Since I was in the Bay Area recently, I thought I would stop by the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department (which serves both the City and County of San Francisco, which are geographically coterminous) to inquire about the process of getting a concealed carry permit. As noted previously, California is a “may issue” state, and the availability of CCW permits varies considerably by local jurisdiction.
The “may” in may issue typically revolves around the issue of “good cause.” As I wrote previously, the California code says, “the sheriff of a county may issue a license to that person upon proof of all of the following.” The second point enumerated reads: “Good cause exists for issuance of the license.”
Of course, “good cause” is a highly subjective idea. What is seen to be good cause in some places, is not good cause in others. As a result, some counties are “virtual shall issue,” as gun rights proponents in California call them. The sheriffs in these counties view personal protection and self-defense as cause enough to get a carry permit. Shasta County in far northern California is an example. In 2011, there were 2,364 civilian permits issued by the county sheriff, one for every 52 adult residents of the county.
Some counties will issue a permit, but only for “heightened” good cause, again using a phrase from gun rights proponents. The modifier “heightened” appears nowhere in the law, but these county sheriffs look for something beyond simple personal protection and self-defense, such as carrying valuables for work or having been threatened or assaulted. My childhood home County of San Mateo (in the SF Bay Area) is an example, with 120 active civilian permits issued by the county sheriff in 2011.
It is well known within the gun community in California that the Sheriff of San Francisco does not issue CCW permits. So, I was interested to see what the process would look like in a place where the chance of getting a permit was nil.
Although there was no separate page of information about CCW on the SF Sheriff’s website, it was easy to find the address (and phone number) for the CCW office under the directory: 120 14th Street. (By contrast, I was unable to find a name, address, or contact information for the CCW office for the nearby Counties of San Mateo and Santa Clara on their websites.)
So I took the BART train into the city to the stop nearest the sheriff’s office: 16th and Mission Street.
(Not entirely irrelevant aside: My friends tell me this is the worst BART station in the city, and Yelp reviews repeatedly confirm this. For example, a visitor from the East Village of NYC writes, “WHOA, let’s just say this is where I go when I want to picture what new york was like before Giuliani.” The station is infamous for the “butt ass naked man” who for 7-10 minutes accosted people before police finally arrived, as seen on YouTube, confirming the old saw that “when seconds count, police are just minutes away.”)
I didn’t know any of this, but was happy to see a couple of City of San Francisco police officers at the top of the escalator when I exited the station. I asked them how to get to the sheriff’s office. One of them knew and pointed me in the right direction. “The cross street is Shotwell,” he said. After a double take I responded, “Shot well? Seriously?” Laughs all around.
After walking a couple of blocks, I came to the address. As you can see from the pictures here, the building is not clearly marked from the street and its peculiar setting caused me to wonder if I had the right place. I finally saw what appeared to be a police car in the lot, so I went toward the building. (Hint: It is the beige building behind the iron gate.)
In the lobby was a reception desk. The Senior Deputy Sheriff responsible for CCW met me at the desk and asked how he could help me. I said I was from North Carolina, possibly moving to San Francisco, and wanted to know what to do to get a permit. With a knowing though not dismissive smile on his face, he explained I would need to do the following:
(1) Establish residency, which would take 6 months.
(2) Download the CCW application from the California Department of Justice. (Note: I just spent 15 minutes searching the DOJ website and was unable to find this document. I called the DOJ and as of “(word) press time” am still awaiting a call back about this.)
(3) Submit the application along with a “good cause letter.”
(4) $20 application fee
At that point, the sheriff would review my application and make a determination of my eligibility for a CCW permit. If the sheriff gave me the go ahead, I would then take the state required training course, shoot the course of fire, and be instructed about authorized guns and ammunition.
I asked the senior deputy sheriff what would help my application in the eyes of the sheriff. I noted that I could submit documentation of my understanding of the laws of self-defense and gun training. He said that documentation was OK and to submit what I have, but that biggest factor in the sheriff’s decision was the “good cause” letter. For this he told me that it would be helpful for me to “get mugged a couple of times” during the 6 months I was establishing residency. “I don’t know that I would want to go out and get mugged just to get a carry license,” I responded, smiling back at him. To which he replied, “Well, just go a couple of blocks from here and you shouldn’t have a problem.” (Recall the 16th and Mission BART station a couple of blocks away.)
“Is it difficult to get a license in San Francisco?” I asked. He nodded his head and noted, “The sheriff has not issued one in the two years I have been doing this job. This isn’t North Carolina. Things are different here in San Francisco.”
