Just south of Spartan Stadium, a concrete shoebox sits near a parking lot full of vehicles festooned with Ron Paul and NRA bumper stickers. The sound of gunfire snaps loud and crisp, ricocheting off of cinder blocks and out the door to a couple of shaded picnic tables. Walking up, it’s difficult to avoid blinking every time a round cracks. Welcome to the Santa Clara Valley Rifle Club.
Inside, baseball-hatted and bespectacled old white men look down on the range. These are the "lifetime members" of the local rifle club, immortalized in pictures yellowed with age, high on the wall. But they aren’t the brand of gun enthusiasts who currently occupy the Club, notwithstanding their shared preference for libertarian adhesive strips on their tailgates. The shots fired come from the Pink Pistols, an informal LGBTQ meet-up group that leases out the rifle club once a month for target practice.
“If you’re tolerant and respectful, I keep my group open,” says Nicole “Nikki” Stallard, a middle-aged transgender woman and founder of the Pink Pistols. She invited me to talk a little Second Amendment and shoot some guns. I accept a Glock out of an assortment of pistols, take aim and fire, poorly. It’s not the first time I’ve shot a gun, but the pistol’s heft is always surprising. It requires a firm grip, and in return it delivers satisfaction.
Sitting on picnic tables outside the club, Stallard gives me a history lesson on concealed weapon permits that starts with slavery and Dred Scott. She has the spiel on guns rights memorized like the Pledge of Allegiance. When asked how many guns she owns, she pauses thoughtfully. “Good question,” she says, “I’d have to count them.” Brushing aside her long silver hair, Nikki talks about “people out there whose hearts are full of hate." She talks about the people who should really be afraid: Women; black men; gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgender. Stallard does not worry so much about the dope fiend, gang banger or burglar who sneaks through the window in the dead of night, so much as “dealing with predators.” She founded the Pistols in the early 2000s, naming the group after a Salon.com article that urged the LGBTQ community to arm itself against hate crimes and people who “view the LGBT community as easy targets.”
No group is targeted at a higher rate for physical hate crimes—as opposed to property hate crimes—than LGBTQ, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Data on violence against trans people, specifically, is difficult to come by, but most experts assume incidents go widely underreported. One of the few large studies focusing on transgender discrimination, conducted by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, reported in 2011 that 61 percent of trans people surveyed were victims of physical assault, and 64 percent had been subjected to sexual assault. A survey two years later by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs found that 13 of the 18 homicides associated with LGBTQ hate crimes that year were trans women; 14 were black.
But people from these populations are not the activists interested in expanding gun rights.
“By and large, if you think about contemporary modern [gun rights] movements, those have all been overwhelmingly white, male and conservative," says Pratheepan Gulasekaram, a Santa Clara University professor who specializes in the Second Amendment as it applies to non-citizens.
The current face of the fight for greater access to guns in California fits the description. Edward Peruta is a white man in his mid-sixties who bears a startling resemblance to the men immortalized in the rifle club. He’s a serial litigant in multiple states, the type to sue the city of Hartford, Connecticut, because parking meters “infringed on his freedom to travel,” according to one article. He would blend in seamlessly at an NRA press conference or Tea Party rally, and there’s a chance he could become their champion if a lawsuit he filed survives the appeals process. A successful Peruta challenge would cause a stark shift in how concealed weapon permits are granted in California. Estimates state the total number of people secretly armed would increase to nearly 600,000 within a year. The current number is estimated at around 70,000.
Nowhere is the clamor for greater gun access more apparent than in Silicon Valley. Extensive records requests San Jose Inside filed with law enforcement agencies across the Bay Area show that the Santa Clara County Sheriff's Office has become ground zero for concealed weapon permit requests. The sheriff’s office experienced a 9,000 percent jump in the number of requests in 2014, leading it to put a moratorium on issuing permits. Lawsuits, similar to Peruta’s, have since been filed against the county.
While the cases focus on the constitutional right to carry concealed weapons, perhaps more substantive questions need to be asked: What will the future hold if everyone is armed? Do more guns make us safer? And why are people in Silicon Valley so afraid?
The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals plans to rehear Edward Peruta v. County of San Diego in June, after a decision early last year.
