In her first five months in office, newly appointed Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens has brought in a new management team, fired deputies accused of misconduct and tried to distance the department from the legacy of her indicted predecessor, Michael S. Carona.
But the most controversy she has generated has been her decision to review the concealed weapons permits issued by Carona.
Hutchens said she was concerned that more than 1,100 people held concealed carry permits issued by the former sheriff -- nearly three times the number of permits issued in Los Angeles County. She assigned a lieutenant to review each concealed weapons permit to determine whether the holder had a valid reason for carrying a weapon in public and whether these were people whose safety was at risk.
In the months that followed, the department sent 422 letters to permit holders, warning them that they could lose their licenses unless they could provide the department with valid reasons for having them.
The crackdown has infuriated gun-rights advocates and some permit holders, who accuse Hutchens of violating their 2nd Amendment right to bear arms. They have addressed the county Board of Supervisors, demanding intervention, and have threatened to back an opponent to challenge Hutchens' reelection in 2010.
"My office has been inundated with e-mails and quite a few phone calls," said Supervisor Chris Norby. "They're concerned and confused as to what's going on."
Hutchens said she was surprised by the reaction. "There's so much important stuff going on with the department, I didn't expect there to be so much feedback on this," she said.
Under California law, sheriffs and police chiefs may issue a concealed carry permit to anyone with "good cause," or a legitimate reason, to carry a firearm in public. The law grants law enforcement executives broad discretion in issuing the permits.
As a result, the number of permits varies widely throughout the state -- with rural counties such as Fresno, Kern and Tulare at the top of the list.
Norby intends to ask his colleagues on Nov. 18 to adopt a new county policy that would require the sheriff to renew all previously issued permits unless the holder committed a crime or misused the permit.
"It's not like there's too many of them out there, relative to our population," Norby said. "I don't think it's excessive, so I don't see the need to reduce them."
Even if the board approved Norby's resolution, there is little chance that it would be binding on the sheriff. State law mandates that sheriffs, not county supervisors, set department policy, said Mario Mainero, chief of staff for Supervisor John Moorlach and a Chapman University law professor. He called the resolution "unconstitutional, illegal and void."
"State law puts it squarely in the sheriffs' arena and that's what county counsel is going to be telling them," Hutchens said.
But Norby said he is responding to what he believes are the legitimate concerns of permit holders and wants to send Hutchens a message, binding or not. "The board owes it to the sheriff to let her know how we feel and we owe it to our constituents," he said.
Hutchens said she doesn't believe this is a 2nd Amendment issue. She said she is doing nothing to prevent people from owning guns; she is simply limiting those people who will be allowed to carry them in public. "What if someone who had been issued a [concealed carry permit] by Carona went out and hurt someone? It certainly wouldn't look good for the county," Hutchens said.
Testimony at Carona's ongoing corruption trial has shed new light on the issuance of concealed weapons permits, which soared during the nine years he served as sheriff.
Former Assistant Sheriff Don Haidl testified that Carona appointed some of his campaign contributors to a volunteer team whose members were issued badges and concealed weapons permits. "In light of the testimony in former Sheriff Carona's trial that he, in essence, sold [concealed carry permits], she has an obligation to look at these," Mainero said.
Said Hutchens: "I would hope that the supervisors are watching the trial."