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Armed and Ordinary : To Thousands of Californians, Carrying a Gun Illegally Has Become an Acceptable Risk

May 11, 1988|PAUL DEAN | Times Staff Writer

She is a Woodland Hills wife, a mother of adult sons, a generous and gregarious woman who fears God and abides by all laws except one--she does not have a permit to carry the loaded, snub-nosed Smith & Wesson revolver that is in her purse.

"I'm having to weigh observance of the law against my own life," she said. "It (carrying a concealed weapon) worries me terribly . . . but we are all potential (crime) victims and this is the way we have to live."

She has friends who carry concealed weapons. An actress and her husband. They know others. A journalist, a politician, a jeweler.

"You'd be surprised at how many people are walking around armed," the woman said. "I mean, I am, (a friend) is, so many others are. . . . We have no choice. We have to provide our own answers."

They may be providing a typical answer.

For, according to statistics taken by the National Rifle Assn. from national studies of handgun ownership, more than 250,000 Californians regularly carry concealed handguns. Yet, said a state Department of Justice spokesman, only 32,405 people are licensed to carry concealed weapons in California.

'Silent Majority'

That leaves more than 217,000 citizens who form a "silent majority . . . who just don't come to the attention of police officers because they are not carrying to commit a crime," said Dave Marshall of Sacramento, NRA's California coordinator and lobbyist.

"They are normal businessmen, gun owners very familiar with firearms, who are carrying them because hell be damned if they are going to be jeopardized by that (street crime)."

Marshall--who is lobbying for a state Senate bill that would relax and standardize the process for obtaining permits to carry concealed weapons--said he knows "three or four people who carry illegally, two businessmen . . . another fellow who has his wife carry . . . but they are never going to come to the attention of the authorities."

Numbers support Marshall's belief.

Last year in Los Angeles, only 377 people were prosecuted (with 361 convictions) for carrying concealed weapons. More than half, said City Atty. James K. Hahn, involved gang members and street criminals.

That leaves "30% to 40% you would call average citizens . . . no record, carrying a concealed weapon for their personal protection," he said. "We still have cases--a couple of dozen a year--coming out of Los Angeles International Airport of people going through the metal detectors."

The sad significance of this, said Hahn, is that some women "have gotten so used to having a gun in their purse they don't even think about it when they walk through a metal detector at the airport."

For the misdemeanor of carrying a concealed weapon, Hahn said, "first-timers generally pay a fine, probably between $250 and $500, and have the weapon confiscated . . . plus summary probation for a period of one year to two years.

"Where you have your gang member or your crook, he is going to have a criminal history that is going to subject him to a significant amount of jail time."

An Acceptable Risk

It is this differential favoring the generally law abiding, say many gun owners, that makes carrying their weapons an acceptable risk. (Mindful of the fact that they are committing a crime, most of those interviewed for this story agreed to discuss their reasons for carrying only on condition of anonymity.)

"If I am caught with it, it will be a slap on the wrist," said one gun owner. She recently traded her .25-caliber automatic for the "greater stopping power" of a .38-caliber revolver. "They (police) will look at our records, see what good kids we are and know we're only carrying for self-defense."

Said another woman, an author, also a wife and mother who lives in a middle-class and supposedly safe Los Angeles suburb, "Most cops will tell you and have told me: 'Carry the thing. The most you will get is a $100 fine.'

"They have said it unofficially, on an informal basis, at a party at a friend's house where we were discussing obtaining permits (to carry a concealed weapon)."

In California, the responsibility for approving and issuing permits to carry concealed weapons rests with police chiefs and county sheriffs--but a permit issued by one jurisdiction is honored in other areas of the state. That system, said a spokeswoman for the firearms control section of the Department of Justice, makes for a "varied, ridiculous" hodgepodge of loopholes and imbalances.

As a result, she said, many people in cities with rigid gun controls are carrying weapons on permits issued by the more liberal sheriffs of outlying counties.

Los Angeles County, for example, issued or renewed only 366 permits to carry concealed weapons in 1987. But in Kern County, she said, 3,943 permits were granted. In the City of Los Angeles, Hahn said, no permit to carry a concealed weapon has been issued in more than a decade.

And, a police spokesman confirmed, zero permit growth remains the Los Angeles Police Commission's unyielding policy.

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