California sheriff forced to disclose names of concealed carry holders to media

(AP Photo/Al Behrman, File)

California gun owners have already suffered a loss of their privacy thanks to the massive leak of information from Attorney General Rob Bonta’s office earlier this year, but now those who possess a concealed carry license in one California county have been told that the media also has access to their information.

Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco recently sent out a notification to concealed carry holders in the county alerting them to a public records request from Viacom-CBS for “the names of all people with concealed carry permits.” Bianco says that after the request was received, the department reached out to attorneys to “determine if their were any valid exceptions the department could use” in order to prevent handing over those names to the media. According to Bianco, an “outside legal analysis” determined that the California Supreme Court ruled all the way back in 1986 that if media outlets request this information, “public agencies must disclose the full names of concealed weapons permit holders.”

Bianco says he had no choice but to release the names of all those Riverside County residents who possess a valid concealed carry license, and in his alert to permit holders told them that he doesn’t take this matter lightly. Still, the sheriff says that because of “court precedent and a lack of protections” within the state’s legal code he was forced to hand over the information, and encouraged those “seeking a change” to state law to contact their local legislators.

I’m actually somewhat torn here. If California were a true “shall issue” state, then I don’t think there is any compelling public interest in knowing the names of those who possess a concealed carry license. In “may issue” states, however, I think the argument can be made that the subjective and arbitrary issuance of carry license is deserving of public scrutiny. Look at what’s going on in Santa Clara County, California right now, where Sheriff Laurie Smith is currently on trial in civil court on charges of corruption after allegations that deep-pocketed donors to her re-election campaign were given rarely-issued concealed carry permits in exchange for their “support”. While the powerful and well-connected were handed permits, those who didn’t have that same special relationship with the sheriff’s office were often left twisting in the wind without even a formal denial.

A former manager for a Silicon Valley security business testified at a sheriff’s civil corruption trial that he and the company’s CEO agreed to provide political donations in exchange for concealed-weapons permits.

Martin Nielsen, who implicated a Santa Clara County sheriff’s captain and others in the alleged bribery scheme, testified publicly for the first time Monday at Sheriff Laurie Smith’s trial.

He detailed how he was tasked with finding a way to get concealed-carry permits for AS Solutions security agents who were assigned to high-profile clients, the Mercury News reported. The effort followed a 2018 shooting at the YouTube campus in San Bruno in which a woman wounded three people before killing herself.

The now-defunct security company’s high-profile clients included Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Nielsen testified that he and AS Solution’s then-head Christian West agreed to financially support Smith’s 2018 reelection bid in exchange for the permits for security agents assigned to protect executives for the company then known as Facebook.

… Nielsen, testifying under a grant of immunity from criminal prosecution, said he and West arranged to donate a large sum to an independent expenditure committee backing Smith’s reelection.

“Did you come away with the understanding you would get 10 to 15 permits?” prosecutor Gabriel Markoff asked.

“Yes,” Nielsen replied.

… Nielson did not state the precise donation amount in his testimony because San Mateo County Superior Court Judge Nancy Fineman had limited what details Nielsen could give in front of the jury.

However, in past testimony, Nielsen said $90,000 was the agreed amount, though only $45,000 was ever donated. The other half was scuttled after the bribery and corruption probe got underway in 2019.

Nielsen also testified that he was unilaterally exempted by a sheriff’s captain from having to qualify under a legally required firearms proficiency test, and was instructed to obscure their association with the security company to avoid negative optics.

“They could not all be AS Solution,” he said. “Something about the fact it was a security company and it didn’t look good.”

If the powerful and well-connected are afforded access to their right of armed self-defense while the vast majority of applicants are denied, that’s a legitimate news story. Having said that, the scandal in the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Department wasn’t uncovered by local media, but by the Santa Clara County D.A.’s office. While the publicly available information could have been used by news outlets to uncover the alleged shady situation in the sheriff’s office, it looks instead like it was campaign finance disclosures that actually raised suspicions of prosecutors, with the media only picking up on the scandalous allegations after a search warrant was served on the sheriff’s office.

While there’s a theoretical benefit to publicly disclosing the names of concealed carry holders in “may issue” states, in practice this leads to responsible gun owners being put at risk of burglary and theft, and may even help aid stalkers learn whether their potential victims are armed or not. Unfortunately, for now this policy is the law of the land in California, and concealed carry holders can be outed by their local media. Whether that law would withstand constitutional scrutiny in light of the test laid out by the Supreme Court in Bruen is another question entirely, however, and I hope that one or more of the 2A groups operating in the state will challenge that 1986 California court decision by using the Bruen test in the very near future.