Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones says he has made his community a safer place by issuing a whole lot of permits to carry concealed guns.
“We became very concerned that we couldn’t keep people safe, which is our mission,” Jones told reporters last year, after his department was forced to downsize. “People need to protect themselves,” he said at another event.
Like Donald Trump, who Jones says he supports, the sheriff says that incidents like the ISIS-inspired mass shootings in Orlando and San Bernardino could have been prevented by an armed civilian. In order to increase the odds that a “good guy with a gun” is in the right place at the right time, Jones has embarked on a mission to arm as many citizens as possible.
When Jones took office in 2011, Sacramento had roughly 350 permit holders. Since then, the number has skyrocketed to more than 8,000. Jones says he approves more than 90 percent of applicants and Jones has boasted about processing more than 100 applications in a single day.
Jones’s devotion to issuing firearms permits has struck a nerve in gun-restriction friendly California, and served to solidify his place as a rising star in the state’s Republican party. Jones has put his celebrity to use. The 49-year-old is running for U.S. Congress, challenging Democrat Ami Berra in a swing district that includes swaths of Sacramento’s city and suburbs.
So far, none of the new licensed carriers in Sacramento County are known to have prevented a killing — mass or otherwise. Quite a few, however, have had what the sheriff’s department describes as a “negative interaction with law enforcement,” incidents that trigger a license revocation.
Through public records requests, The Trace found that Sacramento County has revoked 198 CCW’s during Jones’s tenure. Last year, the county revoked 57 permits, more than any other county in the state.
In a given year, most counties revoke just a small handful of permits — or none at all. Despite having roughly eight percent of the state’s concealed carry holders in 2015, Sacramento was responsible for more than one quarter of all revocations, according to statistics from California’s Department of Justice.
In an emailed response to questions, Tony Turnbull, a spokesperson from Jones’s office, said that the high number of revocations is evidence that the sheriff is doing his job.
“The number of revocations show that while the sheriff strongly believes in the rights of Americans to possess necessary implements to protect themselves and others, he is adamant that our policies will be followed,” Turnbull said.
Legal experts say the high number of revocations suggest that the sheriff isn’t doing a good enough job of weeding out individuals who legally qualify for gun ownership, but whose backgrounds or statements suggest may be at a higher risk for committing violence.
“The numbers coming out of Sacramento suggest that when you have a very permissive authority issuing concealed carry permits, you attract a higher number of undesirable people,” John Donohue, a Stanford Law Professor and researcher who authored a study on crime rates among concealed carriers tells The Trace.
That a sheriff has such sway over local gun policy owes to a peculiarity of California law that gives law enforcement officials wide discretion over whether to grant concealed weapons permits. It is, in gun law parlance, a “may issue” state. Most states are “shall issue,” meaning a local sheriff must issue a permit to almost anyone who applies — assuming that person isn’t a felon or is otherwise automatically disqualified from carrying a concealed weapon. (Many states include caveats to this requirement, instructing law enforcement officials to refuse a permit, for example, if they have documented evidence that indicates an applicant is likely to commit violence.)
There is one caveat to the latitude California allows its sheriffs: State law says that in order to get a concealed carry license, an applicant must demonstrate “good cause.” Many jurisdictions impose strict standards, screening applicants’ social media activity, interviewing them, and requiring them to submit to extensive background checks before granting a permit.
Los Angeles, which requires “convincing evidence of a clear and present danger to life,” has just 496 licensed carriers among its 10 million residents. San Francisco makes it nearly impossible to acquire a permit — only four people there have conceal carry licenses.
In Sacramento County, the sheriff’s office has a policy of not issuing permits to anyone who has had a misdemeanor conviction within the past seven years, or an arrest within the past five years. “The sheriff’s department thoroughly investigates the background of all candidates,” the spokesman said.
But the high permit approval rate suggests that applicants must clear a low bar. The policy seems to be to grant a license to almost everyone who applies, and then revoke it if that person does something that demonstrates he or she is not fit to carry a weapon in public. Because Jones believes ardently that carrying a concealed weapon is a constitutional right, the sheriff has determined that simply writing “personal protection” on the application is enough to demonstrate good cause.
Since he took office in 2011, Jones has downplayed the public safety threat from concealed weapons holders. In 2013, he said in a speech that he “isn’t worried” about permit holders, and that “no one has been shot by a holder of a [permit] issued by this office.”
In May of this year, Jones told the Sacramento Bee that that none of the revocations he ordered have been for gun-related offenses.