Upholding the original decision would bring state concealed weapon law closer in line with much of the rest of the country. California is a “may issue” state, meaning that even if a citizen meets the letter of the law—passes a psych evaluation, background check and training course—the sheriff of their county, or city police chief in some cases, can decide whether the applicant has “good cause” for a concealed weapon permit, or CCW. In “shall issue” states, of which there are 37, a permit must be issued if the letter of the law is met, no matter the prerogative of law enforcement. Plaintiffs in the Peruta case take issue with the county’s “good cause” requirement, claiming it unduly restricts their Second Amendment rights.
Last February, a three-judge panel ruled in favor of Peruta, who was denied a CCW permit in San Diego County. Sheriff William Gore declined to appeal the case, prompting both Attorney General Kamala Harris—eager for a cause as she runs for U.S. Senate—and the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence to take up the fight. The Ninth Circuit is slated to rehear the case this summer with a full eleven-judge panel.
The gun lobby and its supporters aren’t waiting around for a decision, though. Since the Peruta case was filed, concealed weapon permit applications in California have skyrocketed. Numbers vary across different sheriff offices. Last year there were more than 450 CCW applications across seven Bay Area counties. That’s at least 300 more requests than 2013, and even more than the previous four years combined.
The surge in requests here in Santa Clara County is even more striking. Sheriff Laurie Smith’s office provided documentation showing that 284 applications for CCWs were received in 2014. The year prior, the sheriff’s office received just three applications. In the four years preceding 2014, the Santa Clara County sheriff’s office received a total of 43 applications. (Totals do not include judges, prosecutors and other government employees whose gun possession is exempt from disclosure.)
Most Bay Area counties are notoriously tightfisted about granting permits and discussing how they are issued. San Francisco County, for example, has given out none since 2010. Santa Clara County has granted 26 in the last five years. Of the seven counties contacted for data, Alameda County came in third with 90, San Mateo County granted the second most with 95, and San Benito County issued 64 in 2013 to push its five-year total to 120. Sheriffs of low population rural counties have a reputation for granting more permits than urban areas like Los Angeles and San Francisco. One tactic people take is to make requests for CCWs in rural counties where they own property, despite not living there full time.
Sheriff Smith has placed a moratorium on all new permits until the Peruta case and two pending lawsuits filed against the county have been resolved. Her office declined to go on the record for this story, but conversations with county staff suggest the huge influx in requests last year has overwhelmed the sheriff’s office, which is required to do background checks. Just two CCW requests—made prior to the lawsuits—were processed in 2014.
In an unusual reversal of policy, San Jose Police Chief Larry Esquivel has gotten into the concealed carry business. From 2002 to 2013, SJPD’s previous top cops—William Lansdowne, Rob Davis and Chris Moore—approved just three out of 25 concealed carry applications. Since Esquivel took over in late 2013, the department has approved 29 out of 32 permit requests, and one of those three denials—for a request made by Jet Blue CEO David Neeleman—occurred only because the applicant said he was “no longer interested.”
A closer inspection of those who were approved for CCWs shows Esquivel is arming reserve officers—on-call volunteers who must work two days a month—with weapons in their free time. Twenty-three of the CCWs he has granted went to reserve officers.
Enrique Garcia, a public information officer for SJPD, told San Jose Inside that Esquivel instituted “a change in philosophy” on CCWs only for top-level reserve officers. Garcia cited “safety considerations,” such as protection from people reserves may encounter in the line of duty, as one justification.
Law enforcement agencies vary in how much they try to shield this information. Multiple agencies failed to comply with records requests in a timely manner, from non-responsive public information officers and “lost” emails to the repeated delivery of incorrect or incomplete data. Without knowing if this was intentional or not, the process of acquiring information over the last six months has shown that there is no consistency in CCW permit record keeping or data collection across Bay Area law enforcement agencies. And in some cases, the record keeping is rudimentary at best.
During an inspection of CCW requests at the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office, a deputy handed over a 10-page list of names—this, he said, was the office’s lone record for the history of CCW holders going back to 2009. Along with a stack of applications for active CCW holders, Metro was told, no other local records exist. A spokesman for Sheriff Smith said the office was advised not to comment for this story at the direction of county counsel, citing ongoing legal disputes. After communicating with agencies across the Bay Area, one thing is clear: None of these agencies have a clue how their neighbors handle CCW requests.
The Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office had no information on municipal police departments within the county granting CCWs, but a spokesman said he would be interested to find out. The same was true for SJPD. Not all police departments in Silicon Valley responded to requests for comment, but it appears the lone South Bay police department that has given out a CCW—outside of San Jose—is Campbell, which said it has renewed just “one or two” over the last 15 years.
One of the more ironic, if not disturbing, aspects about the CCW controversy in California is how the state even got to this point. The 1967 Mulford Act, which banned the open carry of loaded firearms in California, was brought to the legislature by Don Mulford, a Republican assemblyman from Alameda County. Like many white people at the time, Mulford was scared of the Black Panthers' purposeful, in-your-face armed police patrols. Before his bill was signed into law, it was completely legal to openly carry loaded weapons in the state, provided they weren’t pointed at anyone in a threatening way. The Panthers took advantage of this to protest police harassment in Oakland’s black community, armed to the teeth and shouting legal advice at those being arrested.
In response to the proposed ban, the Panthers marched onto the steps of the state capitol, carrying shotguns and pistols. As Adam Winkler wrote about the incident in The Atlantic, “The radicals walked straight into the state’s most important government building, loaded guns in hand. No metal detectors stood in their way.” Of course, the presence of armed black radicals terrified the older, white, male politicians. The passage of Mulford’s bill was expedited and “eagerly supported” by Gov. Ronald Reagan and fellow conservatives.
As seen in other states, looser concealed weapon restrictions have led to subsequent laws that almost encourage confrontation. In Florida, the state responsible for issuing the most concealed weapon permits in the country, legislation has allowed for the brandishing of weapons and firing of warning shots. "Stand your ground” laws, first passed in Florida and since expanded to two dozen states, enshrine the right to use of deadly force by those who feel their lives are being threatened. In the trial of Trayvon Martin’s killer, the judge specifically instructed the jury that George Zimmerman “had the right to stand his ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he reasonably believed that it was necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or another.”
Mother Jones found that between 2005 and 2010, “justifiable homicides by civilians using firearms doubled in states with the [stand your ground] laws, while falling or remaining the same in states lacking them." The number of “justifiable homicides” by members of the public doubled in 2010 and nearly tripled by 2011, according to the report.
Combs, of the Calguns Foundation, says his group has no plans to push a similar style law here, because California has a "pretty strong castle doctrine,” a concept similar to stand your ground, though it only protects the right to use deadly force in one’s home, not in public.
But just as old, conservative and mostly white men were motivated to change the laws to protect themselves from the Panthers, they’re now attempting to facilitate greater access out of a similar fear. These laws are not designed for everyone in society, but a select few.
John Crawford, a 22-year-old black man in Ohio, picked up a BB gun in a Wal-Mart and was shot to death by police. Tamir Rice, just 12 years old, was shot by Cleveland police last summer just seconds after an officer arrived on the scene and saw him carrying an airsoft gun. Lavar Jones was shot during a traffic stop in South Carolina last fall as he attempted to hand the officer his wallet. These incidents are not happening in White America, which overestimates the amount of crimes committed by black people, according to a 2012 study by the University of Albany. Polling indicates that around half of white people think the rate of violent crime has gone up in the last 20 years, when, in fact, it has dropped by around 50 percent.
LaDoris Cordell, a retired judge and San Jose’s Independent Police Auditor, suggests the support for changing California’s rules on CCWs would be split if a certain demographic of people were requesting relaxed laws, rather than the NRA.
“If you had a million black men issued concealed weapon permits we’d have gun control tomorrow,” Cordell said.
Concealed carry would be a fraught situation for black men interacting with police, though, as recent shootings have shown that officers need only the suggestion or hint of a weapon—and many times not even that—for deadly interactions to occur. All people are not armed equally. Some get the benefit of the doubt. Some get shot.
The contemporary rallying cry for greater access to guns rarely comes from the nation’s most vulnerable citizens—young people of color or LGBTQ groups like the Pink Pistols—but from those with economic and social power.
