We recently asked the Humboldt County Sheriff's Office for the names of all of the people holding a permit to carry a concealed weapon (CCW) in this county.
Why did we ask for this list? Call it curiosity sparked by the recent Supreme Court ruling overriding Washington, D.C.'s ban on private ownership of handguns, in which the court decided once and for all that the words in the Second Amendment, "the right to keep and bear arms," define an individual's right, not just that of a well-regulated militia.
Or call it pure nosiness -- an "invasion of privacy," one CCW permit holder told us, in a calm, patient voice.
We call it exercising our rights under the First Amendment as well as the California Public Records Act. A CCW permit in California allows a person to carry on his or her person, or in a car, a concealed, loaded handgun. You don't need a CCW permit to keep a gun in your house. You also don't need one to openly carry a gun in unincorporated areas (but who'd want to do that?) or to have one, unloaded and locked away, in your car. But, just so you know, in California even with a CCW permit you can't carry a loaded firearm into a bar, within 1,000 feet of a K-12 school, or into a public building like a courthouse.
More interestingly, it's a way to take the pulse of the generally law-abiding portion of the community (for, there's no telling how many people out there are packing without a permit; in Humboldt it's probably a pretty damned high number). How many of us feel the need to carry a concealed weapon? And why?
The number of CCW permit holders in gun-tolerant Humboldt has fluctuated over the years, but it's always been high up on the per-capita list -- at one time second only to gun-encouraging Kern County. According to a state Department of Justice report on the number of CCW permits in California counties between 1987 and 2007, Humboldt's count rose steadily from 387 in 1987 to 794 in 1993, then jumped to a high of 1,439 in 1994. In 1995, the number of CCW permits in the county dropped to 1,339, and in 1997 there were 977. By 2003, the number of CCW permits hit another peak, 1,247, then tapered off in years after that, to 1,031 in 2007. As of late August 2008, there were 652 CCW permit holders in the county. The count could change, as permits are good for two years and some may expire while others get issued or are renewed.
Humboldt County Sheriff's Office Records Supervisor Melva Paris and three other staffers put the list together for us, hand-pulling files and typing up the names of 652 permit holders and the number and type of guns they're packing (you're allowed up to three guns on the permit, the serial numbers of which get printed on it). Eleven of the CCW permit holders remain confidential, said Paris, because their stated cause for wanting to pack a gun (such as having a stalker, for instance) indicates they could be endangered if identified.
Looking at the list, one thing is immediately apparent: Having a CCW permit in Humboldt is very much a family thing. There are oodles of couples packing. Packs of siblings. Mom-dad-and-offspring groupings. There are also great quantities of Republicans, a generous dollop of Democrats, and a sprinkling of Greens and assorted others. There are people many of us know. A retired police chief. School employees. Lots of real estate agents. Judges. A garbage company owner. A pastor. Gun dealers. Government workers. Caltrans employees. A harbor commissioner. An HSU professor. Letter-to-the-editor writers. Activists. Our sales manager, Mike Herring (who, we hasten to add, does not pack while on Journal business). Shopkeeps. A famous tennis player. Artists and mechanics. A man who shares the name of that musician who, legend has it, found himself at a crossroads one day and sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for some serious chops. A deputy D.A. A sitar player. A loan officer.
They mostly seem like ordinary folks. Still, something makes them different from those of us who don't carry a concealed weapon.
To get a CCW permit a person has to pass muster with the local Sheriff, whose job it is to decide who gets a CCW permit and who doesn't. CCW laws differ from county to county and even more from state to state. In Los Angeles County, gun people say it's next to impossible to get a CCW permit. But in rural counties such as Humboldt, which Sheriff's Lt. Michael Thomas said has been called a "rifle-rack community," it's easier.