Those public statements are not strictly supported by the record. While the majority of the 198 conceal carry revocations since 2011 came after permit holders were arrested for infractions such as drunk driving or drug charges, at least a dozen followed much more serious offenses — including gun crimes.
Hun Chu Saelee obtained a permit from Jones’ office in May 2012. Six months later, the 30-year-old was arrested for attempted murder after he allegedly shot a college student in the head at a Halloween party in San Francisco. The weapon was a .45-caliber handgun.
“The Sheriff concludes you are no longer a qualified candidate to possess a Carrying Concealed Weapons Permit with this agency,” a revocation letter, printed on Jones’ letterhead, reads.
Four years later, Ben Pessah is still recovering from the devastating head wound. He has an artificial skull. Pessah says that he is a registered Republican and does not oppose concealed carry permits, as long as those who obtain them are vetted carefully. But, “for some people, that [permit] could give them the sense of being higher than the law,” he says.
He added that, if given the chance, he would ask Jones, “why [are you] lying about what happened to me?”
Saelee is expected to face trial this fall.
Licenses were also pulled for gun trafficking, felony child abuse, and impersonating a police officer.
In 2012, James Malcolm bragged about a semiautomatic shotgun he appeared to have illegally converted to a fully automatic weapon. In an expletive-laden Facebook video, Malcolm shot the weapon with zeal into a wooded area and said the weapon was ideal for killing zombies.
The sheriff’s department revoked it in 2014, after federal authorities arrested him for selling and manufacturing automatic firearms, as well as selling explosives and the poison ricin. He is serving a five-year sentence in prison. Malcolm also made it it clear that he desired a conceal carry permit. He wrote in a post below the video, “i wish i could carry. I am working on getting my concealed.” A year later, the sheriff’s department granted the 27-year-old his wish.
The Sacramento sheriff’s office did not directly respond to a question about whether law enforcement officers screen the social media posts of applicants. Turnbull, the department spokesman, said that based on the video, there was no evidence the firearm was illegal in California. Even if the weapon possessed features making it illegal in California, there was no indication it was filmed or possessed in California, he said.
“As soon as our department was made aware of the federal investigation, his [license] was revoked,” he said.
In at least two instances, individuals had their concealed gun permits taken away after police had concerns that they could be plotting acts of gun violence.
In 2014, a Sacramento man who had recently obtained a permit booked a hotel room across the street from the state capital, bringing along several firearms and hundreds of rounds of ammunition. After local police were contacted by concerned hotel staff, records show, the man told officers about his “animosity towards the government” and how he was such an excellent marksman he could at 200 yards, “accurately place rounds within a three inch grouping.” He was committed to a psychiatric hospital, and his permit was revoked.
Beyond the Saelee case, there is also no record that anyone issued a permit by Jones’ office went on to use a concealed gun to commit a violent crime.
San Bernardino County’s concealed carry permitting policy falls somewhere between those in San Francisco and Los Angeles — where it is all but impossible to acquire a permit to carry a concealed weapon — and the one instituted by Jones in Sacramento County, where almost every applicant is approved.
There are currently about 5,000 licensed permit holders in the county. Law enforcement officials there saw a huge upswing of applicants following the ISIS inspired attack last year that killed 14 people at a social services center.
Detective Roxanne Logan, charged with conducting interviews and vetting applicants in San Bernardino said she was tough but fair. “This isn’t a joke, it’s serious business,” she says.
“Don’t tell me this is about protecting your junk,” she says. “If someone is stealing your car, or your bike, let them take it and call the police. A CCW is a last resort and for self defense, period.”
Logan wouldn’t provide extensive details about San Bernardino screening process, but said it included examining social media and calling references. In 2015, the county revoked just four permits.
This summer, Sacramento assemblyman Kevin McCarty introduced a bill in the state legislature aimed at checking his sheriff’s open-door issuance policy. The legislation would raise the cost of an application above its current $100, a change that McCarty said would cover the cost of issuing and enforcing concealed carry permits.
McCarty believes the county is effectively subsidizing Jones’s prolific issuance policy and is “handing out [permits] like candy, to sometimes dangerous people.”
The bill was approved by the legislature on August 30, and is on Governor Jerry Brown’s desk. He has until Friday to make a decision. Another bill introduced by McCarty, which would have imposed statewide concealed carry permitting standards, requiring applicants to show they are at “heightened risk” of harm, failed.
Clarification: This story was updated to include additional exceptions to “shall issue” requirements under state laws.
[Graphics: Francesca Mirabile; Photo: AP/The Sacramento Bee, Manny Crisostomo]