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Under the gun

Orange County supervisors should have Sheriff Sandra Hutchens' back in a fight about concealed-weapons permits.

February 17, 2009

Orange County supervisors were looking for someone to transform the sheriff's office when they hired an outsider last year to replace disgraced Sheriff Michael S. Carona. Now they're complaining that the new sheriff isn't sensitive to the culture of Orange County. If by "culture" they mean concealed-weapons permits handed out to people who have no legitimate need to carry guns on the streets, then yes, Sheriff Sandra Hutchens is not one to honor tradition, and we admire her for that.

Among Hutchens' first announcements as sheriff was that she would systematically review the county's 1,000 active permits and require their holders to have a reason for packing a gun -- aside from a desire to do so. That could include a job such as owning a jewelry store, or a history of having been threatened or harassed. Times have changed, and so has Orange County. It is no longer an outpost of cattle ranches and lima-bean fields; it's a diverse metropolitan area, and it should operate like one.

Hutchens, a retired division chief from the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, spent her career in a county with three times the population of Orange County's but with about one-third the number of concealed-weapons permits. She brings a new sensibility to the Sheriff's Department, sorely needed after Carona gave permits to friends and political donors. One of these, Carona's former martial-arts instructor, was sentenced to six months in prison after making a dangerous fool of himself on a golf course by drawing his gun in a dispute about a wayward fairway shot.

County supervisors have been pressured by the permit holders who stand to lose their privileges. But considering that this amounts to about 500 people in a county of 3 million, the board should not interpret the carrying of guns to be a venerated part of Orange County culture. Hutchens' staff has worsened tensions by acting inappropriately during board meetings on the gun issue, at one point directing security cameras toward the notes of two supervisors, and in another case sending text messages that poked fun at the people there. Hutchens has apologized and launched investigations; more important, she must assert control over her staff's conduct, just as she has asserted authority over gun permits.

The law offers sheriffs broad leeway in determining what constitutes a legitimate reason to carry a gun; we think Hutchens is bringing the correct balance to this matter. The supervisors courageously sought radical change in the sheriff's operations. The easy part of that was hiring Hutchens; the harder part is sticking by her when change becomes uncomfortable.

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