The new Wild West: Sacramento's sheriff issues more concealed-carry gun permits than any major California lawman

The county has issued thousands of permits in recent years. San Francisco has issued two

Illustrations by Jonathan Buck

Craig Kamikawa rarely leaves home without his handgun. A resident of the Greenhaven-Pocket neighborhood who works at a fishing tackle shop, Kamikawa keeps it holstered at his hip when he steps into the streets of Sacramento, where a new wave of concealed-weapon permits could turn the city into a modern-day American Wild West.

Kamikawa says he received his concealed-carry weapon permit, or CCW, in 2012, after a thorough review and exam. He is a member of a social group called the Pink Pistols that meets, talks guns and shoots at targets once a month. His gun is for self-defense, he says. But although he is not eager to ever have to use it outside the shooting range, he says he’s ready to shoot a person if the occasion calls for it.

“Whether you’re going grocery shopping or eating dinner down at a local restaurant, it gives some peace of mind to know that you can protect the people you’re with if you see something bad going down,” Kamikawa said.

The 44-year-old is one of thousands of Sacramento County residents who have been issued concealed-weapon permits in the past four years by Sheriff Scott Jones. Previous sheriffs granted almost none by comparison.

Gun critics are bewildered by Jones’ approach, which has made Sacramento a leader among California’s major urban centers when it comes to the number of concealed-weapon permits. Some academics warn Jones’ liberal stance on concealed-weapon permits could get people hurt.

“When states allow citizens to carry concealed handguns, the level of crime goes up relative to what would have happened without the laws,” said Stanford University law professor John Donohue III, who has closely studied guns and violence.

But Jones says his lax policy on issuing permits is part of a plan: A decrease in law-enforcement staffing has increased one’s risk of becoming a victim of crime. So, Jones will allow any law-abiding citizen who so wishes to pack heat and, if needed, help maintain law and order.

Gun-control advocates call the sheriff’s plan foolish. Amanda Wilcox, co-president of the Sacramento Chapter of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, lost her daughter to gunfire more than a decade ago. She doesn’t believe the world is unsafe enough to merit citizens packing weapons.

“The idea that life is dangerous and everyone is out to get you and that you need to carry a gun is ridiculous,” she said. “But the sheriff seems to agree with it.”

Have gun, will carry

Most people who apply for a concealed-weapon permit in Sacramento County receive one, with the denial rate running about 10 percent, according to Jones’ office. That doesn’t mean the application process is easy. Rather, it might simply mean slackers don’t bother with the interviews, paperwork and a 16-hour training course—all part of a process so rigorous that Jones says he’s confident it weeds out virtually all people with hostile intentions.

As for firearm proficiency, you have to be a good shot to receive a CCW. Applicants demonstrate accuracy by aiming a gun at a B-27 target—the familiar black-on-white silhouette of a person with a bull’s-eye at the center of the chest—and attempting to achieve fatal shots to its torso, neck or head. Scoring below a defined threshold means you cannot carry a gun.

Kamikawa said that, during his concealed-weapon training course, the instructor asked if any applicants were eager to use their guns. Two applicants who indicated they hoped to have such an opportunity were promptly pulled from the program and their permit applications denied.

Before Jones became sheriff in 2010, Kamikawa didn’t even bother applying for a concealed-weapon permit. Neither did Andrew Lawrence, another member of the Pink Pistols gun group who now has a permit and packs his handgun most times he leaves his Midtown home.

That’s because getting a CCW permit under previous sheriffs was difficult. They basically followed a no-issue policy, granting permits only in cases where there was a clear need beyond day-to-day self-defense. Jones’ predecessor Sheriff John McGinness granted just 303 permits in two years.

But Jones had issued 5,555 CCW permits as of July 20, and, combined with the permits issued by previous sheriffs, there are currently more than 7,000 active and pending countywide. Only three other counties in California have handed out more concealed-weapon permits than Sacramento—Fresno, Kern and Shasta.

By comparison, San Francisco has only issued two.

District 7 Assemblyman Kevin McCarty says he considered McGinness’ approach to concealed weapons prudent. Now he wonders why Jones abandoned a system that seemed to be working just fine for previous sheriffs.

“I just want to know what was wrong with the policies of [Lou] Blanas and McGinness,” McCarty said. “Permits were granted depending on where you worked, what your job involved. Now, these permits are just being handed out like candy. The policy seems to be based now more on want than on need.”

Gun-control advocate Bill Durston, president of the Physicians for Social Responsibility’s Sacramento chapter, believes Jones’ system of issuing permits is reckless.

“Society shouldn’t have to prove why you shouldn’t have a gun,” Durston said. “You should have to prove to society why you should have one.”

There are roughly 15 times more CCW permits in the county today than there were before Jones took office.

