What's 'good cause' to carry a concealed gun?
A federal appeals court ruled that California may restrict permits for concealed carry firearms, requiring applicants to show 'good cause' for their weapon.
Rogelio V. Solis/AP
In California, where gun-control laws are among the country's most restrictive, local concealed-carry ordinances have survived a major challenge in a case that could make its way to the Supreme Court, potentially becoming one of the first major gun cases heard by the high court since District of Columbia v. Heller in 2008.
The 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 7 to 4 on Thursday that municipal authorities can oblige gun owners to obtain a permit in order to carry concealed weapons. In the majority opinion, Judge William Fletcher wrote that the Second Amendment "does not preserve or protect a right of a member of the general public to carry concealed firearms in public."
The case saw gun owners in San Diego and Yolo counties, backed by the California National Rifle and Pistol Association, contesting denials of their applications for concealed-carry permits, which require the applicant to demonstrate "good cause" for their weapons, beyond general self-defense. The plaintiffs sought to have the requirement struck down as unconstitutional.
In a 2010 affidavit filed by the manager of the sheriff's licensing office in San Diego, the office said the application of the lead plaintiff had been denied because he had not provided documentation proving that he had "good cause," perhaps the most difficult of California's permit requirements. Applicants must also complete a training course and be "of good moral character."
After the ruling, the plaintiffs' legal team floated the possibility of appealing to the Supreme Court in comments to CNN, though experts are split on whether the Supreme Court might accept the case, called Peruta v. County of San Diego.
Without a replacement for Justice Antonin Scalia, who died in February, the case could risk a split 4-to-4 bench at the Supreme Court. Justice Scalia wrote the majority opinion for District of Columbia v. Heller, a major gun rights case that ruled that citizens do have the right to own guns, but that the right is not unlimited.
For some gun rights activists, permit restrictions like California's are considered an undue burden on the right to firearms – particularly because the state bans open carry firearms.
Rules in some California counties, each of which can define "good cause" for themselves, amount to "a total ban on the right of an ordinary citizen to carry a firearm in public for self-defense," Judge Consuelo M. Callahan wrote in her dissent.
"Good cause" laws only exist in a handful of states, and they tend to be less popular among the public than other forms of controls, according to Daniel Webster, a professor and researcher at the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research.
"I do think they are effective," Dr. Webster tells The Christian Science Monitor. "Allowing discretion when you issue permits based on, for instance, 'good cause,' does seem to be protective," he says, while noting that they are some of the most contentious gun policies.
In the affidavit, the sheriff's office in San Diego – where guidelines are similar to those of Yolo County – defined "good cause" as "a set of circumstances that distinguish the applicant from the mainstream and causes him or her to be placed in harm's way," adding that "simply fearing for one's personal safety alone is not considered good cause."
Applications in San Diego break down into four general categories: law enforcement personnel, security personnel, business owners whose occupation puts them at risk – a category broad enough to include doctors, chief executive officers, "employees and volunteers" – and those who can demonstrate they are a target because of documented threats.
Those categories were set by a judge in San Diego district court as part of a 1987 case in which the San Diego Union-Tribune sued the sheriff's department, seeking the names of concealed-weapon permit holders. The newspaper had sought to find out if then-sheriff John Duffy – a polemic figure who had come under fire from the local press amid allegations of abuse in the county's jails – was only granting permits to Republicans, whites or his supporters, according to a San Diego Digest article from that year.
Many advocates supporting concealed carry rights argue their position on grounds of personal freedoms and self-defense. Some, however, also argue that public safety improves when private citizens can wear firearms. Right-to-carry proponents found major backing from a 1997 paper by economists John Lott and David Mustard, later expanded and released as a book titled "More Guns, Less Crime." The study concluded that "allowing citizens to carry concealed weapons deters violent crimes and it appears to produce no increase in accidental deaths."
Subsequent research, however, has increasingly reflected the opposite, argues Webster. He points to the surging trade in crack cocaine during that period – and related changes in rates of gun violence in certain states – as a important, unaccounted-for variable in the 1997 study.
Newer research associating more gun violence with concealed-carry, he argues, "has become far more important when thinking about violence," acquiring greater currency among scientists who study the topic.
"So, I think [the ruling] is a very important decision."