome. Instead of requiring a psychiatric exam, he relies on a face-to-face, 30-minute interview with an applicant to assess the person’s mental fitness. No letters of recommendation are needed, but the chief does insist that applicants take a class in firearms safety. And he will arm no one with a history of domestic abuse.

While not everyone who asks gets a permit from Byrd, he admits that his standards are far more liberal than those of other law enforcement officials. During roughly the same period that Byrd approved 700 permits, the sheriff of Sacramento County--population 1.1 million, or more than 1,200 times that of Isleton--issued 648, many of them to reserve police officers.

“My permits are going to upstanding members of the community,” Byrd said. “Let’s not forget what the 2nd Amendment of the U.S. Constitution says--a citizen has the right to bear arms.

“People are terrified,” he added, his blue eyes glowing with the passion of a missionary. Consider the experiences of some applicants he rewarded with permits, he said. There was a woman attacked while jogging and the couple whose teen-age daughter was raped by three gang members who threatened to kill her if she pressed charges. In addition, there are taxi drivers, emergency room doctors and business owners who must transport cash or valuables.

“The bad boys are very bad nowadays,” Byrd said. “Just by walking out your door in this state you’ve got just cause to carry a weapon.”

Such philosophy aside, there is another wrinkle to Byrd’s permit policy that has proven particularly irksome to many of his colleagues in law enforcement. Under a longstanding but informal tradition, county sheriffs and police chiefs have generally agreed to issue permits only to residents under their jurisdiction.

That tradition “makes good sense,” said Larry Hansen, the police chief in Lodi, a city of 55,000 not far from Isleton. “I am more familiar with people in my community, and therefore I should be the one deciding whether they should be walking around with a gun.”

Byrd does not abide by this tradition, issuing permits to applicants from all over Sacramento County. This is technically legal, and, in fact, he is most proud of the permits he has given to applicants rejected by other law enforcement agencies.

“How dare they turn these people down?” Byrd said. “They come to me in tears. You can’t imagine how grateful they are when I tell them, ‘Yes, I understand. You have the right to defend yourself.’ ”

This summer, a state senator entered the fray, introducing a bill to restrict chiefs from giving permits to people from outside the cities they police. Sponsored by state Sen. Patrick Johnston (D-Stockton), the legislation was killed in an Assembly committee by four Republicans.

That settled, Byrd said he has received hundreds of telephone calls and boxfuls of letters from people commending him for his stand--and pleading for gun permits.

“I had one guy drive all the way from San Diego and show up in my office, begging me for a permit,” Byrd said. “And I get a lot of calls from L.A. I wish I could help those folks, but legally I can only give permits to residents in Sacramento County.”

According to the attorney general, Byrd will soon be issuing no permits at all. In an interview, Lungren questioned the chief’s generosity in arming the populace and said he has violated limits on how much a city can charge for a permit. State law appears to allow cities to charge a maximum processing fee of $3, Lungren said; Isleton charges $150.

Byrd said he has consulted with attorneys and believes that he is on solid legal ground. As he reads the law, those seeking gun permits may be charged whatever it costs a city to process their applications. In the case of Isleton, he said, that amount is $150.

Moreover, Byrd added, many other cities charge similarly high fees. A quick survey suggests that he is right. The city of Lodi charges $15--three times the level state law appears to allow--while Campbell, a city of 37,000 near San Jose, charges a whopping $670.

“The way we read the law, we are allowed to charge whatever is necessary to recover our costs to process these permits,” said Campbell Police Chief James Cost, who has only issued one permit this year. “We had a team of analysts evaluate it, and they came up with the $670 figure.”

Lungren said his staff is investigating what Campbell and other cities are charging.

For Isleton, the flap could not have come at a worse time. Not long ago, the City Council received a letter from the Sacramento County Grand Jury. The message was clear: The city’s economic woes had made survival unlikely. Dissolve your city, fire your seven municipal employees and let the county do the governing.

The grand jury cited, among other things, poor record-keeping at City Hall and a lack of written policies governing many municipal activities.

Such harsh advice does not play well here. Isleton, after all, has weathered countless calamities and bounced back, its spirit intact. There was the 1926 fire that burned the business district to the ground, and the devastating river levee break that swamped its farms and neighborhoods in 1972. More recent, budget cuts prompted Sacramento County to threat to close the Isleton branch library. Outraged, townspeople found a vacant building and raised enough money to run the library themselves.

“The people of Isleton have seen it all and survived,” said Charli Hand, a local restaurant owner who left a San Francisco suburb after her daughter was shot in the leg while walking home from school. “We aren’t about to call it quits now.”

Such optimism predominates here, but few dispute that Isleton--one of California’s 10 smallest cities--has some sobering troubles. Once home to 3,000, it continues to see its population dwindle. Farmers still raise potatoes, pears and corn in Isleton’s rich river delta soil, but the canneries have all moved away. Forty percent of the residents are retirees, 30% are on public assistance. Isleton is so poor, it cannot afford a city manager.

Civic leaders are counting on tourism to bail them out, and with its charm, history and riverfront setting, Isleton is appealing indeed. Plans are afoot for a public fishing pier and a visitors dock, and a developer is eyeing land at the foot of Main Street for a 243-slip marina and 300 homes.

Still, 17 storefronts in the historic downtown are shuttered, and those merchants who remain say making a buck is tough. Against this backdrop, the weapons permits have been a vital cash cow. And now, that cow may be slaughtered.

“It’s a worry, yes,” said Mayor Longhofer. “But so far, we’re holding our own. At least we’re not bankrupt like Orange County.”