“So I’d like to know if this really makes us 15 times safer,” McCarty said.

Jones says nothing was wrong with the prior policy. He changed the CCW permit-issuing approach party because of his own stance on a citizen’s personal right to bear arms.

“I’m a peace officer, so I can carry a gun 24 hours a day anywhere in the state,” he said in an interview with SN&R. “Depending on where I’m going or if I have my family with me, I can go through a whole litany of decision making to determine whether I feel I should be carrying a weapon. I don’t think that’s a different analysis than what other law abiding folks should be able to go through when trying to protect their own family.”

But there’s more to it than that. At the time of his campaign, society had changed, he says, and Jones felt it was about time concealed-weapon policies did, too.

In 2009 and 2010, Jones explains, the county laid off a third of its staff due to economic troubles. He felt the way to offset this loss in law-enforcement power was to arm law-abiding citizens.

“We suddenly had less ability to protect people and respond to the most basic calls of service,” he said.

Allowing members of the public to carry guns is potentially risky, he agrees, if an individual with ill intentions who passes the screening process is issued a permit. Overall, though, Jones feels he is making the streets safer.

“There are so many guns out there in the hands of bad guys and girls that I’m not so concerned about giving a CCW permit to someone who has demonstrated the willingness to become proficient with their firearm, become knowledgeable about the law, go through the mental and emotional questions they need to ask themselves about potentially using a weapon,” Jones said.

California is actually one of the more restrictive states when it comes to granting concealed-weapon permits. Most states are classified by concealed-weapon permitting as “shall-issue” states—meaning people who apply for concealed-weapon permits must be issued a permit if they pass a basic federal background check.

The Golden State is different—it’s a “may-issue” state, meaning applicants may, or may not, be granted a permit. It’s up to local law-enforcement agencies to decide on those permits.

This is why counties like San Francisco, Marin, Santa Cruz and Santa Barbara issue so few concealed-weapon permits, while others, like Fresno, Kern, Shasta and Sacramento, issue so many. In Vermont, Alaska, Wyoming and Arizona, anybody may carry a gun without a permit.

Applicants for concealed-weapon permits in may-issue states like California must prove to the sheriff that they are “of good moral character” and “that good cause exists for” carrying a concealed gun. They must also pass a federal background check.

Jones is confident that the CCW permit application process is almost perfectly effective in selecting law-abiding citizens and eliminating would-be criminals.

So is Kamikawa.

Craig Kamikaya says his concealed-carry permit, which he acquired recently in 2012, gives him peace of mind. “You can protect the people you’re with if you see something bad going down.”

photos by lisa baetz

“If someone is going to rob a store, why would they apply for a permit?” he said. “They won’t.”

7,000 guns—and counting

The thing is, while Sheriff Jones hopes to make Sacramento County safer, privately owned guns may actually have little or no defensive value.

Data from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics shows that handguns are involved in crimes 15 times for every time a handgun is used legitimately and effectively for self-defense.

A study published in 1986 in the New England Journal of Medicine found that a gun in the home is 43 times more likely to kill someone in the home than an intruder. A Harvard University study published in the peer-reviewed journal Injury Prevention concluded that “[g]uns are used to threaten and intimidate far more often than they are used in self defense.”

The Violence Policy Center, a gun-control advocacy group in Washington, D.C., reports that there were 8,342 criminal firearm murders in the United States in 2012 but only 259 “justifiable” firearm homicides.

The gun lobby, naturally, touts guns as critical tools for self-defense. One of the pivotal studies supporting this point of view was conducted in the early 1990s by authors Gary Kleck and Marc Gertz. The pair phoned about 5,000 people and asked each if they had ever used a gun in self-defense. Kleck and Gertz falsely projected the small fraction of positive respondents onto the entire population of the United States to produce their controversial result—that guns are used for self-defense 2.5 million times every year in America.

Donohue, the Stanford professor who has studied guns’ effects on society, explained in an email that he believes the authors’ methods created an entirely bogus conclusion.

“Even if the 2.5 million defensive gun use number were true 25 years ago (which it wasn’t), crime was dramatically higher in those days so the number would have gone down dramatically today, yet the gun crowd keeps arguing that the number applies today,” Donohue wrote.

Once in a while, a legally armed citizen shoots a bad guy. After two people were mortally wounded by gunfire in a church in Colorado Springs in 2007, an armed woman shot and killed the gunman. In 2002, armed bystanders prevented a gunman, who’d already killed three people and wounded three others, from shooting anyone else at the Appalachian Law School in Virginia.

Donohue says it should be noted, however, that the bystanders at both locations had been placed there as security guards. In other words, they were at least minimally prepared for action.