You do need to be a Humboldt County resident, a non-criminal (no conviction within the past 10 years), stable of mind, of "good moral character," not on any psyche meds or under the influence of any other drugs, at least 21 years old, able to pass the shooting test (shoot 50 rounds and hit the target dead-on with 40 of those, at a distance of 45 feet), and able to show a good cause for wanting to carry a concealed weapon. And, said Lt. Thomas, who interviewed applicants for a couple of years, you have to show you know the laws regarding gun ownership and gun violence.
Thomas said most applicants have done their research. But he likes to stress to them the possible ramifications of carrying a gun around. What if an attacker grabs it from you? What if you drop it and it goes off?
"You have to ask yourself: Do I really understand if I pull that gun out and point it at somebody, I could change at least two people's lives forever?" said Thomas. "That's scary. The potential there is life-ending or life-changing. And kids at home -- handguns in the house. If you're going to carry a concealed weapon, you're obviously going to have it in your home somewhere. And kids can find anything. If you hide something, they'll find it. ... That scares me to death."
Thomas said the most common causes people give for wanting a permit is for personal protection -- in places where there might be a long response time by the Sheriff's office, or while hiking, or while carrying large sums of money. Most aren't planning to pack all the time. He said he only rejected a couple of otherwise eligible applicants because of something they said in the interview.
"One guy was just so honest with me that he wanted to be there for law enforcement whenever it was needed -- ‘I want to be there for you guys,'" said Thomas. "He actually pretty much saw the light, so to speak, and he actually praised me for explaining to him why maybe he didn't actually need one and how that would put him in a very liable situation."
Of course, said Thomas, some people don't bother to get a permit to carry. Maybe they don't want to pay the $170 application fee. Maybe they think it's nobody's business.
Still, it's better if they get the permit, he said. If you're caught carrying without one, the gun is seized and you face possible jail time and a fine.
Some of the CCW permit holders we called weren't happy about it. One, a pastor, warned: "Be careful what you say -- you might get bit."
Another CCWer said we couldn't use his name, but he wanted to say that he thought the actual physical part of the application process -- where you shoot the gun and display your familiarity with it to a trainer -- could be more thorough. A woman who used to ride her bicycle alone a lot into remote country, who also asked that we not use her name, shared that she first got a permit 10 years ago after serial killer Wayne Adam Ford turned himself in at the Humboldt County Sheriff's Office, bringing with him the severed breast of a woman. "That really scared me," she said.
Others, some reservedly and others goodnaturedly, agreed to talk. And at least one guy, David Elsebusch, said he thought the story might even motivate other people to get a concealed carry permit. "Everyone has a right to defend himself," he said.
And now, a few of our local CCW permit holders:
If you've been to a public meeting -- county supervisors, perhaps, or the harbor commission -- you likely know David and Penny Elsebusch. The McKinleyville citizens have been vociferously active in community dialogue ever since they moved up to Humboldt from Los Angeles and found themselves appalled by what David characterizes as shockingly slipshod government demeanor.
They're a dynamic couple -- David's a Republican who may have been leaning sort of Obama-way but now vows gleefully that he's going to be voting for "that gun-toting Palin!"
"Are you kidding me?" he said the other day on the phone. "She should be on top of the ticket! Don't even think about anybody else. I'm serious. I'm voting for the maverick reformer. ... In fact, I want to find a McCain/Palin sticker and cut it so that Palin is on top."
Penny, a Democrat, got on the phone and said she doesn't vote party line, but, still, she guesses they're "going to have different campaign signs on the lawn."
The Elsebusches both first got their Humboldt CCW permits 10 years ago -- they'd have had CCW permits in Los Angeles, too, if they could have. Twice their home was burgled down there -- one time, said David, he wasn't sure if the burglars were still there when he got home. And Penny had a couple of scary close encounters with carjackers while leaving her office at night.
They both belong to the National Rifle Association and the California Rifle and Pistol Association. But neither grew up around guns. They're not into competitive gun sports. And they certainly don't hunt.
