In theory, law-abiding Californians who undergo a criminal background check and pass a government training course can receive a permit from their local sheriff to carry a concealed firearm.
But in practice, many California counties flatly deny permits to residents who meet the requirements for a concealed carry permit -- a situation that a lawsuit filed in federal court in Sacramento on Tuesday hopes to remedy.
The lawsuit filed by the Second Amendment Foundation and the Calguns Foundation says the routine denials of concealed carry permits violate the right to bear arms protected by the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
One of the plaintiffs is Deanna Sykes, a lesbian and a firearms instructor who says she believes her sexual orientation and small stature make her a target for criminals. Another is Andrew Witham, a private investigator and campus public safety officer, whose local sheriff denied his request to carry a handgun while away from work.
The case "presents a very simple legal issue: people have the right to bear arms," Alan Gura, a Virginia attorney representing the plaintiffs, told CBSNews.com on Wednesday. "The state is able to regulate that right, but it cannot arbitrarily deny the right to bear arms based on the whims of local officials. The current law has absolutely no standards to it, and some local officials regrettably abuse their discretion. They decide self-defense is not a valid reason to deny the gun carry permit."
Section 12050 of California law says that "the sheriff of a county, upon proof that the person applying is of good moral character" may issue a concealed carry permit. Californians who carry a concealed weapon without a license are subject to criminal penalties including fines and a one-year jail term. (Nearly every state has some form of concealed carry laws, with 36 states saying that sheriffs must issue them by default, and two states -- Alaska and Vermont -- require no advance permission.)
What the pro-gun rights groups that filed this lawsuit hope to do is apply the U.S. Supreme Court's reasoning in the landmark D.C. v. Heller case decided last year. Even though Heller focused on the firearm restrictions of the nation's capital, by recognizing a constitutional right protecting individual possession of firearms, the justices expressed a dim view of sweeping prohibitions on Americans' Second Amendment rights.
Gura said that he knew of no case filed since the Supreme Court's decision that has led to a definitive ruling about how Heller applies to concealed carry permits.
A map prepared by the CalCCW.com site shows that the more liberal counties around San Francisco and Los Angeles tend to be the ones that deny permits to regular citizens. A 2007 report from the state of California shows that the county of San Francisco, for instance, issued only six permits that year -- while the rural, wooded, and far less populous county of Shasta issued 2,306 permits.
A bill titled AB 357 introduced in the California legislature in February would remove some discretion from local officials if the applicant for a permit qualified for one. (The city of Davis, for instance, tells applicants: "An evaluation and comparison of our current services to available resources has forced us to discontinue processing and issuing CCW [Carry Concealed Weapon] licenses. I apologize for the inconvenience this action will cause you.")
Last month, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Fourteenth Amendment -- which required states to offer freedoms found in the Bill of Rights such as a jury trial -- protects an individual right to keep and bear arms. That decision is important because it means extreme state laws violate the Second Amendment as much as extreme federal laws would, and it is binding on the Sacramento court where the lawsuit was filed this week.
Representatives of the defendants in this case, Sacramento county and Yolo county, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.