“[Neither is the] case of an ordinary armed private citizen stopping a shooting,” Donohue said.

On July 22 in Sacramento, an employee shot an intruder at Club Fantasy, a north Sacramento strip club. That case is still being investigated.

In events where a person with a concealed weapon enters a shootout, things may not go as smoothly.

In the 2011 Tucson shooting of former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, it was several unarmed bystanders who stopped the event and wrestled the killer to the ground. Then a citizen exercising his right to carry a concealed gun came racing to the scene and nearly shot the man who had disarmed the killer and was now holding the smoking gun in his hand.

But scenarios in which permitted concealed weapons are used for either good or for evil are rare, and they should not be used as indicators of how CCW permits may affect society, says William Vizzard, professor emeritus of criminal justice at Sacramento State. Vizzard, who has studied gun policy for decades but considers himself neutral in the gun debate, says researchers who analyze gun and crime data are often biased toward a pro- or anti-gun agenda.

“Listening to the Violence Policy Center is like listening to the NRA,” he said. “They start with the answer they want and work backward through the data to get there.”

Vizzard says the argument that 7,000 concealed-weapon permits will affect crime rates one way or another in a county with a population north of a million is preposterous. Most CCW permit holders, he guesses, won’t even carry their guns.

“Most of the people who carry guns at all are those who live or work in high-risk places and wackadoodles who just get a kick out of having a gun on them,” he said.

Andrew Lawrence, a member of the Pink Pistols gun group, says he didn’t even bother applying for a CCW before Sheriff Scott Jones was elected.

On the other hand, uncountable lawbreakers are already carrying concealed handguns.

“We live in a country where a 16-year-old punk gangbanger can easily get his hands on a gun,” he said. “In another country that doesn’t have 300 million guns around, like England or Australia, that wouldn’t be the case. That gangbanger might still hurt someone, but he’d have to punch them or stab them instead.”

The bottom line, Vizzard says, is that gun permits aren’t the problem. Guns are.

Concealing the truth

On January 16, 1989, a 24-year-old man with a legally purchased AK-47 knockoff opened fire on a schoolyard full of children in Stockton. In roughly three minutes, Patrick Purdy fired 105 bullets, killing five kids and injuring 30 people before shooting himself in the head with a pistol. The incident triggered a deluge of several dozen state gun control laws that would take effect over the following two-and-a-half-decades. But mass shootings would continue to occur. In downtown San Francisco, for instance, a man with a rapid-fire gun murdered eight people on July 1, 1993. And, nationally, the massacres of Columbine, Virginia Tech, Aurora and Sandy Hook were still years away, the recent Lafayette movie theater and the Charleston church shootings further still.

Yet in spite of what seems like a nonstop deluge of bullet-related mortality, firearm death rates have been declining for more than 20 years—especially in California, where 50 percent fewer people died of bullet wounds in 2013 than in 1990.

It’s a trajectory that Wilcox, with the Sacramento chapter of the Brady Campaign, believes is clear evidence that gun-control restrictions save lives.

The Nevada City resident’s fight against guns is personal. Wilcox and her husband Nick lost their daughter Laura in a 2001 shooting rampage. Laura was 19 when she and two others were killed by a delusional man with a handgun in Nevada City. Already a gun-control supporter who contributed annual donations to gun-control efforts, Wilcox dug in her heels and, with her husband, became a local powerhouse and legislative advocate for the movement.

Now, Wilcox believes Sheriff Jones’ approach to concealed-weapon permits could roll back advances made to reduce citizen gunfire casualties.

She notes that even highly trained police officers cannot always handle their guns effectively during high-tension events. In 2012, New York Police Department officers inadvertently shot nine bystanders in a chaotic attempt to shoot an armed suspect. In 2013, it happened again: Two New York City bystanders were accidentally shot as police tried to subdue an unarmed man in Times Square.

Wilcox doesn’t blame the officers for those mishaps.

“But if it’s that difficult to hit your target in a high-tension situation, do we think our average citizen can do any better?” she said.

According to data from the Violence Policy Center, CCW permit holders have, since May 2007, shot and killed 743 people in the United States, including 17 police officers. They have committed 29 mass shootings and 46 murder-suicides. At least 20 times, they have unintentionally shot and killed themselves.

Donohue at Stanford says there is a clear relationship between concealed-carry weapon permits and violence. He says increased numbers of right-to-carry permits correlate to higher rates of aggravated assault—and overall rates of violent crime. He has analyzed data from around the country, and to him the relationship is very clear that crime rates increase in the presence of concealed guns.

Many gun advocates, of course, disagree. A 1998 book called More Guns, Less Crime is a sort of bible of the gun lobby. The author, a controversial Virginia gun proponent named John Lott Jr., is a loud critic of gun-free zones, and he likes pointing out the irony when murders occur in places where firearms have been banned.

