S.F. is being forced to permit concealed guns. But it hasn’t issued a single permit as fight continues

San Francisco private investigator Andrew Solow’s applications for a concealed carry permit have been denied.

San Francisco private investigator Andrew Solow’s applications for a concealed carry permit have been denied.

Gabrielle Lurie / The Chronicle

The first time private investigator Andrew Solow applied for a permit to carry a concealed gun in public, some 30 years ago, he thought he had a strong case: He’d been attacked by gang members with baseball bats not far from his home in the Mission District, and only survived, he said, thanks to two cans of pepper spray.

But his application was denied. A few years later, he tried again, with the same result.

His experience is hardly unique. For decades, San Francisco has routinely turned away applications for concealed-carry weapon permits, known as CCWs, by citing a requirement that residents show “good cause” to need a gun for self-defense. And in San Francisco, where the last gun store closed in 2015, no cause has been judged good enough.

Now the city must change its approach, much to the distress of gun control advocates, after a U.S. Supreme Court decision in June that found good-cause requirements violate the Second Amendment. Places with strict gun laws like San Francisco have since seen a surge of CCW applications from people like Solow.

But while other counties are working through waves of applications, San Francisco has yet to grant a single permit since the court’s ruling seven months ago.

Solow reloads firearms at his home in San Francisco.

Solow reloads firearms at his home in San Francisco.

Gabrielle Lurie / The Chronicle

Officials with the Sheriff’s Department and the Police Department, both of which have seen a spike in CCW applications, maintain the delay isn’t due to opposition to the ruling, but because they’ve had to create new systems to screen applications.

“This is a new administrative process,” Sheriff’s Capt. Jamala Sanford said. “It’s taken some time to set up the administrative process so that we understand and are on the same page with everybody about the steps that have to be taken — both by the applicant and us — before we can issue or deny an actual permit.”

An SFPD spokesperson, Sgt. Adam Lobsinger, said the department “has been working diligently” to update procedures around CCW applications. The department created a new unit to process applications, he said, and has identified a vendor to conduct mandatory firearms training.

In the meantime, gun rights advocates are beginning to press the matter.

“The failure to issue even one permit — or make one denial of an application — that’s malicious and intentional,” said Solow, who has enlisted the help of an attorney who represents the California Rifle and Pistol Association. “They’re creating an interminable delay.”

In any event, San Francisco has pushed back a day of reckoning, when people can carry concealed handguns in a stronghold of anti-gun politics. And as the weeks and months pass, city and state Democratic lawmakers are still working to limit the practice.

After recent inquiries from The Chronicle, Supervisor Catherine Stefani said she plans to introduce legislation that would expand a list of “sensitive areas” where residents cannot carry hidden guns, even with a CCW permit. A similar statewide bill pushed by Democrats including Gov. Gavin Newsom fell just short of passage in August, but supporters say they will try again this year.

Stefani said she was “very concerned” about the impact of the Supreme Court decision, which is “really unraveling gun safety legislation in California and the counties.” In an analysis of past studies of concealed-carry laws published Tuesday, the nonprofit Rand Corp. said places that loosen regulations may see increased homicides.

The fight over CCWs in San Francisco is a flareup within broader tension over guns, with liberal states, counties and cities struggling to enforce tougher laws they see as critical to lowering gun violence and confronting mass shootings. Lawmakers in these places are facing a steep climb in gun sales and a conservative Supreme Court with an expansive view of the right to bear arms.

Local discretion over CCWs has often generated controversy. While San Francisco rarely granted them, some sheriffs in more rural counties granted them to just about anybody who asked. Meanwhile, some officials came under scrutiny for giving permits to celebrities, donors and political allies. In November a jury impeached former Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith for, among other things, allegedly fast-tracking permits in exchange for campaign donations.

For decades, San Francisco’s stance on CCWs was widely known but rarely contested. In 1995, the city granted 13 concealed-carry permits, according to records obtained by The Chronicle. The permit holders included three Superior Court judges, a retired U.S. Army general and several attorneys and investigators.

By 2014, fewer than 10 people had the permits in San Francisco, The Chronicle reported at the time. Sheriff Paul Miyamoto, who took office in January 2020, hasn’t yet issued one. It’s not clear whether any are currently issued in the city; the Police Department did not respond to requests for that information.

Solow says the first two times he applied for a permit to carry a concealed gun in public, his application was denied.

Solow says the first two times he applied for a permit to carry a concealed gun in public, his application was denied.

Gabrielle Lurie / The Chronicle

But in June, the Supreme Court ruled that New York’s requirement that permit holders show “proper cause,” or a “special need for self-protection,” was unconstitutional. The court ruled that the provision left out citizens “with ordinary self-defense needs.” The Second Amendment “is not a ‘second-class’ right,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote.

