Santa Barbara Sheriff Reacts to Supreme Court Gun Ruling
Concealed Weapon Permits No Longer Require Demonstrating a Credible Threat
By Nick Welsh | June 30, 2022
When Santa Barbara Sheriff Bill Brown was asked about last week’s Supreme Court ruling that gives gun owners new and expanded rights to carry concealed weapons, his thoughts turned to a road-rage incident that took place in 2005. It started out, he said, with the typical exchange of salutary F-bombs between two motorists on Highway 101 near Buellton. It concluded in a deadly climax. When the dust settled, Wayne Shaw, a 49-year-old painting contractor from the Santa Ynez Valley, lay dead on the ground, and Louis Arthur Calvin, a 46-year-old card dealer who had just moved to the Valley from Las Vegas, was sentenced to more than 30 years behind bars.
Calvin, it turns out, had a concealed weapons permit issued by the state of Nevada. Shaw — said to have a hair-trigger temper with what he considered bad drivers — reportedly had at least one vodka tonic too many. When Calvin pulled over into the parking lot of a Buellton shopping center, Shaw reportedly followed. More F-bombs ensued. According to one witness, Shaw got out and punched Calvin in the face through his open window. But Calvin just happened to have a loaded .22 caliber derringer. He pulled it out and shot Shaw in the neck. Shaw would not survive the single blast.
“It’s an awesome responsibility to carry a firearm in public,” Brown commented. “People might not be as trained as they should be and get into situations where they become overconfident.” Instead of driving away or calling the police as he could have, Brown said, Calvin opted to stand his ground against an intoxicated aggressor. Aside from the obvious casualties — Shaw and Calvin — Brown said, the shooting visited lasting devastation upon the two men’s families.
Although Calvin had multiple concealed weapons permits at the time, Brown noted, he did not have one issued by Santa Barbara County. Therefore, it was not legal. The issuance of such permits is part of Brown’s job. And he has a reputation for being relatively stingy in issuing them, compared to most of the other 57 sheriffs in California.
Currently, there are 95 such permits in Santa Barbara County. (Typically, they’re held by judges, retired cops, reserve law enforcement officers, hospital personnel authorized to transport opioids, private investigators, jewelry salespeople, gun shop owners, and ranchers.) In Fresno, by contrast, there are closer to 15,000; in Kern County, there are 6,000. According to estimates from Brown’s office, he issues about five new permits and rejects seven to 10 applications each year. “Not a lot,” he said.
To issue such a permit, state law — until the court’s ruling last week — required Brown to declare the applicants to be of “good moral character, and demonstrate a serious and credible threat of violence against them or their immediate family.” What constitutes a “credible threat” and “good cause” is totally up to the sheriff of each county.
Court watchers have described last week’s ruling as the most significant expansion of rights to gun owners since the court’s landmark ruling in 2008 that determined people were constitutionally entitled to arm themselves — acting as individuals in their own homes — for purposes of self-protection. Until 2008, the right to bear arms had been rooted exclusively in the constitutional context of maintaining “a well-regulated militia.” Last week’s ruling expands the scope of that 2008 ruling, now giving citizens — for the first time — the right to arm themselves outside of their homes for purposes of self-protection.
By a 6-3 majority, the Supreme Court ruled that otherwise law-abiding applicants no longer have to demonstrate “good cause” or “special needs.” Justice Clarence Thomas, writing the majority opinion, stated, “We know of no other constitutional right that an individual may exercise only after demonstrating to government officers some special need.”
This opinion involved a New York State law that, for more than 100 years, required the demonstration of “good cause.” Seven states with combined populations of 84 million people, including California, regulate the dispensation of concealed weapons permits in this fashion. “Obviously, we are going to comply with the Supreme Court ruling,” Sheriff Brown stated. “There’s an old adage,” he said, “that things are never as good or as bad as you think they’re going to be. It’s going to be a mixed bag.” By that, Brown stated, it was certain that more people would qualify for concealed weapons permits in Santa Barbara County. But he didn’t anticipate a deluge. “We will still continue to do background checks; we won’t be issuing licenses willy-nilly,” he said. “I don’t expect a huge increase in the numbers, but it’s possible that some problems and issues will come up as a result somewhere.”
Justice Thomas cited studies that purport to show there’s no discernable difference in the level of gun violence between communities with the more restrictive “may-issue” laws just struck down and the less restrictive “shall issue” rules still allowed.
