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Sheriff's new policy makes it easier to get concealed weapon permit

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April 11, 2004



More than 1,000 Mendocino County residents are licensed to carry guns in public, the result of a policy adopted by Sheriff Tony Craver that makes it easier to get a concealed weapon permit.

The number of Mendocino County residents authorized to tote concealed guns has jumped nearly five-fold since 1998, when 217 permits were authorized. Craver was elected sheriff after making a campaign vow that law-abiding citizens would be allowed to carry guns.

"It's their right," Craver said.

Currently, 1,065 Mendocino County residents have concealed weapon permits, compared to 136 in Sonoma County and 197 in Lake County, according to a Press Democrat survey of local law enforcement agencies.

"That's a staggering amount of gun permits for a small county," said retired Mendocino County Sheriff Jim Tuso, who tightly restricted concealed weapons permits during his eight-year tenure.

"I don\'t know why that many people would want to carry a weapon in Mendocino County," he said.

The reason, supporters say, is grounded in the potent politics of personal protection and individual freedom in fiercely independent Mendocino County. Craver has built a solid base of support from both ends of the political spectrum, winning praise from the right for his policy on gun permits and plaudits from the left for his light-handed treatment of small-time marijuana growers and users.

Politicians who try to change Craver's gun policy and tighten restrictions on concealed weapons will pay a price, predicted Mendocino County District Attorney Norm Vroman.

"I can tell you anyone who runs for his spot and says he won't continue his policy (on gun permits) won't get elected," said Vroman, a gun-safety instructor and concealed weapon permit holder who shares Craver's philosophies.

Carrying a gun is a way of life for many who live in rural areas. Modoc County had the highest rate of concealed weapon permits in the state, with 36 per 1,000 residents, according to state Department of Justice figures for 2002, the most recent statewide data available. San Francisco had the lowest, with 0.01 permits per 1,000 residents.

Mendocino County was ranked 16th of California's 58 counties, with 10 permits per 1,000 residents. Sonoma County came in 48th, with 0.4 permits per 1,000. Lake County was ranked 31st, with 4 permits per 1,000 residents.

The variations result from each county's interpretation of state law, which gives local law enforcement officials the ability to set standards for issuing concealed weapons permits.

The permit holder is allowed to carry a hidden gun, often on their person in a purse or a special holster, or in their car under the seat or in a glove compartment.

Residents living in rural areas far away from police and sheriff's patrols must be allowed to protect themselves, Craver said. His 45 deputies cannot protect everyone in the county's 3,500 square miles, Craver said.

"If I can empower people to protect themselves, then I've partially achieved the government's responsibility to protect its people," Craver said.

Right-to-carry advocates contend the drop in gun violence rates in recent years is the result of increased gun ownership.

"An armed society is a safe society," said Ukiah business owner Ralph Gomez, who's had a concealed weapons permit since 2003.

Gun opponents disagree, and note crimes in Texas and Florida, including murder, have been committed by people authorized to carry concealed weapons. In addition, they say, more guns increases the risk of children chancing upon a loaded weapon and getting hurt.

Tuso said he thinks carrying a concealed gun neither deters crime, nor is necessary.

"Crime is not rampant in Mendocino County," he said.

While Craver has issued nearly 850 new concealed weapon permits since taking office, Vroman said he believes the actual number of people carrying concealed weapons in Mendocino County has remained about the same. Before 1999, many people carried guns illegally because Craver's predecessor tightly restricted gun permits, Vroman said.

Vroman, in fact, encouraged his students to carry guns if they were denied permits. Violations are treated as a misdemeanor offense, which Vroman said is mild compared to being unable to defend yourself against a violent attack.

"It's made honest citizens out of people who were carrying," Vroman said of Craver's policy.

Now that concealed weapon permits are easier to get, Vroman recommends that offenders who are caught carrying a gun apply for a permit. If they obtain a permit, Mendocino County prosecutors will dismiss charges for carrying a concealed weapon, provided the person committed no other offenses.

