January 10, 2001
Power corrupts. This ancient truism is rooted in the dim history of humanity,
but has expressed itself in America's fascinating experiment with restrictive
The goal of all gun control laws is to restrict ownership to certain segments
of humanity. The utopian idea of a total ban is obviously impractical, but
lesser laws intended to keep guns out of the "wrong" hands have been
too tempting to reject.
Laws that attempt to regulate the availability of handguns in the United
States began in the Old South, where prohibitions on inexpensive or concealable
guns were aimed at recently freed slaves.
Rapid immigration and social turmoil in the early part of the 20th Century
caused some Eastern cities to take similar measures. These were modeled on
European laws that were considered to be successful in dealing with political
dissidents, anarchists, and labor agitators. The most notable was New York
City's Sullivan Law of 1911, which required a police permit to own a handgun.
The common goal of all gun laws was to keep guns out of the hands of minority
races and immigrants while allowing free access for established white citizens.
This concept of legalized discrimination still exists in several states that
have not reformed their gun permit laws.
Almost every state in the union has some method of providing permits to those
who need or want to carry a concealed weapon (CCW). Thirty three states offer
permits to all citizens who pass a criminal background check regardless of race,
ethnicity or social status. These are called "shall-issue" states.
I happen to live in the state of Washington, where a quarter-million permits
are currently active under a shall-issue law. Permit holders have proven to be
the most law-abiding single sector of society. Police agencies in Washington
learned long ago that permittees are not to be feared. Applicants are
universally treated in a cheerful and professional manner. When stopped for
traffic violations, permit holders might even receive a bit of extra courtesy.
States which allow police departments to determine who gets a CCW permit are
called "discretionary" or "may-issue" states. This system
gives police chiefs and sheriffs a special power that is ripe for abuse.
The corruption of the discretionary CCW system is legendary. New York City
has the most draconian gun laws in the nation. A rare police permit is required
just to possess any firearm in your home. Even more difficult to acquire is a
permit to allow concealed carry of a handgun.
The New York system has provided some of the most outrageous examples of how
the system can be abused. Applicants must go before a special licensing officer,
known for rude and punitive treatment of applicants, especially those who do not
An article in Newsday tells of one such officer who was suspended and fined
in 1997 when his misconduct exceeded even the lax standards of his department.
According to the Newsday article,
"...corruption and favoritism have run rampant within the
pistol-licensing division for decades."
Ordinary citizens who have had death threats or those who operate small
businesses in high crime neighborhoods have little hope of obtaining a permit.
And using an unlicensed gun to defend oneself in New York City is a guarantee of
serious prison time, no matter how legitimate the defensive need.
According to information obtained through leaks and the Freedom of
Information Act, many NYC permittees are celebrities and political cronies. The
last time information was released, celebrity permit holders included William F.
Buckley, Jr., Donald Trump, Joan Rivers, a member of the Rockefeller family and
Arthur Sulzberger, publisher of the rabidly anti-gun New York Times.
Another over-represented group included those with crime connections.
According to the Village Voice:
"Other licensees include an aide to a city councilman widely regarded
as corrupt, several major slumlords, a Teamsters Union boss who is a defendant
in a major racketeering suit, and a restaurateur identified with organized
Things may have improved somewhat in New York recently. Attorneys now
advertise on the internet that they can help obtain CCW permits, although the
process typically requires several months and thousands of dollars. In New York
City, only the wealthy have the right to armed self-defense.
This odd form of corruption is not due to the spiteful nature of New York
cops. It is a logical result of a flawed system, as evidenced by blatant gun
licensing corruption in other "discretionary" states.
In Massachusetts, a group called Pink Pistols criticized a discretionary
licensing law in that state with this press release:
"From a civil rights standpoint, the law is horrifying,"
complained David Rostcheck, an activist with the Pink Pistols, a civil rights
group that protects the rights of shooters with alternative sexualities.
"It's racist, classist, sexist, homophobic, and it discriminates against
the elderly and disabled. When people actually sit down and read it, even
ardent gun control advocates are shocked at what it legitimizes. A police
chief can deny a license to a legally qualified person based on their gender,
their housing, their sexual orientation - absolutely anything they want. Jesse
Helms never managed to pass legislation this discriminatory."
