PALM SPRINGS, Calif. â€” From rusted six-shooters to semi-automatic weapons, hundreds of guns line the walls of a Desert Hot Springs police storage room.
Some are waiting to be destroyed. Others are evidence in ongoing investigations.
Nearly all came from criminals who got them illegally, Police Chief Dan Bressler said.
Bressler leads one of the most understaffed police departments in the Coachella Valley, in a city struggling with gangs while it grapples with how to pay for public safety.
While crime has dropped compared with years past, the crime rate was more than double the national average in 2011, according to the FBI.
“There are a lot of gang members running around the Coachella Valley who are armed, and there are many law-abiding citizens that are concerned for their safety,” Bressler said.
“I think it’s time for us to issue concealed weapons licenses to the law-abiding people of this city,” he said. “I believe this will deter crime and help people feel safer.”
California has the most gun-restrictive laws in the country, but last month the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the “good cause” component to carry a concealed weapon in a San Diego County case. For example, a domestic violence victim who fears for her life or a lawyer who deals with violent criminals might be granted good cause due to an imminent threat of violence.
In the ruling, a three-member panel found that “a responsible, law-abiding citizen has a right under the Second Amendment to carry a firearm in public for self-defense.”
California Attorney General Kamala Harris and the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence moved to appeal, asking that the ruling be reviewed by a full 11-judge panel.
“Local law enforcement must be able to use their discretion to determine who can carry a concealed weapon,” Harris said. “I will do everything possible to restore law enforcement’s authority to protect public safety.”
On Wednesday, the appellate court also found Yolo County’s good cause requirement unconstitutional.
Experts on both sides say the issue probably is headed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Applications pouring in
Some sheriffs in the state aren’t waiting around for the legal wrangling.
In Orange County, Sheriff Sandra Hutchens immediately loosened the concealed-carry permit requirements, and there was a flood of nearly 1,000 applicants.
Ventura County has also dropped the “good cause” requirement and has seen an increase in permit applicants.
In Riverside County, there were 771 civilians with active concealed weapons permits in 2013 out of a population of more than 2.25 million people, according to sheriff’s spokesman Sgt. Mike Manning. Of those, 525 were approved in 2013.
The county received eight applications immediately following the court ruling.
The sheriff’s department could not immediately specify how many of those were held by Coachella Valley residents.
The number of people with licenses to carry handguns in public varies among California’s 58 counties.
Though there are some exceptions, a Desert Sun analysis of data provided by the Calguns Foundation, a pro-gun group, shows higher concentrations of concealed-carry permits in rural counties and where the majority voted for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in the 2012 election.
In 2010, the latest data available, there were 2,935 firearm deaths in California when the population was 37.2 million, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The number includes unintentional and violent deaths. That is a rate of 7.8 deaths per 100,000.
The same year in Arizona, a state with much more liberal gun control laws, there were 931 deaths in a population of 6.3 million. That rate is 14.5 deaths per 100,000.
Sense of security
Each night after closing Sidewinder Grill, a country-themed restaurant he has owned for 22 years in Desert Hot Springs, Angelo Avramidis walks to the car carrying a loaded .38-caliber revolver.
Avramidis doesn’t need a concealed weapon permit to carry a gun on his property, but he’d like to take it beyond the border of his parking lot, he said.
“Things are not getting any better,” he said. “I don’t want to get robbed. I want to feel safe when I leave here at night â€” all of us do.”
At Second Amendment Sports in Palm Desert, many of the 2,000 shooting club members also are encouraged by the court decision, said general manager Alex Talley.
“I know several people that are planning” to apply now, Talley said as he watched people firing at paper targets resembling Osama bin Laden or Yasser Arafat.
“Seeing a glimmer of hope about getting our civil liberties back is getting everybody very excited. We have been talking about it since the news came out.”
The rally for carrying guns in public is being spurred by gun manufacturers looking for more sales and profit, said Ladd Everitt, spokesman for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.
“More citizens being armed isn’t going to make citizens safer,” he said, adding that Bressler’s comments are “an odd position for a police chief to take.”
A self-described Libertarian, Bressler took over the position of Desert Hot Springs police chief in December after the former chief retired amid a fiscal emergency. Several others also moved on, including two high-ranking commanders, because police salaries were cut more than 20% to save the city from bankruptcy
The department has only 23 officers and Bressler is expecting more will leave for better pay in other cities.
“We are in the process of hiring 10 officers right now,” Bressler said. “We need all the help we can get.”
He’s also now looking for volunteers with the proper experience to help with background checks, interviews and fingerprinting to help reinstitute concealed-carry gun permits.
Bressler lives in the city with his wife and three young children.
“I have a more sense of security when I’m armed than when I am not,” Bressler said about when he’s out of uniform. “It gives more sense of comfort. If something horrible did happen, I would at least have a chance.”
Contributing: Robert Hopwood of The Desert Sun