"I'm not a Humboldter in the sense that so many people just love to go out there, they get all drooly about the thought of going out there to find some innocent animal and cause it to suffer and die," said David. "And I'm an animal lover, so, why would you do that?"
However, David did qualify as an expert marksman while he was in bootcamp with the Marine Corps in the 1950s. He was even assigned to coach fellow recruits on how to fire firearms.
The Elsebusches each are permitted to carry the same two firearms. One is a .22-caliber Beretta semi-automatic that's generally Penny's -- "a little bitsy thing; I can carry it in my hand and you can't see it," she said. The other is a .38-caliber Smith & Wesson revolver with a two-inch barrel, a bigger gun that's generally David's.
David and Penny said they carry concealed not so much for burglars, however, but because of the nature of their jobs. Penny is a real estate agent, and David is a licensed private investigator and an independent insurance adjuster.
"So, the type of assignments that I have, which would include sometimes surveillance, can be a little dangerous if someone is thinking you're stalking them and they're the kind of person that you don't want to meet on the street," said David. "If I have an assignment and I know I'm going to go into Southern Humboldt to some rural location and investigate some matter, that's when I would want to carry. Particularly during marijuana time. If I'm going to the city of Eureka and investigating, I don't bother with it, that's not an issue."
Penny said she hasn't carried her gun in years, actually. These days she's mostly in town, working with people she knows. But she keeps her CCW permit renewed and may carry still on rural trips by herself.
"Because I've always remembered a gal who was driving a bright red car," she said. "They found her car on 299, and they have never found her. That's why I decided to get a concealed weapon. Something happened to her car, and whoever stopped to help her certainly did not."
On a recent afternoon at Ron and Donna Queen's real estate office on Main Street in Fortuna, Donna was dabbing a soft sage-colored paint onto one of the walls -- they're sprucing the old place up and converting the walls into gallery space. Her husband, Ron, was fielding calls from clients. Donna went to clean the brushes, and Ron gave a quick tour into another room to show where they plan to hang some of their photographs, including ones of sea creatures taken while scuba diving off La Paz and Cozumel. "We go to Mexico every year," said Ron.
Ron and Donna Queen are Republicans. They're voting for McCain. Ron, 59, has lived in Humboldt County for 35 years, and Donna, 50, for 17 years. Ron moved to Humboldt after he graduated from Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo. Donna moved up here from San Diego. Donna's had her CCW permit for about 15 years, and Ron's had his 26 years. Donna's license is for a revolver, and Ron's for a revolver and a semi-automatic. Ron has a son who has a CCW permit, but he didn't want to be interviewed.
Ron, not very tall, blue-eyed and with short white hair, was wearing jeans cinched by a belt with a massive oval belt buckle that said "Champion" on it. Years ago he trained horses for a living, and he had one special quarter horse that won the High Point All Around Horse. Donna, tall, blonde and hazel-eyed, also wore jeans and a crisp white blouse.
Both grew up around guns. Ron spent his early years in Illinois, then later lived in Bakersfield. His dad trained bird dogs and kept the hunting rifles in Ron's closet. "When I was 5 years old I had a BB gun and a dog," said Ron. "We lived out in the country. That's all I had to play with."
Donna's dad also hunted. "I was going out with him since I was 10 or 11," she said. "My kids grew up with guns, too. My son has 'em. He hunts. Our grandkids are learning how to shoot. So, it's a family tradition."
"In order for a gun to hurt somebody, somebody has to pull the trigger," Ron said suddenly, sensing a possible argument. "Guns aren't dangerous. People are."
Ron used to take his Smith & Wesson .38-caliber horsepacking: "Something big enough to stop something big."
These days he and Donna don't hunt much. "We stalk animals to photograph them, now," said Donna.
But they still want to be able to carry a concealed weapon to protect themselves against bad characters. They live in a rural area near Hydesville, where Ron said it could take the Sheriff's department a long time to respond to a call for help.
