Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith is facing serious questions over how her office issues concealed carry licenses. In fact, the local District Attorney’s office has been investigating whether or not there’s “pay-to-play” taking place, with allegations that big campaign donations to the sheriff’s reelection campaign are ensuring approval of concealed carry applications. While the investigation continues, the allegations alone are a prime example of why California’s current gun laws need a drastic overhaul.
In California, sheriffs have discretion to approve or deny permits based on whatever they determine to be “good cause”, and in Santa Clara County, the sheriff’s office typically approves only a handful of applications. In 2018, for instance, just 13 applications or renewals were approved in the county, though it’s home to nearly 2-million people.
The San Jose Mercury News is reporting that record keeping, or the lack thereof, by the sheriff’s office, may be hindering the investigation.
So far, the only information the Sheriff’s Office has released in response to public records requests after the DA investigation became public in August are the names of individuals granted permits each year since 2014, and 15 applications for permits granted in late 2017 and in 2018.
When this news organization requested CCW records in fall 2018, in the heat of Smith’s last re-election bid, the office refused to release any documents, despite having done so in 2011 in connection with reporting on the federal lawsuit.
Asked recently about the number of applications the Sheriff’s Office receives each year, the agency could not provide even an estimate.
Sheriff’s Sgt. Michael Low told this news organization the paperwork for rejected applications is shredded annually. But the county’s posted records retention schedule requires that CCW applications be kept at least two years before they are destroyed unless they are the subject of litigation.
The law-enforcement source, however, said there is no consistent process for retaining or purging applications, adding that the only thing successful applications had in common was a green light from Smith or one of her top commanders. Rejected or non-processed applications, the source said, often go into a drawer and aren’t looked at again.
The paper notes that the sheriff’s office can also take its sweet time processing applications that are eventually approved, in some cases making applicants wait for six months, even though by law the sheriff’s office is supposed to approve or deny an application within 90 days.
Even if the local District Attorney decides that there’s not enough evidence of malfeasance to bring charges, the Santa Clara County sheriff’s office is the perfect example of why “may issue” concealed carry laws, or laws that require applicants to show “good cause” for carrying a firearm are an outright infringement on the right to keep and bear arms.
The San Jose Mercury News says that the sheriff’s office has approved or renewed 150 concealed carry licenses since 2013, again in a county with nearly 2-million residents. There are plenty of California counties that have fewer residents and far more concealed carry licensees, because the county sheriffs there view self-defense as “good cause,” unlike Sheriff Smith and sheriffs in San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, and a few other well-populated counties.
The average resident of Santa Clara County cannot exercise their right to bear arms, because not only can they not get a license to carry a concealed firearm, but they’re not allowed to openly carry a firearm for self-defense. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that there is no constitutional right to carry a concealed firearm, and has so far avoided issuing an opinion in a case that asks the inevitable follow up question: if you have no right to bear a concealed firearm, do you have a constitutional right to openly bear one?
The 9th Circuit could have ruled on the case by now, but instead back in February the court of appeals put the case on hold until the Supreme Court issues a decision in the New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. New York City case. SCOTUS will hear oral arguments in that case on Monday, December 2nd, but a decision could still be months away.
The Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office isn’t the only law enforcement agency that’s come under fire for corruption involving the issuance of concealed carry licences. The NYPD ran its licensing division as a “bribery machine”, as one former cop described it, and several officers were convicted in recent years of bribery involving the approval of concealed carry applications.
These “may issue” laws don’t just deprive the average resident of their right to bear arms, they enable corruption. Because of the discretion allowed law enforcement in the issuing of licenses to carry, without explicit evidence of money or good changing hands it can be difficult to show that a pattern of corruption exists, which can allow the practices to go on for years.
Personally, I don’t think you should have to have a license to bear arms, any more than you should have to have a license to keep them. However, even in permitless carry states concealed carry licenses still exist. As long as they’re around, they should be “shall issue”, removing any opportunity for graft or corruption in the issuance of the license and ensuring that the average law-abiding applicant can exercise their right to bear arms. Anything less is an infringement.