Vroman said the public should not worry about the increase in concealed weapon permits in Mendocino County. Permit holders have gone through training and background checks that weed out the bad guys, he said.

California makes it tougher to get gun permits than most other states. It's a "may carry" state, which means applicants must convince officials they're worthy of, and need, a permit, unlike in the 35 "shall issue" states like Texas.

Permit holders can't be felons or drug addicts, convicted of violent crimes or have restraining orders against them. They also are subjected to fingerprinting, a Department of Justice background check and must attend a 16-hour firearms safety course.

Some law enforcement agencies, including those in Sonoma County, require that applicants also undergo psychological and physical evaluations. Under the state Penal Code, all applicants must show "good cause" for a concealed weapon -- a term that is open to interpretation by local law enforcement officials.

In Mendocino County, "the good cause is I can't protect them," Craver said.

He cited the possibility of car breakdowns on deserted rural roads and lack of cell phone reception in many parts of the county.

"You're at the mercy of whoever comes along," Craver said.

That isn't good enough in Sonoma County, where good cause includes the need to carry large amounts of cash, travel in high crime areas and proof of a credible threat to oneself or one's family, according to Sonoma County Sheriff's Lt. Dave Edmonds.

People without cause rarely bother to apply, he said. "We don't get a lot of bogus applicants," Edmonds said.

The ease of getting a permit in Lake County falls between that in Sonoma and Mendocino counties.

Lake County Sheriff Rodney Mitchell, like Craver, believes law-abiding citizens have a right to carry guns to protect themselves. He disagrees with officials in urban areas, saying that is where the greater danger lies and that law-abiding citizens should be able to protect themselves.

"To me, that's a crime," Mitchell said.

He also interprets good cause the same way Craver does, so he's at a loss to explain why Mendocino County has so many more permits than Lake County.

However, in more subtle ways, Lake County does make it harder to get permits than Mendocino County. If Mitchell doesn't know an applicant, or they're new to the county, he requires a letter of recommendation from someone who's active in the community, like a member of Kiwanis.

In addition, Lake County deputies are allowed to reject an application if they have a bad feeling about someone, even though their background checks come up clean.

That's not so in Mendocino County. If someone has tattoos or a "funny look," that's not a reason to reject them, Craver said.

"That's good old boy. That's not the way it works," he said. "The guy who lives under the bridge is just as important as the guy who owns the bridge."

It's also harder to keep a permit in Lake County. By law, if someone is drunk and carrying a gun, their gun permit is revoked. And, if caught driving under the influence, even without a gun, they can lose their permit in Lake County.

Driving while intoxicated does not mesh with Mitchell's requirement that concealed weapon permit holders demonstrate "consistent, mature, responsible behavior."

Mendocino County will revoke the concealed weapon permit of someone driving under the influence only if they had their gun with them, Craver said.

Nine people have had their permits revoked in the last five years in Mendocino County. They include three people who had restraining orders issued against them, two who were drunk and carrying their guns, and one who was intoxicated while with a known felon.

One of the most egregious, Craver said, was a man who brandished his gun in an attempt to stop a man from driving too fast through his neighborhood.

Another 33 people have had their permits rejected or withdrawn in the last five years, according to Mendocino County Sheriff's Office statistics. They include withdrawals because permittees moved from the county, lied on their applications, were married to a felon, or "lacked maturity," according to a Sheriff's Office report.

No statistics are available on cases in which a permit holder used their gun to commit a crime. Craver said he knows of none in Mendocino County, but worries about the possibility.

"You can never predict who's going to do what," Craver said.

Craver said criminals are not inclined to apply for permits because they don't want to submit their fingerprints, which end up in an FBI database. On the other hand, there also is no documented evidence that carrying a concealed weapon has prevented crime in Mendocino County.

Vroman, however, said students have told him about close calls in dark parking lots that prompted them to reach for their guns. At that point, their potential attackers turned and ran.

In any case, concealed weapon permit holders are convinced they're safer with a gun.

"I call it my equalizer," said Vroman's wife, Raleigh Page-Russell, who obtained a permit at his urging.