"You drive in the driveway, you don't know who's going to be there," he said. "My parents have been robbed. One of my college roommates came home to a guy in the house; he lived in a rural area."
And sometimes their work takes them into sketchy places.
"One guy I met, he told me to put my camera away," said Donna. "I was meeting him to refinance his house, and I was told not to take my camera out till we got to his house."
"I got caught between growers and a CAMP raid one time," said Ron. "We had a client that had foreclosed on a 40-acre piece out in the Alderpoint area. And we were out wandering around, and a bunch of helicopters come in with CAMP, and we get back out on the road and there were guys checking our vehicle out. They had assault rifles, and they were not police. We got the hell out of there."
Ron also has had trouble in town. He's been representing the people trying to sell a church on Wabash in Eureka that was in the headlines earlier this year when a group called "Redwood Teen Challenge" wanted to house recovering adult addicts in it. That fell through; now the building's in escrow again and still sits vacant.
"One time I walked in there and there were people ripping wires out of the wall," Ron said. "I didn't know who they were. I thought they were somebody from the church cleaning, and I had no idea they had broken in. ... And there's a guy running through the hallways upstairs carrying a bunch of wire. I was quoted in the newspaper as saying, ‘I don't show up there without a gun anymore.'"
Ron said he and Donna also drive Highway 36 to Oroville frequently to visit his parents.
"I've seen some scary things out there on Highway 36," said Ron. "I remember years ago there was a lady, on a Sunday morning, walking down the highway in a short skirt trying to hitchhike. It was like, ‘What the hell are you doing out here?' You never know if somebody's going to jump out of the bushes if you pull over to help somebody. That was the first thing that came to my mind."
One evening last week, as sun approached ocean beyond Clam Beach, Stephanie and Craig Casey sat on the back porch of their home in McKinleyville. Cats, theirs and assorted strays, sauntered in and out of the yard. One crept close to where they sat then stopped, frozen, staring up into the jungly overgrowth of the neighbor's yard where some apple trees slowly drowned in blackberry vines: A rat was scurrying along a treelimb amid the apples.
The Caseys, both Republicans, are pretty much immersed in guns. Craig, 47, who was born in Arcata and grew up in McKinleyville, owns Craig Casey Gunsmithing. Mostly he just sells guns now, but he used to work on them, too, until he went to work full-time at Schmidbauer Lumber. Stephanie, 51, who works at Coast Central Credit Union, was born in Yuba City, and her family moved to Humboldt when she was a child.
"There were always guns in the house," said Stephanie. "We were taught as kids, every gun was loaded and not to touch it. And we abided by that. My dad hunted, he hunted pheasants, ducks and deer."
She's hunted most of her life, too. As has Craig. When they started dating in 1993, though, neither knew the other was into guns.
"She asked me, ‘Do you like to hunt?'" recalled Craig. He said he worried she might not like his answer, but went for it anyway. "I said, ‘Yes.' And she said, ‘Oh good! So do I.'"
But aside from Craig's gun business, which finds him making big bank deposits sometimes, the main reason the Caseys carry is to protect the valuables associated with their big hobby: cowboy action shooting, where they dress in 1860s-1900s attire and blast away with era-specific guns. "And for each stage, or scenario, you have two pistols, a rifle and a shotgun that you shoot," said Stephanie.
"With our cowboy competitions, we probably shoot more than 99 percent of the people across the country do," said Craig. "This year, we probably shot over 10,000 rounds between the two of us."
That means, at these competitions and gun shows, they're often carrying around in their car thousands of dollars worth of guns and ammunition, which some savvy crook might figure out and try to get his mitts on.
Neither Craig nor Stephanie carry their guns to their day jobs, of course. But Craig said he'd like to see a more expansive and streamlined permit system. A federal permit would be nice, so you don't have to always be checking what this or that state's carry laws are. He also said California's three-gun-per-permit limit is silly -- especially for people like them, with lots of guns. He chafes at the ban on bringing guns near school campuses, too -- what's a guy who regularly carries supposed to do when he goes to pick up his kid?
