Capitol Weekly
By Malcolm Maclachlan | 07/22/10 12:00 AM PST

Could a bill banning the open carrying of firearms actually result in more guns on California streets?

That’s what some gun rights advocates are saying about AB 1934 by Assemblywoman Lori Saldana, D-San Diego. They claim that the difficulty in getting concealed weapons permits in many California counties is so great that a ban on openly carrying guns would essentially infringe on the right to bear arms. One pro-open carry group, Responsible Citizens of California, has indicated that they are prepared to file a lawsuit as soon as the bill becomes law, if it gets that far.

“There is no question that for the vast majority of cities in California, getting a CCW [concealed carry weapon permit] is impossible,” said Sam Paredes, executive director of Gun Owners of California. “When you look at the number of CCWs handed out in Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego Counties, counties which represent the majority of the state, they hand out very few.”

California is a so-called “may issue” state. What this means is that county sheriffs can choose to issue permits or not, and that those who are denied permits have no recourse. Forty states are “shall issue” states, with laws stating that permits, if needed at all, shall be issued to anyone who has the proper legal standing to own a gun. Two states, Wisconsin and Illinois, ban concealed weapons entirely.

Illinois is currently ground zero of the nation’s debate over gun control laws, said John Lott, a blogger and author of the book “More Guns, Less Crime.” On June 28, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a 5-4 decision in the case McDonald vs. Chicago, overturning that city’s 28-year-old ban on owning guns within the city limits. This expanded their 2008 decision in District of Columbia vs. Heller, which overturned a similar ban in D.C.

According to figures gathered by Lott, San Francisco County issued a total of six CCWs for all of 2009. Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Diego each issued fewer than 1,500 — the equivalent to less than one per 2,000 people. In some rural counties, by contrast, permits in a single year total over two percent of the population.

Yih-Chau Chang, press secretary for Responsible Citizens, said his group is also looking for an author for a bill that would move California into the “shall issue” column. He said such a move — permits including registration and training — would fix many of the public safety problems Saldana raises in AB 1934.

A spokesperson for Saldana said that they had researched the decision and believe their open carry ban remains legal despite the McDonald case. They declined to comment further. AB 1934 passed the Assembly on June 1 and currently awaits a hearing in the Senate Appropriations Committee.

“I think that argument misconstrues the courts holding in the McDonald vs. Chicago and District of Columbia vs. Heller,” said Ben Van Houten, staff attorney with the group Legal Community Against Violence, which supports Saldana’s bill.

In both cases, he said, the court ruled against the most stringent possible law - an outright ban on gun ownership within the home. He noted that despite the efforts of many gun rights advocates, the Heller case has not resulted in the wholesale overturning of gun restrictions around the country, including a host of new, more narrowly-tailored gun laws in D.C.

“We’ve already seen a wave of litigation after Heller and there is no reason not to think there won’t be more after McDonald,” Van Houten said. “What we’ve found in tracking those cases is that the courts have not impacted a wide variety of state and federal firearms laws.”

Van Houten also noted that neither case took up the issue of bearing arms outside of the home. He also pointed to a portion of the McDonald decision which noted: “the right to keep and bear arms is not ‘a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.’ We made it clear in Heller that our holding did not cast doubt on such longstanding regulatory measures as ‘prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill,’ ‘laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.’”

Lott agreed, but noted that the issue of “bearing” arms did come up in the trial - with Justice Antonin Scalia saying at one point that the right to “bear” implied a right to “carry,” something some have interpreted as an invitation to challenge bans on carrying weapons.

“There’s nothing settled until you get back to the Supreme Court,” Lott said. “If they want to go and bet on that, that’s fine. I’d be happy to take the other side of that bet.”