When Scott Jones became sheriff of Sacramento County in 2010, there were approximately 350 civilians licensed to carry concealed handguns in the county. Today there are nearly 8,000.
That means statistically, in any sizable gathering – at the grocery store, a ballgame or church – at least one person is likely to be packing legal heat.
About one out of every 135 adults in Sacramento County now has a license to carry. Jones has issued permits at an average rate of more than four per day during the last five years, according to data provided by the Sheriff’s Department.
The result is that Sacramento County had the third-highest number of concealed carry permit holders in California at the end of 2015, behind Fresno and Orange counties, a review of data from the California Department of Justice shows.
State law gives county sheriffs broad discretion to issue concealed weapons permits, so long as applicants show “good cause” and demonstrate “good moral character.”
The open-ended language of the statute has led to wide disparities in the number of permits counties approve. Some coastal counties issue almost none, while a number of inland counties hand them out as a matter of course.
Before Jones took office, the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department tightly controlled the number of permits it issued, typically allowing them only in cases where individuals could show they faced a particular threat, carried large amounts of cash or valuables, or had law enforcement ties.
Jones’ predecessors, Sheriffs John McGinness and Lou Blanas, issued just over 200 permits from 2005 to 2009. Today, the Sheriff’s Department often issues as many permits in two months as during that entire five-year period.
One cause of the increase under his administration is pent-up demand, Jones said.
“The reason we’re having such an explosive rate is they weren’t available before,” he said. “Everybody’s rushing to get them.”
Jones, a Republican, is now running for Congress, challenging Democratic Rep. Ami Bera to represent a swing district that takes in much of suburban Sacramento County, including the cities of Elk Grove and Folsom.
He is frank and unapologetic about his approach to concealed weapons applications: The people who would go to the trouble of filling out a detailed application and submitting to background checks, he said, tend to be those with legal intentions and nothing to hide.
“We now approve over 90 percent of applicants,” Jones said. “Most people don’t apply if they’re not going to get them.”
Jones and a number of other California sheriffs have interpreted “good cause” as a general desire to protect oneself and family. Other counties have more stringent standards, requiring applicants to show they face an imminent threat of harm.
Los Angeles County, with a population of 7.4 million adults, had about 500 residents licensed to carry concealed handguns in 2015, equating to about one in every 15,000 adults, state Department of Justice figures show. San Francisco County, with 700,000 adults, had just four.
Statewide in 2015, there were about 80,000 permits that were either approved, under review or pending an annual review for continued compliance, state data show.
Many other states treat carrying a concealed gun as matter of right. For example, about one out of every 20 adults in Texas has a concealed carry permit, and Utah allows even nonresidents to order permits by mail.
Concealed carry permits have been on the rise throughout much of the Sacramento region in recent years.
The number of permits in both Placer and El Dorado counties rose by about 50 percent from 2012 to 2015, state figures show. Placer County had 2,600 permit holders at the end of 2015, giving it a rate of about one in every 110 adults. El Dorado County had 2,500, or about one in 60 adults.
A spokesman for the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office said the number had increased by another 717 since Jan. 1, and Sheriff John D’Agostini said he expects the concealed carry population to nearly double by year’s end.
“Our agency has changed our policy to still be compliant with state law but to be as lenient as we can,” D’Agostini said. “I believe an armed society is a safe society.”
1 in 135 Approximate portion of Sacramento County adults who have concealed carry permits
In the Sacramento region, Yolo County stands out for having kept concealed carry permits to a minimum, holding steady at roughly one permit per 1,000 adults for the last three years, state figures show. The county, with its vast stretches of farmland, is being sued in federal court, along with San Diego County, for refusing to issue more. The cases are pending before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Jones, who is courting gun owners in his run for Congress, said he believes armed law-abiding citizens are a benefit to society. Budget reductions and fewer officers on the street mean people need to protect themselves, he said.
Carrying concealed weapons “empowers folks to feel like they are safer in a world that is increasingly not safe,” the sheriff said.
Jones noted that he also revokes permits if a problem arises. He said none of the revocations he ordered have been for gun-related offenses. Instead, Jones said, he has revoked two or three permits a month, on average, because holders have become subject to a restraining order, been cited for driving under the influence or had a “negative interaction with law enforcement.”
“I’m quick to give them,” he said, “and I’m quick to revoke them.”
The sheep and the sheepdogs
To get a permit for concealed carry, applicants have to fill out a 13-page form, interview in person with a deputy sheriff, get fingerprinted and undergo a state criminal background check.
They also have to complete a 16-hour training course on firearms safety and the law regarding permissible use, and qualify on the gun range with up to three handguns of their choice, usually compact semi-automatic pistols.
Signs along Sacramento area roadways advertise the classes, and Groupon offers them for discounted prices.
Nine people attended last weekend’s concealed carry session at One on One Firearms in Rancho Cordova. Most of the trainees were middle-aged men; two were women.
Owner and instructor Joe Truesdale said his students reflect a cross-section of society but that he usually can count on at least one lawyer and one doctor in every class. Business owners, judges and military veterans are common, too.
The students tend to be older men who feel a need to protect themselves and their families, Truesdale said. Female students are often younger; they feel vulnerable at an earlier age, he said.
Most of the students didn’t want to be identified. Some said advertising the fact that you’re carrying a concealed weapon undermines the purpose.
One white-haired man, who did not want to be named, said carrying a gun was a constitutional right that needed to be exercised and defended. He wore a button-down Polo shirt and said he was a former Navy pilot.