They're voting McCain. "If Obama gets in there, he's going to sign away our rights," said Stephanie.
And now we come to Al Koog. Koog, 79, lives in McKinleyville, and he's one of the half dozen or so trainers in Humboldt certified to train CCW permit applicants and assess their shooting skills. He's been doing it since 1994. He also has a CCW permit, of course.
Koog is a retired assistant fire chief from the City of Oxnard. He moved to Humboldt in 1981, although he'd been coming up here since the 1960s. He grew up on a ranch in Texas, shooting pesky tree squirrels that liked to get into the attic and tear things up; rattlesnakes that sneaked into the basement where the food was stored and scared the bejeezus out of everybody; and birds and other critters that became "basically part of the table supplement for surviving in those days," as he put it in a phone interview last week.
He's had a gun since he was a small child. That first one was a single-shot 22 with the stock sawed off to fit him.
"My grandad set me up for it when I was about almost 6," Koog said. "I was just getting ready to start school."
Koog figures he needs to have a CCW permit so he can show his trainees what one looks like. Plus, it doesn't hurt to be prepared for surprises.
"Where we live, you can step out the door and there's a bear standing there, or a rabid fox," he said. "Or you go down to open your gate to leave your property and there's a mountain lion come strolling down to visit with you. And then there are all kinds of people that roam the areas with packs on their back and they camp all over the place and you never know whether one's on your property or not. And then there's the marijuana folk, and they wander around in the rural areas."
Koog said the first thing you do -- and he makes this point very clear in his classes -- is try to back out of a tricky situation. Give the rattlesnake some room, if you can.
"I teach along the lines of, a person should use every method of avoiding any situation that they can, if they have to go on a dead run," Koog said. "There's nothing macho about having a gun."
Most of all, he preaches awareness.
"Most people walk around in, I call it a daze," Koog said. "They lack the knowledge of what's around them. Say you walk out in the morning to get the paper, and there are mud tracks along the edge of the road. Supposing it's ‘just a doe' -- that was scared out of the woods and ran down toward your clear area, trying to escape what is behind them. And there stands some unarmed human, upright, and they don't get out of the way -- it's going to run over you. Follow me? So, you can get run over by a rabbit that's running from something."
Koog likes to train women, especially -- the gun, he said, is the best equalizer between a small woman and a large adversary. But he warns "the younger ladies" about talking too much.
"One of the first things that an instructor tells them is, if you're going to conceal this in public you keep your mouth shut and nobody's supposed to know anything about it," Koog said. "Because, you tell your best girlfriend who's sittin' in the beauty shop tellin' her best girlfriend and next door is a drug dealer's girlfriend and she tells him that you have one, so they watch you and the first dark night you come out of a corner shopping center and head for your car, well, they're gonna mug you and take your gun."
Koog -- who's a Republican, and who's happy Sarah Palin has come along -- is proud of his new hobby. "I'm passing on something, that people may use down the way, before I take a dirt nap," he said.
In the NRA publication the Caseys get, Stephanie said, there are usually some personal accounts of people who ended up in situations where their concealed weapons saved their or some other victim's life.
Interestingly, it turns out that none of the people we picked to interview have ever had to pull their gun on an attacker. And, actually, none of them had ever been attacked, by animal or human, prior to getting their permit either.
But each said they'd willingly use their gun to save themselves or someone else. Which brings us back to what distinguishes the gun-packing folks from the non-gun-packing ones. At some point, the CCWers had to come to the sharp realization that there may come a time when they actually pull out that gun and kill someone.
"I'd do it in a heartbeat," is how one guy put it. Mary McCay -- who has had a CCW permit for 10 years, and whose late husband, E. Dale McCay, was in the gun-selling and training business with Al Koog -- put it another way: "Well, I'm 88 years old, and I don't play games."
So don't mess with these people.