Concealed-gun licenses offer owners a sense of safety. How many Californians pack (legal) heat?

More people are licensed to carry concealed weapons in Fresno County than any other county in California, according to data from the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office and the Fresno Police Department.

Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims said her department has about 15,000 CCW (shorthand for “carry a concealed weapon”) licenses issued to residents. And the Fresno Police Department has more than 2,400 licenses outstanding – more than 1,700 issued since 2012.

Together, the two police agencies account for more than 17,000 CCW licenses. Data provided by the state’s Bureau of Firearms in response to a California Public Records Act request show Orange County is next with 12,008 licenses.

The approximately 17,500 permits in Fresno County represent about 17 people licensed to pack heat for every 1,000 residents. Statewide, the Department of Justice data shows there are more than 120,000 CCW licenses – or about three licenses per 1,000 residents.

Mims said she’s tried to encourage people to apply for CCW licenses since she was elected sheriff in 2006. “In fact, I carried applications with me,” she said of her early tenure when the department used paper applications. “It was such a big issue, such an important issue to my constituents in Fresno County that when I was asked about it, I would just hand somebody an application.”

“Whether they actually applied or not or whether they passed the background check is another issue, but we made it available,” she added.

State law sets forth four conditions that an applicant must meet to qualify for a CCW license:

Be of good moral character.

Have good cause for issuance of a license.

Live in the county or city where they’re applying for a license, or their principal place of employment or business is within the county.

Have completed a required firearms safety course.

The city of Fresno also requires that an applicant be at least 21 years old.

“The penal code requires that you have ‘good cause,’ and that can be determined by the issuing agency or issuing person,” said Mims, adding that sheriffs and police chiefs across the state each have their own idea of what represents “good cause” or “good moral character.”

“In my view, personal protection is good cause.,” Mims said. “Anybody can be victimized. So that’s why I use personal protection as good cause.”

While personal protection is the biggest reason why people seek CCW permits, the specific trigger for a person to actually take the step of filling out an application and taking the required safety classes vary.

“Generally what you find is there are people who have been thinking about applying but didn’t, and then some kind of incident occurs and they apply,” Dyer said. He cited the 2017 case of Kori Muhammad, who allegedly went on a shooting rampage in Fresno, or high-profile mass-shooting cases in California or across the country. “When that happens, CCW applications increase significantly.”

Incidents such as the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting that killed 28 people in Connecticut or the 2015 shooting in San Bernardino in which 14 people died and 22 others were hurt tend to create spikes in the numbers of applications, Mims and Dyer said. “And when things are calm, when it’s not in the news and nothing’s happening, then we level back off,” Mims said.

In a recent CCW class at The Range pistol club in northwest Fresno, students also cited personal protection as their reason for getting a license.

Kristi Berg, who with her husband got their licenses two years ago and were taking the class for their two-year renewal, said they both decided to apply for peace of mind for her frequent visits to her parents in the rural town of Caruthers, south of Fresno.

“It’s very country out there, so just to protect myself when I go visit my parents or my husband at his ranch, I feel safer,” Berg said. “We’d been talking about it for at least two or three years before we applied, and we wanted to get our CCW while Margaret Mims was still in office.”

‘Not necessarily looking for saints’

Mims and Dyer each told The Bee that they rely heavily on criminal background checks that come back through fingerprint scans in assessing an applicant’s character, particularly a person’s judgment and decision-making.

“I’m more concerned not with good cause as much as good character of the individual who’s going to be carrying that firearm,” Dyer said. “It’s really subjective to say who’s really, truly in fear for their safety or their family, so the thing we do is focus on the good character. … We’re not necessarily looking for saints, but we are looking for people who have demonstrated that not only are they a good person, but they have good judgment.”

The sheriff’s office and police department have slightly different processes for their background investigations. Mims said her department relies on the data that comes back from a fingerprint check of applicants. She has retired sheriff’s investigators who look over the information and make a recommendation to her for issuing or denying a permit. “These are people who have an investigative background, so I know when these permits are ready to be issued. I have people who I trust and have the experience to make a good recommendation,” she said.

Fresno police take things a little further. “We’re unique in the fact that we go out and actually interview neighbors, co-workers, people of that nature. It’s very thorough,” Dyer said. “We talk to the neighbors to find out what kind of neighbor this is: does this person have an explosive temper, do they consume alcohol, are they having loud parties?”