California’s “good cause” requirement was similar to the one struck down. Gun-rights activists in the state declared the ruling a long-overdue victory, while advocates for gun control warned the decision could lead to irresponsible and dangerous people carrying weapons in public, including in schools and on public transit.

“There are certain policies that we would understand and support … to make sure people carrying weapons have been screened and trained,” said Christian Heyne, vice president of policy and programs at the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. “At the end of the day, we’re just trying to create a scenario where people carrying loaded weapons in public aren’t endangering others who have a right not to be shot.”

Responding to the court ruling, Sheriff Miyamoto released a statement saying that “more guns in the community does not mean the community is more safe,” but indicated he would abide by the law. SFPD later posted a notice on its website saying that “per the Supreme Court ruling in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen, the good cause requirement is no longer required and will not be considered.”

California responded by advising local governments to closely scrutinize applicants’ “moral character” as a way to limit permits while obeying the court. Attorney General Rob Bonta said police agencies could consider applicants’ criminal records and mental health histories, as well as evidence of “trustworthiness, diligence, reliability, respect for the law, integrity, candor... respect for the rights of others, absence of hatred and racism.”

In other states favoring gun restrictions, including New York and New Jersey, lawmakers responded to the court ruling by establishing “sensitive” areas like libraries, museums and bars where CCW holders were barred from bringing weapons. But it’s unclear whether these efforts — which are similar to what Stefani plans to propose — will hold: On Monday, a federal court granted a temporary restraining order against New Jersey’s law, ruling it was too broad.

The California law that failed to pass in August, SB918, would have prohibited gun-carrying in “sensitive” areas such as courts, hospitals, airports, churches, parks, bars and public transit. Current state law already singles out courthouses, polling locations, school campuses, gun shows, child care centers and government buildings. The law was narrowly defeated after its author added an emergency clause — so it would take effect immediately upon Newsom’s signature — that required a two-thirds majority to pass.

The law also would have required local law enforcement to make sure applicants were “qualified,” through a lengthy process that included interviews, character references and attempts to determine whether permit seekers were a danger to themselves or others.

What is clear now is that any change in the law will affect a growing number of CCW holders. Following the Supreme Court decision, the surge of applications was immediate.

In June, then-Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva said the number of concealed-carry permits could rise from 3,145 to more than 50,000, as his department shifted from a “may-issue” to a “shall-issue” standard.

In San Diego County, officials said, more than 4,100 of the 6,900 people who applied for permits in 2022 did so after the Supreme Court ruling. Applications jumped as well in Alameda County, where Sheriff’s Lt. Ray Kelly said his agency received about 1,500 applications after the ruling — a number he said was “logistically very challenging.”

And in Contra Costa County, the Sheriff’s Office that once received about 20 concealed-carry applications a month now receives “several hundred,” and has a backlog of over 1,000 applications, spokesperson Jimmy Lee said in November.

The trend in San Francisco is similar, if more modest. In the past, the Sheriff’s Department and the Police Department have reported receiving only a few CCW applications a year. But in the three months after the Bruen decision, the police force received more than 100 applications, public records show.

Sheriff’s Capt. Sanford said his office has also received calls from residents under the mistaken belief that the agency issues licenses allowing firearms possession.

“Our focus moving forward is to educate the public on what it really means,” he said. “People are confused. … They think this is a permit to get a gun, and it’s not. It’s to carry the gun.”

According to the Police Department’s current policies, CCW licenses may be issued to city residents for a period not exceeding two years. Applicants must be at least 21 and pass both a psychological test administered by an SFPD-approved psychologist and a departmental background investigation, while completing a 16-hour, department-approved firearms training course. The requirements are seen as in line with the Supreme Court decision.

One of the applicants to the Police Department is Solow, 68, who is also known in San Francisco for his complaints about the noise generated by the Outside Lands concert in Golden Gate Park. He said he wants a permit for simple reasons: He hasn’t forgotten being assaulted in the ’90s, he worries about his safety as a private investigator, and the law is on his side.

“It’s part and parcel of why people want to defend themselves,” Solow said. “The government doesn’t do it. In an emergency, how long do you think you really have? Thirty seconds? Fifteen seconds? I don’t know. But the police aren’t going to be there to help. They’re going to show up after and inspect your dead body.”

Five months after applying for a permit, Solow said he’s no closer to obtaining one.

If San Francisco denies permits to applicants like him, lawsuits are expected to follow, and Stefani’s legislation would likely bring challenges as well. Additional delay may send the matter to court, anyway.

“You have not significantly moved to comply with Bruen in the nearly three months since the Court’s ruling,” the California Pistol and Rifle Association wrote in a letter to San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott in September. “If you continue to delay the issuance of concealed carry permits in violation of the law … CRPA is giving notice that legal action will be taken against these violations.”

St. John Barned-Smith is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: stjohn.smith@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @stjbs