His book and its premise, however, have been sharply criticized by researchers who consider him a fraud and a liar. He lost most of his credibility in 2003 when it was revealed that a woman named Mary Rosh, who posted supportive blog entries and book reviews on the Internet, citing figures and praising Lott, was actually a creation of Lott himself—invented to lend legitimacy to his work. He apologized for the stunt.

Still, Lott continues to produce research— if not necessarily peer-reviewed—and is taken seriously by the gun lobby and conservative media as a forefront expert on gun policy.

While Lott argues that issuing concealed weapons reduces crime rates, there is evidence that having a concealed weapon increases, not decreases, an individual’s chances of trouble. The Violence Policy Center says that receiving a concealed-weapon permit almost doubles one’s odds of being arrested for a crime, and, according to a 2009 study in the American Journal of Public Health, packing a gun at the time of an assault makes a person four times more likely to get killed than an assault victim without a gun.

Such figures seem to reflect how guns make people behave. Just as some wildlife scientists, like Canadian researcher and author Stephen Herrero, believe that carrying a gun while hiking can increase one’s chances of being attacked by a bear, Donohue says law-abiding citizens of apparently good moral character may behave differently when they are packing heat. This change in behavior can spark conflicts that might not have occurred in the first place in the absence of a gun.

Worse, Donohue says, guns dramatically alter how those conflicts end. He points to the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, probably one of the most well-known cases in which a person carrying a permitted concealed weapon took another’s life. He says Martin died precisely because another person was granted a right-to-carry gun permit.

“George Zimmerman probably wouldn’t have harassed Trayvon Martin if Zimmerman hadn’t been carrying a gun,” Donohue said.

Durston, the gun-control advocate, says most murders are not premeditated. They are—like the Zimmerman-Martin conflict—events in which tempers rise and a fight breaks out.

“A lot of those murders are committed in the heat of an argument,” he said. “So if there hadn’t been a gun involved, someone would have just wound up with a bloody nose or a stab wound.”

‘Do something stupid’

It wasn’t always legal for Americans to carry concealed guns. For decades, most courts nationwide treated the Second Amendment as an allowance for militias—not citizens—to bear arms. This restricted what people could do with their guns, and where they could carry them. Over the past three decades, that’s changed. One by one, states began allowing their residents to carry concealed firearms, and today doing so is permitted in all 50 states.

As the Sacramento Brady Campaign chapter has pointed out in written appeals to lawmakers for stricter gun laws, if more guns really did mean less crime, the United States would be one of the safest places on Earth.

But it isn’t. More than 33,000 people died of gunfire in the United States in 2013—a per-capita rate many times higher than every other industrialized first-world country.

Sheriff Jones knows guns are dangerous, and he does not pretend that granting right-to-carry permits is a risk-free venture.

“Obviously there can be failures in this system, from minor to spectacular,” he said. Yet the review process of issuing CCW permits is designed to ensure that people with hostile intentions don’t acquire a permit, he says.

Whatever legislative achievements anti-gun groups notch in the future, the country will probably remain inundated by guns. A 2013 study published in the American Journal of Medicine revealed both gun ownership and firearm-related death rates in Japan to be the lowest in the developed world, while the United States scored the highest for both rates. The study analyzed 27 countries and found gun ownership to be the strongest influence on gun-related death rates—even stronger, the authors made a point of noting, than mental illness.

“[T]he current study debunks the widely quoted hypothesis that guns make a nation safer,” concluded Sripal Bangalore and Franz H. Messerli, who reported that there are almost as many guns in America as people.

This means hundreds of millions of guns are circulating through one of the most dangerous countries in the world.

Nationwide, efforts are underway to recover these firearms. Sacramento County has a program of destroying firearms turned in anonymously.

Mayor Kevin Johnson proposed a gun-buyback program in 2013, with the goal of getting firearms off of the streets in exchange for gift cards.

“The problem is, those are the responsible gun owners,” Jones said. “We’re never going to be able to get them back from people who have them illegally. There are just so many guns out there now.”

The next best strategy, then it would seem, could be arming responsible members of the public.

And who knows? Maybe the plan will defy statistical probabilities and work. Right-to-carry advocates believe criminal activity will decline as more and more CCW permits are issued countywide.

“A criminal does not know who has a concealed weapon and who does not,” said Kamikawa, of the Pink Pistols group. “So would he take that chance [of attempting a robbery]? I know I wouldn’t.”

Pink Pistols member Lawrence says he hopes never to have to draw his concealed handgun. But—only partly in jest—he warns would-be bad guys that he is ready to use it if necessary:

“You want to know if I’m carrying? Do something stupid.”