POLICE CHIEF STICKS TO HIS GUNS IN PERMIT FRAY\Lawman's 775 concealed weapon licenses scrutinized.
Eugene Byrd, the police chief of this town of 833 people in the Sacramento River Delta, has issued 775 permits to carry concealed weapons over the last several years, generating a sizable part of the town's budget and a giant controversy.
Byrd said he issued almost 500 of the permits last year, at a cost of $150 each. In the same period, the city of Los Angeles issued 41 permits for concealed weapons while the rest of Sacramento County, of which Isleton is a tiny part, granted 48.
The chief's dedication to the right to carry hidden weapons has made him a folk hero to gun enthusiasts while sharply dividing this struggling community. And it has put him in a yearlong battle with state Attorney General Daniel Lungren, who twice put a freeze on Isleton's right to issue weapons' permits.
The battle aside, Byrd has put thousands of names on an ever-growing waiting list for weapons permits. And a group of the chief's supporters sought a court order to force Lungren to process Isleton's weapons' applications. Lungren's office had refused to carry out background checks on applications from Isleton.
On Jan. 31, Lungren, a Republican, said he would again process the chief's applications but only if he cut the price to $3 from $150. Anything higher, Lungren said in a letter, "will not only subject the city of Isleton to possible liability for those excessive fees, but may also constitute a public offense." Lungren issued a similar directive to other agencies in the state, many of which charge more than $100 for the permits.
To Byrd, regaining the right to issue the permits is a vindication, even if it might bankrupt the city.
"I still don't know that they've taken the Second Amendment away," he said, speaking of the constitutional right to carry arms. "These people are being hurt out there, they're being robbed, raped, beaten. These people don't want guns just to shoot people, but to at least have a halfway chance to protect themselves."
On one side of the argument are those who view the permits as a way to stop a municipal slide into disincorporation with an infusion of money and a ringing affirmation to the citizens of Sacramento County that they have the right to protect themselves. On the other side are those who regard the revenue as blood money and an unneeded embarrassment to the town.
"Eugene Byrd has created in Isleton a complete Wild West mentality," said Sandy Cooney, the Western regional director of Handgun Control Inc. "It makes absolutely no sense to reduce gun violence by arming more people. It truly is insane."
But the 65,000-member California Rifle and Pistol Association could not be more pleased with Byrd's position. On Feb. 17 the group is giving him its annual outstanding peace officer award, which he can place next to the "defender of freedom" plaque bestowed on him by the National Rifle Association.
"He's been doing an awful lot of work," said Jim Erdman, executive director of the pistol association. "Society is safer when criminals don't know who is armed."
People are certainly not very likely to be held up in Isleton. Last year there were no murders, shootings or armed robberies and only two muggings and four house burglaries.
Byrd's force consists of one other full-time officer and two cars, which are castoffs from another department. "We don't have any bars on our windows," the 57-year-old chief said recently in his small office, "our women don't get raped."
Still, this town 45 miles south of Sacramento is no stranger to disaster. It was a canning center with 3,000 residents early in the century before the canneries moved away, followed by two-thirds of the population. In 1972 it was mostly submerged by floods.
Indignity followed calamity last September when a Sacramento County grand jury recommended that Isleton disincorporate itself and let the county govern it because the city could not manage its affairs.
The report came on the heels of a vote by the City Council last August to increase its budget by 40 percent to $433,682, banking on a windfall that Byrd promised he could raise by selling gun permits.
In the last fiscal year, Byrd managed to collect $49,128 in weapons permit fees. When he predicted that gun revenue would hit $176,000 this year the City Council agreed to increase his department's budget by 80 percent. The chief is expecting two new squad cars any day now.
State law gives police chiefs and sheriffs the power to issue permits for concealed weapons to anyone in the county who is of good moral character, can pass a criminal background check and can demonstrate a reason for needing a gun.
Byrd requires an applicant to take a firearms safety course and a personal interview, but he concedes that he is not too strict about demanding a reason.
In January 1995, Lungren accused Byrd of abusing his authority by issuing permits to residents outside the county, and stopped processing his applications until he promised to be more rigorous. Byrd denied that he issued permits to noncounty residents.
The attorney general's office resumed processing his applications after saying he had promised to be more thorough.
Last October, however, the attorney general froze Isleton's applications again, saying that the city was charging too much. Lungren maintained that local officials could only charge $3 without passing a special voter-approved tax.
Byrd insisted the $150 charge was a processing fee, not an application fee, and a wide-spread practice by law-enforcement agencies.
Even in town the issue has been controversial, dividing the City Council, which has been split 3 to 2 on backing the chief, who was hired 1982. But one of Byrd's supporters is facing a recall election in March and the balance could easily tilt against the chief.
Photo Eugene Byrd, the police chief of Isleton, Calif., issued nearly 500 permits to carry weapons last year. The New York Times