Among the factors that automatically disqualify an applicant are any criminal convictions within 10 years for violent offenses such as battery, domestic violence or assault with a deadly weapon; a history of drug or alcohol abuse, or a dishonorable military discharge.

Licenses can also be revoked, but Mims and Dyer both said it’s uncommon for their agencies.

“If someone is drunk driving or they’re in a bar and drinking with their weapon on them and they’re contacted by police, that goes to some decision-making issues that I would have problems with,” Mims said. “I have revoked permits for people brandishing their weapon in an unnecessary way. They might not have fired it, but they brandished it in a way that’s inappropriate.”

Dyer concurred. “The things that we revoke for is when we find out an individual has been consuming alcohol and has their firearm with them; you can’t do that. Or going into a bar with a concealed weapon if that establishment is primarily for the purpose of selling alcohol,” he said. “You can’t carry into stadiums, you can’t carry on school grounds, and you can’t carry when you’re in a bar, when you’ve been drinking, or when you’ve taken medication that says your driving may be impaired.”

In his 18-year tenure as police chief, Dyer said there have only been about four in which a CCW license holder has abused the privilege, “and one of those was a retired officer.”

“And when I say abused, I mean someone brandished that firearm, pointed it at someone and shouldn’t have,” he said. “Sometimes what we’ll see is road rage, where something happens on a freeway, someone is the aggressor, and someone else displays the gun to get them to back off. When that happens, I’m going to err on the side of revocation.”

Responsibilities, limitations

To receive or renew a CCW license, applicants have to complete an eight-hour handgun-safety class to demonstrate their knowledge of gun safety and proficiency with their weapons. In a recent class at The Range, about a dozen students went through both the classroom and live-fire portions of the class under the guidance of instructor Curt Hamett of the Police Science Institute.

On the target range, students have to shoot 50 rounds with their pistol or revolver at targets at three different distances: 3, 5 and 7 yards. The targets are printed with a human silhouette. To pass, at least 75% of their shots have to be within a 12-by-16-inch area of the torso on the target.

For a permit from the Fresno Police Department, the shooting part of the requirement is 100 rounds.

Cheryl, who did not wish to share her last name because of her husband’s work and concern over people knowing that they own guns, was among those renewing a license. She took her time on the firing range because of arthritis in her hands, but she easily passed the shooting part of the class.

“I was scared to death about not passing because the instructor was teaching a different stance and a different way to grip the gun than I learned two years ago,” she said. “I was just letting my breath out before I took each shot.”

Cheryl said she has mixed feelings about whether carrying a gun provides a certain level of personal comfort or security. “There is peace of mind in that I know I can protect myself, but there’s also the burden of being responsible,” she said. “I’m not afraid to use a gun, but I pray that I never have to use a gun. There’s a weight of responsibility; when you’re in a situation like this, you don’t have time to stop and think, ‘What are his intentions?’ You only have seconds to make a decision, and that weighs on you real heavy.”

Hamett, the instructor, stressed several aspects of safety and caution in his lecture. He gave specific attention to the proper way to hold and handle a gun to prevent what he called a “negligent discharge.”

“I don’t believe in an ‘accidental discharge,’” he said. “A gun doesn’t just go ‘BANG’ all by itself. … It’s not going to jump off the table and shoot somebody.”

And he warned people to be mindful of what’s going on around them if they find themselves in a situation where they have to use their gun. “Be sure of your target and what’s beyond it,” he said. “Out there in the real world, a little .22 (.22-caliber round) can go up to a mile and still be lethal. So we have to know what our target is and what’s beyond it.”

“We cannot afford any misses out there in the real world,” he added. “You cannot put any civilians, any innocent bystanders, in danger.”

Mims said it’s important for people to understand the consequences, particularly civil liability, if they fire their weapon. “It’s not ‘if you get sued,’ it’s ‘when’ you get sued,” she said. “That’s what people need to consider.”

Dyer and Mims both said they’ve heard from people who began the process of applying for a permit, but then decided not to when they weighed the potential reality of having to pull a trigger. “And that’s OK,” Mims said. “It’s a very personal decision to carry a weapon, and it’s not for everybody.”

