Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens

Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens is one of the only sheriffs in California to relax the standards for concealed weapons permits after an appeals court ruling. (Mark Boster, Los Angeles Times / September 24, 2013)

In the six months since Orange County began issuing concealed weapons permits under a relaxed standard, the number of people licensed to carry guns is close to doubling, and thousands more are awaiting approval.

More than 700 new permits have been issued since a federal court ruling in February led the sheriff to grant permits to those who simply state a desire to carry weapons for personal safety rather than requiring a documented justification, according to a Los Angeles Times analysis of county records.

The upswing means there are now more than 1,640 people licensed to carry concealed weapons in Orange County, according to the analysis. Before the ruling there were about 900, a county spokesman said.

That number will continue to rise as county officials process the stack of pending applications, which had grown to more than 2,800 by the end of August. Thousands more have requested appointments to apply for permits, officials said. In all, more than 7,000 people have filled out applications or requested appointments, sheriff's officials said.

Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens is one of the only sheriffs in California to relax the standards after the ruling, even as a final decision remains pending before the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

If the ruling is upheld, counties throughout California could soon be following her lead and dealing with similar demand.

Those with a permit can take loaded guns to the mall, their workplace and other public places as long as the firearms are not visible and are not prohibited by private property rules. They are restricted from carrying in bars, airports and some schools and government buildings.

Before the ruling, permits often went to business owners, judicial officers, reserve police officers and others who could prove a threat to their safety. Since then, retirees and the self-employed are among the most frequent applicants in the county, according to the analysis. As before the ruling, the overwhelming majority of permits — 95% — have gone to men.

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Hutchens' decision to loosen the rules came as a welcome surprise to some residents who were infuriated when she cracked down on concealed weapons after being appointed in 2008. The previous sheriff, Michael Carona, was indicted in a scandal that included allegations he handed out permits to associates and as political favors.

At the time, Hutchens asked hundreds of permit holders to prove a need for a weapon. Some simply allowed them to expire.

One of them was Mike Wells, 49, an assembly technician from Mission Viejo, who was rejected when he resubmitted his explanation for needing to carry a gun. Wells allowed his permit to expire and sold off his gun.

When Hutchens' decision was announced in February, Wells quickly requested an appointment to apply. His application, filed July 11, listed three guns: a Kimber, a Springfield Armory and a Colt. His permit was approved in August.

"I didn't expect to be carrying again, and I was very surprised by how quickly she stepped up once the decision came through," he said.

Like Wells, many permit holders have multiple weapons. According to The Times analysis, there are now more than 3,830 handguns licensed to be carried in public in Orange County, double the number before the ruling.

To keep up with demand, the sheriff allocated $1.5 million and beefed up staffing to 16 from one to process applications. At one point, some employees worked nights and met with applicants on the weekends to catch up, said sheriff's spokesman Lt. Jeff Hallock.

The department also took steps to streamline the process, including waiving an in-person gun inspection requirement, though the county still runs serial numbers to verify ownership.

Despite the progress, the gap between the number of incoming applications and permits granted continues to widen, according to The Times analysis. As of late August, about 75% of the applications submitted since the ruling were still pending.

The Times analyzed data obtained from the Sheriff's Department under a public records request that covered more than 5,000 applications submitted since March 2008.

According to the analysis, permits are spread throughout the county, but certain cities — including Huntington Beach, Newport Beach and Yorba Linda — have a higher concentration of licensees. Others, including Santa Ana and Garden Grove, have had much fewer approved permits.