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 require a documented justification, according to a Los Angeles Times analysis of county records.
The upswing means more than 1,640 people are now licensed to carry concealed weapons in Orange County, according to the analysis. Before the ruling there were about 900, a county spokesman said.
According to the analysis, permits are spread throughout the county, but certain cities, including Huntington Beach and Newport Beach, have a higher concentration of licensees. Others, including Santa Ana and Garden Grove, have had fewer approved permits.
In Huntington Beach, 165 residents were licensed to tote guns in public as of the end of August, the most of any Orange County city. Based on population, it has the second-highest concentration of active permits, behind Yorba Linda.
Huntington Police Chief Robert Handy said the number probably stems from the city's political climate rather than a fear of crime.
"I think it draws along political party lines and political ideology, as opposed to trends in crimes," he said. In a heavily Republican city such as Huntington Beach, a strong belief in gun rights "corresponds with the political tendencies of our community."
In Newport Beach — another conservative coastal town — 79 residents had active permits, ranking the city seventh in number and sixth per capita, after Mission Viejo, Orange and Laguna Hills.
Newport Beach Police Department spokesman Lt. Jeff Brouwer emphasized that the agency's first priority is making sure that permit holders have taken all the necessary steps to keep their status up to date, regardless of the permit criteria at any given moment.
"Our stance on it is we pretty much have to deal with whatever the legislation is that comes out," he said.
That said, he added, Newport's high concentration of concealed-weapons permits could have something to do with its higher concentration of wealthy residents.
"We don't have a lot of crime," Brouwer said. "We do have a lot of high-profile people who do travel to different places outside of Newport."
Countywide, the numbers will continue to rise as 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.
Sheriff Sandra Hutchens is one of the few sheriffs in California to relax the permit standards after the court ruling, even as a final decision is 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.
Rush to apply
Hutchens' decision to loosen the rules came as a welcome surprise to 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 that 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 their permits to expire.