THE NEW LAW
Nearly every one of the 45 active sheriff-issued CCWs in Santa Clara County cited a risk of robbery or assault to justify their CCW request. Some mentioned disputes with a co-worker or former employee. One man called himself a “high value terrorist target.”
Other CCW holders stated in their applications that they deal in precious metals, or arms dealing, or they own land under siege by “illegal marijuana gardens.” All of the 45 names provided by the sheriff are traditional male names. Neither gender nor race is listed in the redacted applications.
In reviewing the data, nine of the permit holders donated to Sheriff Smith's recent re-election campaign. Two men belonged to the Sheriff’s Advisory Board in 2011. Both Jim Rees—grandson of legendary personal injury attorney James Boccardo, for whom trails and business school buildings are now named—and private eye Gregg Dietz still hold their permits. Because these CCWs, which must be renewed every two years, are so rare, there is some cachet to being a concealed carrier. With the ability to transport a weapon comes recognition. Possession of a CCW can be used to signal officers during traffic stops that the holder is a background-checked friend of law enforcement. But this isn’t an argument used in the application process. Rees cited his real estate management company as the reason for needing a CCW, while Dietz runs an investigation firm.
Pro-gun special interests like the NRA have actively shopped the slogan, “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” as seen in NRA president Wayne LaPierre’s tasteless post-Newtown press conference. The man who picked up the torch from Charlton Heston’s cold, dead hands has also claimed that violent crime is lower “in jurisdictions that recognize the ‘right to carry.’”
A favorite citation of the “more guns, less crime” crowd is a 1997 study by John Lott and David Mustard, which analyzed data for U.S. counties over a 25-year period. It reported that easing restrictions on concealed carry deterred violent crime and produced no increase in accidental deaths. The report also noted that property crimes increased in states allowing concealed carry, leading the authors to conclude that criminals were “substituting” property crime for violent crime.
In a major follow-up study, Stanford professor John Donohue found that although the passage of relaxed concealed weapon laws did indeed accompany a drop in violent crime, the guns did not deserve credit. A major 2004 report by the National Research Council committee on Firearms and Violence reached the same conclusion, stating that the results were inconclusive. But in another report by Donahue, published last December, he cautiously suggested CCWs could lead to an increase in the number of aggravated assaults.
Brandon Combs, president of Cal Guns, a pro-gun lobbyist group, took a middle-ground tack in a phone interview. "I'm not arguing that more guns equals less crime, but there's no evidence that more guns equals more crime," he said.
Though the number of guns Americans own is increasing, the percentage of households containing a gun is decreasing, according to a CNN report. These people are almost certainly the type to request a CCW. In a search of Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office records, at least 65 percent of the requests made were for more than one gun.
Combs went on: “From our perspective the bigger issue here is restoring fundamental rights that we ought to have had the entire time.” And this might be the hinge upon which Peruta is decided. In the late 80s and early 90s, looser restrictions were placed on CCW laws across the country as a reaction to spikes in crime. It was hypothesized that they would do the public good: more guns, less crime. But if this hypothesis is false, what’s left to support expansion of concealed weapons permits is an argument for constitutional rights. For some, this is enough on its own. But whether this right is truly allowed to all populations in America, or even desirable, is not clear.
If Peruta is not overturned, the prevalence of guns in public could reach unprecedented levels—more than 85 percent of the U.S. population would then live in a “shall issue” state, according to the Washington Post. This is up from 10 percent of the population in 1986.
Mike McLively, of the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence in San Francisco, thinks the 9th Circuit Court review will likely reverse the Peruta decision in June. Even if the case is appealed to the Supreme Court, it is unlikely the justices will hear it. After two landmark Second Amendment cases in 2008 and 2010, the court has had 65 opportunities to consider another. It has taken none of them.
But if Peruta succeeds, McLively says, estimates of more than half a million new CCW permits in California within a year are reasonable. And the effects won’t be positive. “I don’t want to paint this as some kind of doomsday scenario,” he says, “but I would expect an increase in gun deaths.”
The fight over concealed weapon permits is not limited to gun control, constitutional rights or upticks and reductions in crime. These are debates for public consumption. The argument for greater access to CCWs will always go back to the gun itself, and the mindset of those who appreciate the control and power it provides.
Josh Koehn contributed to this report.