The next day on the gun range, he said: “The more people that are in possession of a concealed weapon, the better. The cops can’t get there when they need to get there.”
Two students said they mainly wanted to protect their family.
“I have grandkids now. I just want to make sure it’s all safe,” said Luis Vasquez, 60, of Citrus Heights.
Jon Frazelle, 47, of Foothill Farms recounted how a stranger had come to the front door of his home several years ago and pointed a gun at his wife. He said he drove up in his car before anything more happened, and the man ran away.
“It’s a scary world,” he said.
I believe an armed society is a safe society.
El Dorado County Sheriff John D’Agostini
The classes at One on One take place is a small classroom in a shopping plaza off Highway 50 and at a private outdoor gun range. Truesdale and co-instructor Sean Young lecture on topics including gun mechanics and maintaining a defensive mindset. They also cover finer points such as holster selection and backup bullets.
“The best spare ammunition is a second gun,” Truesdale, a burly former military policeman, said.
He carries two, one in his pocket and one on his belt, and urges his students to do the same. Truesdale can whip out his guns, ready to fire, in under a second. Milliseconds can be the difference between protecting yourself and becoming a victim, he said.
Despite his aggressive stance, much of Truesdale’s class time was devoted to teaching students how to avoid situations where they might need to draw their weapon. He encouraged them to scan for danger and avoid it, and to be willing to lose arguments rather than resort to violence.
“If you can avoid a gunfight, you’ve won that gunfight,” he said. “The gun’s not the solution. It’s a tool of last resort.”
Truesdale said he hasn’t needed to use his gun in self-defense. “Then again, I’ve never needed a seat belt to save my life,” he said. His motto: Better to be prepared than caught off guard.
To help his students prepare for confronting armed attackers, Truesdale showed them videos of a lawyer being shot outside a Van Nuys courthouse, a terrorist attack at a mall in Kenya, and a shooting at a school board meeting in Florida.
The lawyer took cover behind a tree and was shot but not killed. In the other situations, people hid, cowered or sat still in submission to a gunman’s orders. A few ran, which Truesdale said was smart. “Movement is life,” he said. None shot back.
He called those who sat still or cowered “sheep” and said “they hadn’t made the decision to be a sheepdog” by taking action.
‘A bullet vote’
Californians are more likely to carry concealed handguns in counties where Republicans are the dominant party, state records show. Sacramento County, which is largely Democratic, is an exception.
The Sheriff’s Department issues more than 99 percent of the concealed carry permits in Sacramento County. City police also can issue the permits, but generally don’t.
“It’s a much more touchy subject for police chiefs than for the sheriff. They answer to a city council or a city manager,” Jones said. Sheriffs are elected officials with greater independence.
Jones has reached out to gun owners in his run for Congress. Last week, he held a fundraiser at the Sacramento Gun Club on Routier Road. Entry fees ranged from $200 for an individual ticket to $2,700 for a six-person table, and included access to a VIP reception and a shooting simulator.
Jack Pitney, a professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College near Los Angeles, said gun owners often passionately back a candidate who shares their views.
“National studies show supporters of Second Amendment rights are more likely to vote on the basis of the issue than people who want to restrict gun ownership,” Pitney said. “To the extent this has any effect, it probably helps Jones more than it hurts. It’s a bullet vote.”
The more aggressive policies of Jones and some other county sheriffs have drawn criticism from those who see the proliferation of concealed handguns as a threat in itself.
“The scenarios in which people protect themselves and their families are fantasies,” said Allison Anderman, a staff attorney with the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence in San Francisco.
Instead of stopping crimes, Anderman said, it’s more likely that concealed handgun carriers will accidentally shoot themselves or others, let their children get hold of a weapon, or use their gun to commit a crime.
If you can avoid a gunfight, you’ve won that gunfight.
Joe Truesdale, owner, One on One Firearms in Rancho Cordova
Research on the topic is contradictory.
In the late 1990s, economist John Lott wrote an influential book called “More Guns, Less Crime” that examined gun ownership and crime data throughout the United States and concluded that states where concealed carry was common experienced lower crime rates and no increase in accidental deaths.
A 2014 project by Stanford University law professor John Donohue and two graduate students examined similar but more recent data and concluded the opposite was true.
“The totality of the evidence ... suggests that right-to-carry laws are associated with substantially higher rates” of aggravated assault, rape, robbery and murder, Donohue said in a news release in November 2014.
Yet another study published last year by political science professor David Fortunato at the University of California, Merced, found that the ease of obtaining a concealed carry permit in a particular state had little deterrent effect on crime.
Fortunato’s reasoning went like this: Gun advocates argue that having lots of people carry concealed weapons deters crime because criminals don’t want to get shot.
But surveys showed that residents had little idea of how many people in their state carried concealed weapons. Assuming criminals had the same lack of information, Fortunato concluded, the deterrent effect was lost.
“The link between concealed carry policy and people’s beliefs about the number of firearm carriers in their community is unidentifiable in the data,” he wrote. “The rationale for concealed carry deterrence, however, depends on such a link existing: It assumes that potential assailants are aware of the distribution of firearm carriers in the potential victim population, but the empirical evidence presented here suggests that that assumption simply does not hold.”
If gun proponents are serious about reducing crime, Fortunato said, they need to advertise the fact that lots of law-abiding people are carrying guns, and do so in a way that criminals will see, on billboards and TV, for instance.
“People have to know there are more guns around and infer it’s more dangerous for them to commit a crime,” he said.