FRESNO — This city, where the SWAT team already patrols the streets each night, wants to give its besieged citizenry a little added protection. If all goes according to plan this month, law-abiding Fresnans will be able to pack guns wherever they go.
The proposed ordinance, which would basically allow anyone but criminals and crackpots to carry a concealed weapon, will place Fresno "in a leadership position in California," in the words of the mayor.
But the police chief, who was out of town when the plan was unveiled last week, believes it is a foolish and dangerous idea.
"We're not going to solve Fresno's crime problem by creating an armed community out there," said Police Chief Ed Winchester. "We're only going to add to the disaster, tragedy and loss of human life."
Mayor Jim Patterson and Councilman Bob Lung, who make a sport of butting heads, joined hands to back the ordinance--which would be the first in California to make it easier to obtain concealed weapon permits. They believe they have the four votes needed to pass the measure this month.
"(This) is a good law," Patterson said. "We think it is a law the rest of the state might very well find interesting and appealing."
Lung, who pushed the idea of a permissive gun ordinance and got the mayor to join him, was not pleased with the police chief's public opposition.
"The police chief is entitled to his opinion," Lung said. "But now I want him to give up his concealed weapon and all his officers to give up their concealed weapons.
"This is about trust. I happen to trust our law-abiding citizens with guns."
Winchester, who must answer to the city manager and council, knows he is taking a risk by speaking out. But he says the ordinance is poorly conceived and will add more uncertainty to the streets of Fresno, a city with 400,000 residents and a crime rate that ranks among the worst in the state.
"It's going to create some situations that would not have existed otherwise," said the 27-year police veteran. "It's going to result in some real human tragedy."
Last month, in a bold move that captured national attention, Winchester dispatched his 30-member SWAT force to the city's most crime-ridden neighborhoods. The daily patrols, which may become a permanent fixture, have resulted in 63 felony arrests and 18 confiscated guns.
The proposed gun ordinance, which is similar to one defeated in Stockton last year, calls on the police chief to issue a permit to all applicants who pass a routine background check and other checks the chief might require, along with training in gun safety. Those denied a permit would be able to appeal to a special committee of the City Council.
"I'm going to be under a great deal of administrative and political pressure to grant a weapons permit," Winchester said. "Virtually anyone who asks for one will get it."
State law affords police chiefs and county sheriffs the power to decide who should be granted a concealed weapon permit. Such permits allow the holder to carry a hidden, loaded weapon anywhere in the state, except in restricted areas such as airports and courthouses.
Under the law, applicants must be of good moral character and have no felony convictions or a history of mental problems. In addition, most jurisdictions require that the applicant show a valid reason for wanting to carry a concealed weapon, such as a dangerous job or routinely traveling through a high-crime area .
By not including this "convincing need" requirement, the proposed ordinance does not conform to state law, Winchester said, adding: "It's illegal as written.
Gun advocates say the state standard is interpreted so narrowly by police chiefs and sheriffs that virtually no law-abiding citizen can obtain a permit. They point to the fact that the Fresno Police Department has not issued a single permit in six years, despite 92 applications.
"The permits that have been issued in the past have been to the good old boys--friends and relatives of law enforcement," Lung said. "My ordinance would broaden the category to include all races and all classes of law-abiding people."