‘Keep the bad guys guessing’

A CCW license means that if a person chooses to carry a weapon, it has to be concealed, not visible to anyone else. “It doesn’t mean just under a jacket, because if that jacket flops open and you can see the weapon, it’s not concealed,” Mims said. Nor can a gun be carried under a tight shirt so that the outline of the gun is visible. And while some states, such as Texas, have laws that allow people to carry a gun openly, such as in a holster on their hip, that’s not allowed with a CCW license in California.

Dyer and Mims each said they oppose the idea of open-carry for guns.

“I think it is an invitation for a confrontation; it makes people nervous wherever those people are carrying,” Dyer said. “We’re not the wild, wild West. I do think a person who carries a firearm, if they have good cause, good character, good judgment and they carry that weapon concealed, in the event they need it, they’re going to use it responsibly.”

Mims said she thinks concealed-carry potentially has a greater deterrent effect on crime than to openly carry a gun.

“I believe you need to keep the bad guys guessing,” she said. “They need to start questioning, ‘Could this person I’m about to rob or attack be carrying a weapon?’”

Homeowners and business owners don’t need a concealed weapons permit if they keep their gun inside their home or business. But that changes once they’re outside. Mims said her investigators often tell shop owners it may be in their best interest to have a license. “What if something happens while you’re behind the counter that takes you outside your business?” she said. “The bad guy forces you outside with your weapon. Why get into the legal squabbles when you have a piece of paper that protects you?”

A political divide over firepower?

The number of permits varies widely from one county to another across California – and more people doesn’t mean more permits.

Los Angeles County, with a population of more than 10 million, had only 424 permits as of last summer, according to the state Bureau of Firearms. San Diego County had fewer than 1,150, and Alameda County had 186. The fewest licenses were reported in San Francisco County, where the state bureau reported that there were only two CCW licenses among the 888,000 residents.

By contrast, rural Shasta County had more than 8,100 licenses spread among fewer than 180,000 residents – or about 45 licenses for every 1,000 residents, the highest concentration in the state.

In the central and southern San Joaquin Valley aside from Fresno County, the numbers of licenses reported by the state Bureau of Firearms range from nearly 8,900 in Kern County to just under 1,200 in Kings County.

Dyer said he believes the disparities have more to do with political characteristics of a region’s population rather than whether it’s urban or rural.

“I think what you see here in the Valley is a much more conservative area … and as a result of that, people still believe in the issuance of CCWs,” he said. “And so the sheriff, who is elected, is going to be swayed by that, and so am I.”

“I do see the amount of violence in our city and I can understand and relate to why people would want a weapons permit,” he added. “I don’t want to be the person who denies a person of good character and good judgment a permit and have on my conscience the fact that they couldn’t defend themselves.”

Because the standard of “good cause” can vary from one sheriff or police chief to another, there have been efforts to try to make it less subjective.

In 2016, Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, offered legislation to create a statewide standard requiring CCW applicants to prove that they’re at higher risk for being harmed, not just that they have a desire to carry a weapon to protect themselves. That effort fell short, and then-Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a McCarty bill to require counties or police departments to raise license fees to cover the cost of processing and investigating applications and potentially revoking permits. McCarty told The Sacramento Bee at that time that he believed the legislation would reduce the number of concealed weapons, “and I don’t view that as a bad result.”

McCarty this year reintroduced his license-fee bill, Assembly Bill 1297, which would delete a prohibition on charging more than $100 for a license fee and require the fee to be equal to “the reasonable costs for processing the application, issuing the license, and enforcing the license,” according to a digest of the bill by the Legislative Counsel.

AB-1297 was approved by the state Assembly in May on a 48-21 vote that was largely along party lines; only three Democrats – Sabrina Cervantes of Riverside County, Adam Gray of Merced and Rudy Salas of Bakersfield – voted against the bill, while one Republican and 10 Democrats did not cast a vote. The measure awaits a vote in the state Senate.

The Sacramento Bee contributed to this report.
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Lifelong Valley resident Tim Sheehan has worked in the Valley as a reporter and editor since 1986, and has been at The Fresno Bee since 1998. He is currently The Bee’s data reporter and covers California’s high-speed rail project and other transportation issues. He grew up in Madera, has a journalism degree from Fresno State and a master’s degree in leadership studies from Fresno Pacific University.