Police chiefs in Orange County cities are rising up against a plan by Sheriff-elect Mike Carona to let more residents carry concealed weapons, a plan that could lead to a tenfold increase in such permits.
Carona's campaign promise to approve more permits stems partly from a controversial University of Chicago study that found that serious crime has declined as the number of concealed weapons permits increase.
The study sparked a nationwide debate between those who believe that crime drops when citizens are armed and those who assert that carrying handguns leads to more homicides, suicides and accidental injuries or deaths.
Some Orange County police chiefs plan to process permit applications themselves rather than turn them over to the county, as they have done throughout the long tenure of departing Sheriff Brad Gates.
Last year, Gates issued 131 annual permits.
"I can say safely that the number is going to increase," Carona said. "Is it going to be dramatic? I don't know. My guess is it will jump in the neighborhood of San Diego County."
Last year, San Diego County issued about 1,500 permits.
The possible increase is even more dramatic when looking at the ratio of permits issued for every 100,000 residents. Orange County granted 2.44 permits per 100,000 last year, compared with about six in Los Angeles County and a hefty 55 in San Diego County.
Carona, who takes office in January, maintains that everyone who qualifies under state law should get a permit as long as they demonstrate a need, display competency with the weapon after 16 hours of training, and cover the costs of issuing the permit.
The county's police chiefs are not interested in drastic changes based on a controversial study and on perceptions of unfair distribution. They believe that the fewer guns on the street, the better.
"Municipal chiefs are concerned about the more liberal approach," said Newport Beach Police Chief Robert J. McDonell, president of the Orange County Police Chiefs and Sheriff's Assn. "A number of the departments are reexamining their options."
Still, the police chiefs know that there is a loophole. Although police can decide who gets permits, citizens have the right to appeal to the sheriff or go directly to the sheriff.
Gates, sheriff for the past 23 years, has been accused of handing out permits selectively to political supporters. In 1990, two private investigators repeatedly denied permits won a judgment of nearly $600,000 against Gates. Public concern then faded, but criticism of his methods has persisted.
"It's not a level playing field," Carona said of Gates' policy.
In making the permits a campaign issue, he said he wanted to take "political patronage" out of the process and make it more objective.
Carona said he believes in the results of the University of Chicago study, the most comprehensive to date on the topic. Its author, John Lott, insists: "Allowing people to get a concealed weapons permit saves lives and reduces the threats they face from violent crimes."
But Lott has drawn fire from some experts and gun opponents who say that his study is flawed.
"The study can't really tell you anything about whether these laws will reduce or increase violent crimes," said Jon Vernick, director of the Johns Hopkins University Center for Gun Policy and Research. The center published a rebuttal to Lott's study last year, stating that his conclusions are based on "several methodological and factual flaws."
"It seems to us a dangerous gamble to put more concealed weapons on the street," Vernick said. "It's a gamble that's not supported by scientific evidence."
Lott used data from all 3,054 counties in the United States during 18 years, through the end of 1994, to conclude that for each year that concealed weapons permits have increased, murder and rape rates declined 3% and 2%, respectively.
Lott said 31 states have laws saying permits "shall" be issued if applicants meet the age requirement and pass a criminal background check. About half the states require some kind of training in handling guns.
California is one of 12 states with laws saying that permits "may" be issued to applicants who meet certain criteria and demonstrate need. Seven states do not allow people to carry concealed weapons.