Our review of information related to CCW license programs operated by three county sheriffs' departments—Los Angeles, Sacramento, and San Diego—revealed the following:
- » State law allows licensing authorities to issue a CCW license upon proof that the applicant is of good moral character, has good cause for the license, is a resident of the licensing authority's jurisdiction, and has completed firearms training.
- » Although the three departments have developed their own permissible policies for evaluating CCW applications, they do not consistently follow those policies when issuing CCW licenses.
- Los Angeles approved applications that did not meet its policy requirements for good cause, residency, and training.
- Sacramento issued some CCW licenses without collecting documentation showing that the licensing process adhered to its own standards.
- San Diego's renewal process has weaknesses that led it to renew some licenses inappropriately.
- » The CCW programs have minimal impact on county budgets because they represent a small percentage of those budgets.
- » Although the departments' CCW programs likely run a deficit, only Sacramento tracks its CCW program expenditures.
- » Licensing authorities differ in their interpretations of state law's maximum allowable fees for CCW licenses.
- All three departments charged fees for initial CCW licenses that were below the maximum amount allowed by state law.
Results in Brief
State law outlines four broad criteria that an individual must meet to be issued a concealed carry weapon (CCW) license. Specifically, state law allows licensing authorities—sheriffs' and police departments—to issue a CCW license upon proof that the applicant is of good moral character, has good cause for the license, is a resident of the licensing authority's jurisdiction, and has completed firearms training. Although state law establishes these four criteria, it provides broad discretion to the licensing authority to determine whether an applicant has met the requirements. Under this discretion, each of the entities we reviewed as part of this audit—the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department (Los Angeles), Sacramento County Sheriff's Department (Sacramento), and San Diego County Sheriff's Department (San Diego)—established its own requirements for how applicants can satisfy the four criteria.
The approaches taken to assess whether applicants have met the four criteria vary widely among the three departments. For example, Sacramento's practice is to accept as good cause an applicant's stated desire to obtain a license for self-defense or for the defense of his or her family. In contrast, Los Angeles considers an applicant to have good cause only if there is convincing evidence of a clear and present danger to life or of great bodily harm to the applicant, his or her spouse, or dependent child; and that this danger cannot be adequately dealt with by existing law enforcement resources, cannot be reasonably avoided by alternative measures, and would be significantly mitigated by the applicant's carrying a concealed firearm. In another example, Sacramento and San Diego have set specific criteria for situations when an applicant's criminal history reveals a lack of good moral character. However, Los Angeles has not set such a standard and decides case by case whether an applicant meets the requirement for good moral character. Although this wide range of approaches to issuing CCW licenses is allowed by state law, we found that the three departments each failed to follow their own respective policies in some cases.
We found the starkest failure to follow policy at Los Angeles. Our review of 25 CCW licenses issued from fiscal years 2014–15 through 2016–17 showed that the department did not follow its CCW policy when it issued any of those licenses. Most notably, Los Angeles issued most of these licenses—24—without obtaining documentation that the applicants met its good cause requirement. The department's policy requires each applicant to submit convincing evidence of a clear and present danger to life or of great bodily harm to establish good cause. The department also requires each applicant to document that a personal threat exists. Further, of the 25 CCW licenses we reviewed, 22 were issued to individuals within the law enforcement community, including current or former law enforcement officers, judicial officers, and deputy district attorneys. In fact, our review of the 197 CCW licenses Los Angeles issued that were active as of August 2017 showed that more than half were issued to individuals in these professions. When we asked about this condition, the lieutenant responsible for reviewing CCW applications stated that individuals within the law enforcement community satisfy the department's good cause requirement by the nature of their jobs. However, making that decision based solely on the applicant's profession both directly contradicts Los Angeles's written policy—which specifically states that no position or job classification in itself shall constitute good cause for issuance—and has led the department to treat applicants inequitably based on their occupations.
Sacramento also issued licenses without complying with its internal standards for good moral character, county residency, and training. Of the 25 CCW licenses we reviewed there, Sacramento issued eight without documentation that demonstrated residency, as the department's standards require. However, in most of these cases, the department obtained at least some evidence aligned with its standards that demonstrated the applicants resided within Sacramento County. Other issues we noted in those 25 CCW license files showed that Sacramento also did not consistently document evidence of good moral character or of firearms training.
