LA County Sheriff's office under scrutiny over concealed carry permits

There are lots of problems with the “may issue” carry laws struck down by the Supreme Court in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen, starting with the fact that the arbitrary and capricious process of determining who has “good cause” or a “justifiable need” to exercise a fundamental right is squarely unconstitutional. But these “may issue” systems are also ripe for abuse, as we’ve seen in recent years in cases from New York City to the Bay Area of California where law enforcement have been accused of approving permits in exchange for cash and prizes; permits that no ordinary citizen would be eligible for.

Was something like this happening in Los Angeles County? The LA Times reports that Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva’s office is conducting a criminal investigation into “irregularities discovered in the CCW application process”. While the sheriff’s office hasn’t offered many details, the paper alleges that a number of donors to Villanueva’s re-election campaign received their carry licenses despite giving “questionable reasons for needing to be armed”, and in some cases appear to have gotten extra help from a pair of sheriff’s employees.

For this article, The Times analyzed gun permit applications submitted before the U.S. Supreme Court rewrote the rules regarding permits in June when it ruled that Americans do not need to have a reason for wanting to be armed in public. Because the Sheriff’s Department has refused to provide The Times with copies of every permit application, it was difficult to determine whether people connected to the sheriff were treated differently than others who applied.

But the Times’ analysis of applications submitted by donors and others with links to Villanueva revealed red flags.

A donor who was assisted by Gisel Del Real, one of the deputies now under investigation, wrote on his permit application that he needed to be armed because he and his boss “hike to remote areas like in the high mountains to meditate with nature where there is no law enforcement readily available.”

The donor, tax records show, worked for a religious figure who called himself the “Pope of Buddhism” and was wanted by Chinese authorities for fraud before he died earlier this year. The donor received his permit in a month, much more quickly than the six to eight months that Villanueva said in June was the typical wait. He could not be reached for comment.

Another permit holder, Alejandra Dominguez, is a friend of the sheriff’s wife who has posted photos on social media of the two walking the Villanuevas’ dog and, last year, of herself in Villanueva’s office, sitting at his desk, with the caption: “Because when you get the opportunity to sit on the Sheriff’s chair … you just take it!”

On her permit application last year, Dominguez cited a climate of “hatred towards law enforcement officers” and claimed she was in danger because she was married to one. Two months after being granted her permit in October, Dominguez donated to Villanueva’s campaign and, earlier this year, helped host a fundraiser for him.

Reached by phone, Dominguez declined to comment.

“I’m not comfortable talking to you about any of this stuff,” she said.

Villanueva and a spokesperson for the Sheriff’s Department did not answer most of more than a dozen questions about how weapons permits are awarded and the treatment given to donors who applied for permits. The spokesperson said that campaign donations have “no bearing on the issuance” of a weapon permit.

“Over 3,400 people have donated to Sheriff Alex Villanueva’s reelection campaign, and it stands to reason some may have also applied for a CCW,” Lt. Oscar Martinez wrote in an email late last month.

The LA Times says it’s found 50 donors to Villanueva’s election campaigns who’ve also received concealed carry licenses, though the paper notes that “about a dozen” of them made their donation well after they had obtained their permit. At the same time, Villanueva was publicly stating that his office would be approving many more permits compared to his predecessors, which appears to be the case. In January of 2020, according to the Times, the county had just 155 permit holders. By May of that year, however, more than 2,800 county residents had obtained a carry license. The vast majority of those individuals don’t appear to have had any interaction or made any financial contributions to the sheriff’s re-election campaign, but at least some of those who did donate appear to have received their permits fairly quickly, or at least much faster than the 6-8 month wait that Villanueva said was the norm at the time.

About two months after applying for a permit, [Pascal] Mouawad donated $1,500 to Villanueva’s reelection campaign in April 2021, and a week later he received his permit. He donated another $1,500 two months after that.

On his application, Mouawad noted that he had been turned down for a permit by the Los Angeles Police Department in 2020 because it determined he did not meet the good cause requirement. He wrote on his application to the Sheriff’s Department that he needed to carry a weapon because he transports valuable jewelry to his ultra-wealthy clients, and armored car companies wouldn’t drive to private residences.

The Times report doesn’t contain any bombshell evidence proving that there was a pay-to-carry scheme operating out of the LA County Sheriff’s Office, but it does raise plenty of red flags about how permit applications were processed, and with a criminal investigation underway we still have a lot more to learn.

One thing is already certain, however: any system that allows for the state to subjectively determine who gets to exercise a constitutional right is open for abuse and fraud. Getting rid of “good cause” or “justifiable need” requirements is a great first step, but as long as states like New York and California can continue to use arbitrary and subjective determinations like someone’s “good moral character” as part of the approval process the opportunity for graft is still there, and the deprivation of a constitutionally-protected right unless you’re willing to pony up some extra cash is a very real concern for those wanting to exercise their right to bear arms in self-defense.