Will Concealed Carry Scandal Force California Sheriff Out Of Office?

Paul Sakuma

If so, it likely won’t be because Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith voluntarily steps down. The embattled sheriff has already received a unanimous vote of “no confidence” from county supervisors over what they described as a “series of revelations and incidents,” including allegations that her office was involved in a bribery scheme regarding the issuance of concealed carry licenses. Smith’s top deputies have been indicted on charges that in return for things like pricey donations to a supposedly independent group working for Smith’s re-election, they would ensure that concealed carry permits were issued.

Smith herself has so far avoided indictment, though she repeatedly invoked her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination when she testified before the grand jury, and it’s hard to see a scenario where the sherif willingly removes herself from her position. However, a sheriff’s department employee has announced that she’s taking on her boss in next year’s sheriff’s race, and she’s citing the concealed carry permitting scandal as one of the reasons why she’s running.

Christine Nagaye, who has spent the past 19 years with the sheriff’s office almost entirely in the custody and jail division, announced the official start of her campaign Thursday, and says she wants to “restore integrity” to an office whose leader Smith has weathered heavy scrutiny in recent months, topped by a unanimous no-confidence vote in Smith passed by the county Board of Supervisors.

“It’s been very disheartening,” Nagaye said in an interview. “I feel responsibility for my community. Integrity is something I hold near and dear to my heart.”

In addition to Nagaye, former sheriff’s captain Rick Jensen, who challenged Smith in her last re-election campaign, is once again running against the longtime sheriff. Voters in Santa Clara County will have plenty of options to choose from, in other words, but I’m concerned that despite Jensen and Nagaye using the carry permit scandal as part of their campaign fodder, they’re not going to be any different from the current sheriff when it comes to recognizing the right of the people to carry firearms in self-defense.

Santa Clara County issues only a handful of carry permits in any given year thanks to the broad powers granted to issuing authorities under California’s “may issue” law that allows sheriffs to reject applications if they don’t believe the applicant has demonstrated a good enough reason to carry a firearm. In most of the state’s rural and inland counties, sheriffs view your Second Amendment as all the reason needed to have a permit issued, but in the more populated coastal counties its rare to find a sheriff who agrees.

We’ve seen plenty of evidence that these “may issue” laws foster a culture of graft and corruption within law enforcement, and if Nagaye is serious about trying to restore the integrity of the Santa Clara County sheriff’s office there’s one simple step she could take that would remove the opportunity for deputies to pad their pockets by selling off access to the right to bear arms: announce that, if elected, her policy will be to accept a general right of self-defense as good cause to carry a firearm. Pass a background check, go through the required training hours, and you get your permit to carry. No loopholes, no fine print, and no need to fork over thousands of dollars to anyone in order for you to exercise your Second Amendment rights.

Would Nagaye dare to go that far? I doubt it. This is the Bay Area we’re talking about, after all. But there’s a good chance that by the time Election Day rolls around next November the Supreme Court will have already issued a decision that dooms the “may issue” regimes in place in states like New York, California, New Jersey, Maryland, and Massachusetts. Even if the next sheriff of Santa Clara County wants to prevent the average citizen from lawfully carrying a firearm in self-defense, they may find it difficult if not impossible to do so.

Nov 29, 2021 4:30 PM ET