Sixteen years ago, Steven Pappas was nearly beaten to death near the Mexican border by four men who tried to steal his wallet.
Afterward, the La Palma resident often thought of buying a gun for self-protection and trying to obtain a concealed weapons permit to legally carry it.
But for years he didn’t bother pursuing it. “I was always told it was very hard to get,” said Pappas, 39.
Then, in 2014, after a court ruling striking down restrictions some California law enforcement authorities had placed on concealed weapons permits, Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens relaxed her policy.
Pappas seized his opportunity and received a permit.
Late last year, he found himself in a position to draw his gun in public for the first time, when he came upon assailants beating a young teen with the handle of a sledgehammer.
Pappas is one of the nearly 8,500 Orange County residents now legally carrying concealed weapons – a nearly tenfold increase in just two years.
That’s still just 0.35 percent of the county’s adult population – far below the projected national rate of 5.2 percent. But it’s a higher concentration than reported by sheriff’s officials in neighboring counties.
In addition, spurred partly by recent terror attacks, mass shootings and the prospect of new gun control regulations, the number of firearms sold or transferred in the county last year increased to 31/2 times the 2010 count, according to Department of Justice records.
There’s been a related surge in demand for training and shooting range use, instructors say, with one area school sold out through June.
Gun control advocates such as Charlie Blek, president of the Orange County chapter of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, cite research, including a 2014 study in the Annals of Internal Medicine, that found people with access to guns were three times more likely to kill themselves and twice as likely to be murdered.
“I believe in large, barking dogs,” Blek said.
Second Amendment activists maintain the public is safer when more “good guys with guns” are present in the community, and a majority of Americans tend to agree. A national Gallup poll in October found 56 percent of residents felt the country would be safer if more vetted and trained people were allowed to carry weapons.
“I want more guns on the streets,” said TJ Johnston, owner of AllSafe Defense Systems in Orange, which offers courses needed to obtain permits to carry weapons.
Demand for Johnston’s classes jumped after December’s mass shooting in San Bernardino by a couple who pledged allegiance to the Islamic State terror group. The attack at a holiday party for county workers killed 14 people and wounded 22.
After last month’s terrorist bombings in Brussels, Johnston said he came to his office to find 36 voice mails. “It’s at a crescendo now,” he said.
Much of the current demand is for personal protection weapons, such as smaller pistols, said Keith Nichols, owner of OC Guns N Gear in Huntington Beach. He’s also sold more firearms to women in the past year than in any of the prior eight years, he said.
“We can’t rely on men or law enforcement in the event that we have to be our own first responders,” said Wendy Knudson, 41, of Anaheim Hills, who recently took a beginner handgun class from Johnston and hopes to get a concealed carry permit. “I want to feel confident knowing what my laws are in my state and how to properly shoot a gun if I’m in an emergency situation.”
Talk of more gun control typically spurs owners to buy more firearms and ammunition. And Nichols noticed a bump in semiautomatic weapon sales after a so-far unsuccessful attempt late last year to renew a federal assault weapons ban that expired in 2004.
The increased gun sales and carry permits are coming in a state that has some of the nation’s strictest gun control policies.
In a January Public Policy Institute of California poll, 62 percent of state residents said the government still doesn’t do enough to regulate access to firearms.
And support is building for a ballot initiative by Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom that would require background checks for ammunition purchases and prohibit residents from having magazines that hold more than 10 bullets.
“Public interest related to Second Amendment rights, as well as gun control, has never been higher,” said Lt. Matthew Stiverson with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department.
LAWSUIT OPENS PERMITTING PROCESS
For there to be more “good guys with guns,” advocates say larger numbers of residents should be able to obtain permits to carry loaded, concealed weapons.
Californians who want permits have to prove residency, pass background checks, complete a safety course and show “good cause.” But counties differ in their interpretations of “good cause.” Some issue permits to anyone who wants a firearm for self-defense.
But San Diego, Orange and many other largely urban counties generally had required residents to prove they are at greater risk of harm than the average citizen, by providing copies of restraining orders or showing they regularly carry large amounts of cash.
San Diego resident Edward Peruta sued when he was denied a permit. The case went to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, where a panel of three judges – two appointed by Republican presidents and one by a Democrat – in 2014 declared in a 2-to-1 ruling that the county’s strict interpretation of the “good cause” requirement was unconstitutional.
In the wake of that ruling, Sheriff Hutchens loosened the standard for issuing concealed carry permits. The number of concealed weapon permits jumped from 438 in 2013 to 3,240 in 2014 and 4,446 in 2015, according to department records.
Authorities said there have been no reports of incidents involving residents permitted to carry a concealed weapon improperly using one. There was a 23 percent spike in crime last year, though sheriff’s officials attribute that increase to an unrelated state law. Researchers say there has been no accepted causal relationship established between concealed weapon permits and crime rates.
One of the county’s permits recently went to retired Marine Andy Vineyard.
Vineyard and his wife once proudly flew two military flags from their Laguna Hills home: one for their daughter who’s in the Navy and one for two daughters in the Air Force. Then their daughters’ commanders recommended they take the flags down out of concern that military families could become targets for terrorists.
The Vineyards already had guns in their home. They decided it was time to get permits to carry those guns.
“I do feel a little bit safer,” Vineyard said. “We all really need to be responsible for doing our part.”
LAW STILL IN LIMBO
Concealed carry permits continue to be issued at vastly higher numbers than they were before the Peruta case, even as the final legal resolution of the court battle remains unclear.
Attorney General Kamala Harris asked the appeals court to reconsider its decision, saying the relaxed permit policy took away local law enforcement’s discretion on an issue of major community importance. The court agreed to re-hear the matter, which took place in June before a larger panel of randomly selected 9th Circuit judges.
Nearly 10 months later, no new ruling has been made.
The decision won’t affect permits that have already been approved, and many legal experts expect the losing side will appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In the meantime, the Sheriff’s Department is back to requiring residents to document safety concerns that might merit carrying a concealed weapon, Stiverson said. But rather than just deny applicants who don’t initially demonstrate “good cause” to be granted a permit, Stiverson said, staff guides applicants through the permit process.
Roughly 98 percent of the applications processed in 2015 and so far in 2016 have been approved, Stiverson said, with most applications taking an average of two to three months to process. And the department projects it will still issue roughly 3,600 permits this year.
It took around six months for Vineyard to get his permit. But having gone through the background check and training, he said he appreciates the process.
“When you decide to carry, it’s a big responsibility,” he said.
The responsibility that can come with a permit hit home for Pappas on Halloween night.
He was in the parking lot of a restaurant he owns in Bellflower when he saw a group of older males hitting a young teen with a sledgehammer handle. Pappas drew his weapon and yelled at the attackers to stop. The man with the handle took a step toward him, Pappas said, but then saw his gun and fled.
In February, the city of Bellflower presented Pappas with a valor award for intervening.
“I’ve been in the place that teen was, being beaten on the ground, and nobody was able to help me,” Pappas said. “I’m just happy I was there.”
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