Justice Stephen Breyer, who wrote the dissenting opinion, countered with a raft of other studies that claim to show a 10.6 percent higher homicide rate associated in areas with the more permissive requirements for concealed carry permits and a 29 percent higher rate of workplace homicides. But more broadly, Breyer argued, it’s all about gun ownership rates. For states with high gun ownership rates, he cited studies showing cops are three times more likely to get shot in the line of duty and four times more likely to shoot someone fatally.
Justice Samuel Alito, who sided with Thomas, was dubious. In his concurring opinion, Alito asked, “Will a person bent on carrying out a mass shooting be stopped if he knows that it is illegal to carry a handgun outside the home?”
But even with the new ruling in effect, Brown said local authorities will still be allowed to use the “moral character” clause to screen concealed weapons permit applicants. Translated into plain English, Brown said, this involves a criminal background check to screen out applicants who’ve been convicted of crimes. If they don’t reside in Santa Barbara County, Santa Barbara must be their place of business. Applicants are required to submit three letters of reference, undergo a generalized background check, and subject themselves for a psychological screening. “They have to go to the department’s psychologist to be interviewed,” Brown said.
In Sacramento, Governor Gavin Newsom and Attorney General Rob Bonta wasted no time denouncing the decision, and State Senator Anthony Portantino, a Democrat from Glendale, introduced a new bill that would expand the scope of such background checks as well as expanding the definition of “sensitive spaces.” The Thomas ruling recognizes sensitive spaces as being off-limits. Already, the list includes government office buildings, schools, and picket lines. It will likely expand to include movie theaters, shopping malls, sporting arenas, and churches, among other venues.
In addition, Sheriff Brown said he expects to see private businesses weighing in as they do in states with more liberal concealed weapons policies, posting signs out front declaring their retail spaces gun-free zones. State Senator Monique Limón and Assemblymember Steve Bennett — who represent Santa Barbara in the statehouse — both expressed support for the Portantino measure. It’s no accident, Limón said, that California has the strictest gun regulations in the nation and one of the lowest rates of gun violence. The legislature’s window of opportunity, however, is exceedingly tight. “If we’re to succeed, this has to be done by August 31,” she said.
Twelve bills are currently making their way through California’s legislature to address gun violence. It remains uncertain what impact — if any — the Supreme Court ruling could have on the constitutionality of these efforts. In his opinion, Justice Thomas ruled that government is no longer permitted to balance the relative risk and benefits — known as a “means-end” test — of gun legislation. For a bill to pass constitutional muster, it must be historically rooted in the time that the Second Amendment was passed — 1791 — or the 14th Amendment — in 1868. That, in fact, is now the sole determining criteria. “The government must justify its regulation by demonstrating that it is consistent with the Nation’s historical tradition of firearm regulation,” declared Thomas.
In his dissent, Justice Breyer argued that the historical record on any abiding social concern is inherently complex and contradictory. Lower court justices, he argued, will find their resources sorely strained ferreting out the historical facts and weighing the evidence. He himself amassed 700 years’ worth of historical cases to demonstrate what he contended was clear evidence that “proper cause” restrictions meet Thomas’s new standard. Thomas and the majority were not persuaded. Breyer also questioned to what extent laws based in the past could possibly contemplate regulations for guns that can now be manufactured by 3-D printers.
Santa Barbara’s Sheriff Brown said gun safety defies simple “cookie-cutter solutions.” Different communities, he said have different demographics, different population densities, and different safety challenges. Santa Barbara County, he noted, is the fourth lowest in the nation when it comes to gun deaths.
“We’re still one of the safest places in the country,” he said. “For the past 15 years, I stuck to the policy I did because it was in the best interest of the county and the residents who lived here.”
This week the California Department of Justice reported a serious data breach for all concealed weapons permit holders throughout the state, including their identities and other personal information.
The data include name, age, address, license type, and criminal identification index numbers. This information was inadvertently posted by the Department of Justice when it launched a new public information dashboard — the Firearms Dashboard Portal — which, among other things, included Concealed Weapons Permits. The breach was first discovered by the Fresno Sheriff’s Office. California Attorney General Rob Bonta’s office shut down the dashboard portal after learning of the breach.
It remains uncertain how long that information was publicly available and how much traffic the portal received. Bonta issued a press statement announcing his office is investigating the extent and cause of the breach and that it will be initiating a plan to minimize damage experienced by permit holders as a result.