When a state law fails to provide a uniform standard for issuing CCW permits,
it is impossible for local authorities to bestow this privilege fairly. Even if
common human failings like greed and prejudice could be eliminated, other
factors still prevent effective administration of discretionary laws. Personnel
turnover, political pressure and variations from one area to another ensure that
citizens will not receive fair and equal consideration of their requests.
The latest and most prominent efforts to expose the corruption of
discretionary CCW laws are being undertaken in California. In addition to the
usual requirements, California state law says that if applicants can prove that
they are of "good moral character" and have a "good cause"
they will receive a permit.
Perhaps being an anti-gun politician counts as good moral character in
California. Two famous permit recipients are fanatically anti-gun U.S. Senator
Diane Feinstein and gun-owner-hating California State Senator Don Perata.
Activist Jim March has begun a long campaign to reveal how California cities
and counties are abusing the law and their citizens. Law enforcement agencies do
not want this information to become public, even though court decisions have
declared that it cannot be kept secret. They know that their discriminatory
practices violate various laws and court decisions, so Mr. March is forced to
file official requests under the state Public Records Act.
His first target was Marin County, just North of San Francisco. Mr. March
documented the bizarre tangle of illegal regulations and Catch-22s that face
residents of Marin County who wish to apply for a permit. Applicants with some
connection to the government receive preferential treatment. A person with no
government connection may be refused even when he meets the same standards.
During his research, March turned up a police report from Sacramento County
that gives more insight into the way that CCW laws are abused in parts of
California. The honest officer who typed the report described how he arrested a
drunk who apparently showed someone his pistol in an unfriendly manner. The
drunk turned out to have a CCW permit issued by then-Sheriff of Sacramento
County Glen Craig.
The officer asked how someone who worked in the construction business was
able to obtain one of the hard to get permits. The response was: "It is all
political. It is just a big game. I am a major contributor of [current sheriff]
Lou Blanas and Glen Craig and they gave me a concealed weapons permit".
The City of Oakland was next. Only one citizen in Oakland possesses the
necessary good moral character to receive a CCW permit in that city of 400,000
souls. This gentleman happens to be a close crony of the mayor and is known for
his behavioral problems which are highlighted by a sexual harassment suit that
the city settled out of court for $50,000.
March's current target is Santa Clara County, which has a reputation for
corrupt and discriminatory CCW policies. This county illegally refused a Public
Records Act request from another activist, Nadja Adolph, so she and March are
considering a lawsuit to force the county to release their CCW data.
Adolph and March publish their results on the popular web site
KeepAndBearArms.com, where supporters of gun rights eagerly await the next juicy
details of California corruption.
Another investigation is being undertaken for the California Rifle and Pistol
Association. Attorney Chuck Michel said in a phone interview that he has filed
250 information act requests for CCW records around the state. Only about 100
police agencies have responded.
Michel is particularly familiar with the odd strategy pursued by the City of
Los Angeles. All permit requests there are routinely denied, generating numerous
lawsuits that cost the city approximately $100,000 a year to defend.
At one time, the Los Angeles County Sheriff allegedly created a special
reserve unit that allowed him to award CCW privileges to celebrities, friends
and campaign contributors. This was while he routinely denied permits to
citizens with multiple death threats.
Under discretionary laws, police officers are forced to decide whose life is
worth protecting. Like something out of medieval times, the average working man
or woman is denied a permit while celebrities and political cronies are blessed
by local warlords with the privilege of defending their lives.
Thirty three states have already reformed their laws with excellent results.
Contrary to the shrill scare tactics of the anti-gun lobby and some self-serving
law enforcement agencies, blood did not run in the streets and people did not
suddenly begin to murder each other over minor disputes. Violent crime, in fact,
decreases when shall-issue laws are enacted.
Peaceful Vermont, perhaps the most enlightened of all, needs no permit system
of any kind, since any adult who is not prohibited from owning a firearm may
carry it concealed at any time for any lawful purpose.
Discretionary carry laws are a breeding ground for police corruption and an
anachronism that should not exist in a society that prides itself on fair and
equal treatment for all citizens.
Dr. Michael S. Brown is an optometrist and member of Doctors for Sensible
Gun Laws - www.dsgl.org. Email the author at: firstname.lastname@example.org.