Indeed, they are. According to his Wikipedia entry, the current San Francisco Sheriff, Ross Mirkarimi, was elected in November 2011 after he was term-limited off the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. He is a co-founder of the Green Party of California. He won the 2006 National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws’ Rufus King award for leadership in the reform of marijuana laws. While on trial for domestic violence in 2012, he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of false imprisonment. AND when he was charged with domestic violence, the strong supporter of gun control surrendered three handguns to authorities: a Sig Sauer P229, a Beretta 92G, and a Smith & Wesson Model 19 revolver. But I digress again.
I came to find out later that my generally pleasant experience at the San Francisco Sheriff’s Office was the result of legal pressure brought to bear on Mirkarimi’s predecessor, Michael Hennessey, by the Calguns Foundation, a “non-profit organization founded to protect and defend the civil rights of California’s law-abiding gun owners.”
In May 2011, Calguns Foundation Executive Director Brandon Combs wrote to Sheriff Hennessey regarding his department’s lack of a statutorily required written policy on CCW applications, as well as inequitable practices in accepting applications from and issuing licenses only to “a select few . . . privileged” individuals.
It turns out, as is evidenced in the photo of the California license to carry above, that in October 2008 a permit to carry a Glock 26 9mm handgun (a.k.a., the “Baby Glock”) was issued to none other than James F. Harrigan – legal counsel to the Sheriff of San Francisco. This is the same James Harrigan who acknowledges in a 2001 letter provided by Calguns that a written policy for San Francisco “does not exist since they are never issued.” He writes, “Sheriff Hennessey has not, in twenty-two years as the elected Sheriff of San Francisco, issued a permit to any applicant to carry a concealed weapon. His position is fairly well known.”
In that same 2001 letter, Harrigan added, “I will, now that you have brought it to our attention, see that a policy that complies with the California Government code is drafted and incorporated into this agency’s policy manual.” A decade later, even after Harrigan himself got a license to carry, no policy had been written.
Not long after the May 2011 letter to Sheriff Hennessey, the Calguns Foundation issued a press release reporting that the sheriff had adopted a policy for CCW applications. The fact that the senior deputy sheriff just smiled knowingly at me rather than laughing out loud when I asked about a CCW license for San Francisco is clearly the result of this legal pressure by Calguns.
The effort to force the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department at least to follow the law, even if the result is still no licenses, is part of a broader effort the Calguns Foundation launched in October 2010 called the Carry License Compliance and Sunshine Initiative. According to Calguns, the initiative “is a grassroots education and litigation campaign designed to: Procure and publish objective carry license-related records and other data acquires from licensing authorities and the DOJ (going to actual issuance/denial and the contours of policies, both as-written and as-applied, like local application policies, good cause statements, and reported statistics); Force licensing authorities to comply with state statutes, legal precedent, and the Constitution; Track and monitor local practices; Support applicants and licensees; and, Develop and promulgate materials related to the above.”
Although the initiative seems to have stalled out somewhat recently, leading to expressions of frustration from Calguns supporters on its discussion boards (http://www.calguns.net), while it was active some concrete changes resulted:
-Talks with and a lawsuit against Merced County led to reform of CCW licensing practices there.
-Successfully sued Ventura County to get access to carry permit application records so that they could publish acceptable “good cause” statements to help others get licenses.
-Got Solano County to brings its application fees in line with state law.
-Dropped a lawsuit against Sheriff John McGinness of Sacramento County (Sykes v. McGinness) after he agreed to modify his CCW licensing policies and practices. Particularly interesting here is his acceptance of self-defense as “good cause” for receiving a permit (as opposed to “heightened” good cause). This is one of the Calguns Foundation’s key principles with respect to reform of the CCW process in the 58 counties in California. The continuation of their legal case against Sheriff McGinness (Richards v. [Ed] Prieto [and County of Yolo]) is currently awaiting a decision in the United States 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
A recent story by the CBS affiliate in San Francisco, KPIX 5, highlights one effect of these efforts by the Calguns Foundation: an increasing number of individuals are getting CCW permits in the very restrictive San Francisco Bay Area (except San Francisco). KPIX put in records requests to all nine Bay Area county sheriffs and came up with a total of 1,616 active CCW permits, broken down by county as follows:
San Mateo: 239
Contra Costa: 205
Santa Clara: 99
San Francisco: 0