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March 8, 2010

The Right Priorities

Two recent stories in California shed light on how the concealed handgun permitting process in the state works—and sometimes doesn’t work.

The first story involves a local sheriff in Orange County who is garnering criticism for placing public safety too high on her priority list. Sheriff Sandra Hutchens replaced Sheriff Mike Carona in 2008 after Carona was indicted on federal corruption charges. Carona had also come under scrutiny for his practice of providing friends and business associates with concealed handgun permits. “The policy under the previous administration was to freely give them out,” Hutchens stated. “It comes down to whether you’re going to follow the law. The prior sheriff did not.”

Carona set up a program where those who donated over $1,000 to his campaign were granted concealed handgun permits and badges through a program called "Professional Service Responders." An investigation revealed that the recipients of these permits gave at least $68,000 to Carona. One of these permit holders, Carona's former martial arts instructor, was sentenced to six months in prison after drawing his gun in a dispute on a golf course. Others had prior criminal convictions before receiving a permit.

California is a “May-Issue” state, meaning that law enforcement officials have discretion in issuing concealed handgun permits. Applicants must provide a “good cause” for wanting a permit and demonstrate “good moral character.” They are interviewed and run though a computerized instant background check, and can be required to submit a medical clearance letter from a physician and/or undergo psychological or polygraph testing. Hutchens’ policy is to issue permits to “persons of good and upstanding character who possess credible, significant, and substantiated cause to fear for their safety. [Permits] will not be issued for political, social or other reasons.”

Since coming into office, Hutchens has revoked 132 permits issued by Carona (individuals targeted for revocation were given the option of having their permits expire early so they would not have a “revoked” denotation on their record). Another 168 individuals permitted by Carona did not seek renewal. Of the applications for new permits and renewals evaluated by Hutchens, 564 out of 642 have been approved (90%).

This is apparently not good enough for the National Rifle Association (NRA), gun rights activists, and certain county supervisors, who have accused Hutchens of launching a “misguided jihad.” One man who had his permit revoked by Hutchens stated, “It’s a telling sign of a public official who brings in a philosophy from Los Angeles that doesn’t belong in Orange County and imposes that philosophy against the will of the people and the board that hired her.” The two men running against Hutchens in the November elections, Bill Hunt and Craig Hunter, have also harped on the issue.

Another recent story from California, however, reinforces Hutchens’ wisdom in taking a close look at applicants for concealed handgun permits.

On February 26, law enforcement officials went to the Minkler community home of Rick Liles with a warrant for arson and firearm violations. When they attempted to arrest Liles, he responded with gunfire from an AR-15 semiautomatic assault rifle. At least 150 officers from nearly a dozen agencies arrived on the scene to lay siege to the mobile home. After firing 400 rounds of ammunition into the trailer, authorities were finally able to suppress Liles’ fire. Tragically, Fresno County Sheriff’s Deputy Joel Wahlenmaier was shot dead and Reedley Police Department Officer Javier Bejar was critically wounded (another officer sustained minor gunshot wounds). Officer Bejar was taken off life support and died on March 1.

When authorities finally entered Liles’ trailer hours later, they found him dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. His personal arsenal consisted of five handguns and five rifles.

Liles had been issued a permit to carry a concealed handgun by Fresno County in 2003. He renewed the permit on two occasions before it expired in the summer of 2009.

This was despite Liles’ personal history, which indicated a propensity toward violence and mental instability. Neighbors and local residents had accused Liles of setting fires on their property and firing bullets into nearby homes, one of which “caused minor injuries to a neighbor.” Mary Novak, owner of the Minkler Cash Store, had been one of Liles’ targets. “I don’t think it was focused towards me,” she said. “I think he was reaching out for something, maybe help.” Liles’ wife Diane “told police that [he] had been taking several medications, including Prozac.” She also indicated he was becoming increasingly paranoid with violent thoughts. Liles told Diane several times in recent months that he intended to shoot officers and then take his own life rather than go to prison.[Diane has a violent past of her own—she was convicted in 2005 of threatening to kill a co-worker with a gun.]

Incidents like the one in Minkler demonstrate the importance of thoroughly screening concealed handgun applicants to ensure their mental stability and good character. If every sheriff in California embraced comprehensive and thorough screening procedures like Sandra Hutchens, it would be extremely difficult for dangerous individuals to obtain concealed handgun permits. In a state that loses over 3,300 of its residents to gun violence each year, citizens should lend their support to a sheriff who values public safety over the personal convenience of a small group of individuals.

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