We also found that San Diego did not always comply with its policies and procedures when it issued and renewed some licenses. Most notably, San Diego's renewal process has weaknesses that have led it to renew some licenses inappropriately. San Diego allows staff the discretion to issue renewed CCW licenses without supervisory approval if an applicant's good cause remains the same and if the applicant has not had any contact with law enforcement. As a result, San Diego renewed a license without collecting documentation that demonstrated residency, good cause for a license, or the applicant's signature on the application. Then it renewed the same license a second time without obtaining sufficient documentation to satisfy its residency or good cause requirements.
Despite the departments' differing standards for issuing CCW licenses, we did not identify a bad effect from the varying approaches they have taken. Although we believe the differences between Sacramento's criteria for good cause and the criteria of the other two departments are most likely the reason for the higher number of licenses it issued during the period we audited, we cannot conclude that a higher rate of license issuance is necessarily a harmful effect of local discretion. Similarly, Sacramento has revoked many more CCW licenses than did either San Diego or Los Angeles, but the number of revoked licenses is not sufficient on its own to determine that state law needs to be clarified. A revoked license is not necessarily evidence that a licensing authority erred in issuing the license because an individual could have been qualified at the time of licensure and then had a particular circumstance—such as a conviction or mental health-related event—that resulted in a prohibition under federal and state law for that individual to own or possess a firearm. The licensing authority could not have known these subsequent events at the time of licensure.
When we reviewed the funding of each of the three CCW programs, we found that Los Angeles and San Diego could not readily determine whether their respective CCW programs operate at a surplus or a deficit because neither specifically tracks CCW expenditures. At Los Angeles, staff asserted that because of the minimal size of the CCW program, its expenditures were not significant enough for the department to track specifically the costs and time associated with the program. At San Diego, the licensing unit tracks only the expenditures of its entire unit because it is not required to track separately the specific costs of CCW licensing. In contrast, Sacramento does track its CCW program expenditures. Its fiscal records from fiscal years 2014–15 through 2016–17 show that its CCW program had deficits ranging from about $160,000 to $275,000 in each year. However, Sacramento's overall CCW expenditures represent a very small percentage of its budget and of the county's budget; in fiscal year 2016–17, for example, CCW expenditures represented 0.13 percent of total departmental expenditures and an even smaller percentage, 0.03 percent, of Sacramento County's total general fund expenditures in that year. According to the chief of departmental administrative services, the department pays for a large portion of its CCW costs using salary savings. Therefore, Sacramento's CCW program likely has a negligible impact on the county budget.
Finally, we found that licensing authorities differ in their interpretations of state law's maximum allowable fees for CCW licenses. State law allows licensing authorities to charge a processing fee equal to the actual costs of processing a license application up to a maximum of $100. The law also stipulates that licensing authorities may raise this fee beyond the $100 limit, consistent with the rise in the California Consumer Price Index (CCPI) since 1999. However, the Sacramento sheriff believes that state law does not allow his department to charge more than $100 for an initial license. We disagree with this interpretation, and we calculated that the maximum allowable fee as of 2017 would be about $156 for an initial license. If Sacramento had charged the maximum allowable fee during the three-year period we reviewed, it would have reduced its program's annual deficits by more than half. Because of licensing authorities' differing interpretations of state law governing fees for CCW licenses and the potential benefit that clarifying the law could have, we believe that the Legislature should amend state law.
The Legislature should amend state law to clarify that licensing authorities can increase fees for CCW applications above the maximum amount in state law, provided that the fee for an initial application does not exceed the authority's costs and that the rate of increase for any of the fees does not exceed that of the CCPI.
To ensure that its CCW licensing decisions align with its public licensing policy, Los Angeles should only issue a CCW license after collecting documentation of personal threats against the applicant that satisfies its definition of good cause. If Los Angeles believes that its CCW policy does not include all acceptable good causes, it should, by March 2018, revise its policy and post the revised policy to its website.
To ensure that staff are gathering sufficient evidence from applicants to demonstrate residency, good moral character, and firearms training, by March 2018 Sacramento should create formal CCW processing procedures and train its staff to follow these procedures. Sacramento should also establish a review process in which it regularly reviews a selection of license files to determine whether its staff are collecting sufficient and consistent documentation in accordance with its policies.
To ensure that its staff appropriately renew CCW licenses, by March 2018 San Diego should establish a routine supervisory review of a selection of renewed licenses.
Although each department expressed concerns about the conclusions we reached, Los Angeles and San Diego agreed with most of the recommendations that we made to them. However, Los Angeles disagreed with our recommendation related to its good cause policy and only partially agreed with a recommendation we made related to its good moral character, residency, and training policies. San Diego did not agree with a recommendation related to its fees. Sacramento disagreed with our conclusion related to the maximum allowable fees under state law and did not clearly indicate whether it agreed with our recommendations.