A panel of federal judges has sent San Diego County packing. Hundreds of residents have applied to be able to carry handguns in their jackets, pockets and purses in the wake of February’s ruling that nixes strict local policies on concealed weapons permits.

But while Sheriff Bill Gore says he won’t appeal the ruling, the battle over concealed weapons in the county isn’t over.

The state attorney general is appealing the 77-page ruling, declaring that sheriffs should be able to protect public safety by judging who can get a permit. And the San Diego County sheriff’s office itself hasn’t accepted the ruling as binding: Its strict policy remains in place for now. Meanwhile, a debate’s brewing about whether it might be better to forbid concealed carry and just let gun owners walk around with their weapons in plain sight.

Here’s five things to know about concealed guns in San Diego.

Hundreds of San Diegans already have permits.

With a few exceptions, state law doesn’t allow people to carry guns in public, either openly or hidden. The state says, however, that counties and cities can grant concealed weapon permits to residents if they’re deemed to be of “good moral character” and show “good cause for the issuance of the license.”

In San Diego County, applicants must show that they need a permit because they’re members of law enforcement or need protection due to documented threats or security or business needs. The permits only apply to weapons that can be concealed on the body.

A total of 1,141 concealed weapons permits are active now, according to the Sheriff’s Department. About 10 percent of applications are denied.

What kinds of people gets concealed weapon permits in San Diego County? The sheriff’s department has been resistant to releasing the names of permit holders. But back in 2009, I obtained a list of local residents with the permits that was populated with many lawyers (including some prosecutors). Among the others: jail guards, a forensic pathologist, a dentist, a prominent pastor, mortgage agents and the president of a local chamber of commerce.

When it comes to leniency, San Diego falls in the middle.

Counties have a patchwork of approaches to issuing concealed weapons permits. “The differences can reflect the political outlook of a sheriff or police chief, or the amount of money an agency chooses to spend processing applications,” the Lodi News-Sentinel reported last year.

The disparities can be huge from county to county, especially between big urban centers along the coast and the more rural (and gun-friendly and Republican) regions inland.

For example, Fresno County, whose population is less than a third of San Diego County’s, had more than 6,200 active permits last year, according to a report by the pro-gun Calguns Foundation. Los Angeles County had a few hundred, while counties in the Bay Area each have fewer than 200, with San Francisco clocking in with just two.

San Diego County stands in the middle with its 1,141 active permits.

‘Concealed carry’ is a flashpoint in courts.

The Supreme Court could ultimately decide whether concealed permit rules violate the Constitution. For now, though, the ruling at issue comes from a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court.

Two of the judges supported the ruling, which suggests that the Second Amendment not only insists on a right to “keep” arms but also to “bear” them — essentially, to have them ready for action, and not just in the home.

There seems to be wiggle room, however, in terms of exactly how people can carry guns around: “To be clear, we are not holding that the Second Amendment requires the states to permit concealed carry,” the judges ruled. “But the Second Amendment does require that the states permit some form of carry for self-defense outside the home.”

A third judge dissented, noting that “the Supreme Court has not as yet defined the extent to which the Second Amendment applies outside the home.”

What now? It’s possible that the ruling by the panel of the 9th Circuit could be permanent. It’s not clear whether the entire court will want to rule on the case or pass and allow the panel’s ruling to stand.

With conflicting legal rulings muddying the issue, including a recent federal court ruling in New Jersey that supports its existing concealed weapon law, there’s another possibility: The U.S. Supreme Court may choose soon to decide things once and for all.

The Sheriff’s Department isn’t giving in entirely.

Gore announced last month that he won’t appeal the 9th Circuit ruling. “Law enforcement’s role is to uphold and enforce the law,” but not to make it,” he said in a statement.

But the Sheriff’s Department does seem to have discretion in one area: figuring out whether to follow the ruling for now or wait until it’s final. (The full 9th Circuit has put the ruling on hold.) 

The Sheriff’s Department has chosen the latter option: It’s waiting. New applications based on the 9th Circuit decision “are being held in abeyance until that decision becomes final,” said Donna Burns of the department’s license and registration division. In other words, they’re on hold. (She said a whopping 655 new applications have come in since the ruling.)

The Sheriff’s Department in Orange County has made the opposite choice. It’s now making it easier to get concealed-weapons permits amid a flood of applications. Under the new guidelines for permits, “an applicant needs only to say it’s necessary for self-protection or self-defense,” according to the Orange County Register.

The next battle: Carrying guns in plain view.

In recent years, California has cracked down on the “open carry” of guns after allowing it in certain situations.

As the San Diego Reader noted in 2009, open-carry rules — at that time — could be “dizzying, the restrictions numerous.” For example, you can carry a gun openly in a holster … as long as it’s not loaded, even though you can have ammunition right there. Also, “one cannot open carry 1000 feet from a school, for instance, or in the ‘sterile area’ of an airport or in a post office or a national park (though it is legal in a national forest).”

As of 2012, the state banned residents from openly carrying guns even if they aren’t loaded. Last year, open carry of shotguns and rifles became illegal in California, although some states continue to allow it.

But Adam Winkler, a professor of law at UCLA, argued in a recent Los Angeles Times commentary that allowing gun owners to carry their weapons openly — and banning concealed carrying of guns — could actually reduce the threat to the public from firearms.

The new appeals court ruling seems to allow this possibility. Winkler says it’s a good idea: “Hidden weapons is the key here. Very few gun owners want to carry openly displayed guns. The police hassle you, stores refuse to serve you and some people won’t talk to you. Criminals might even target you, seeking to steal your expensive sidearm. … Letting people tote their guns around on their hips sounds dangerous. But for those who want fewer guns on the streets, there are a million reasons to prefer open carry.”

Randy Dotinga is a freelance contributor to Voice of San Diego. Please contact him directly at randydotinga@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/rdotinga

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