NEAR Sacramento, in the small delta town of Isleton, amiable Police Chief Eugene Byrd is issuing permits for carrying concealed weapons to any adult who doesn't have a criminal record, who is willing to be fingerprinted, and who will take a gun-safety course.
Chief Byrd's two-man force has been deluged with 2,000 inquiries.
Not far away in Stockton, Calif., the city where 34 children were shot in a schoolyard by an armed gunman in 1989, the opposite sentiment reigns: the fewer guns the better. Two weeks ago the city council, voting by a 6-to-1 margin, refused to pass a law that would have allowed most residents to carry a concealed weapon.
The push and pull in California over the right to carry concealed handguns mirrors the increasingly heated debate occurring between pro- and anti-gun forces in many other states.
* In Arizona, the Department of Public Safety has issued 12,800 permits since September for people to carry concealed weapons in their pockets, a purse, or a back pack. Before that the state allowed those with permits to carry weapons only in plain sight.
* In Washington State, 45,000 concealed-weapon permits were issued between October 1993 and October 1994.
* In Texas in a recent poll by the Houston Post, 48 percent of those polled said they favored a proposal to allow concealed weapons to be carried by adults with no felony convictions or history of mental illness; 51 percent opposed. Gov.-elect George W. Bush favors citizens carrying handguns and says he will sign a bill for a concealed-handgun law.
``People are fed up'' with violence in society, Chief Byrd says, ``and want the right to defend themselves.'' But critics charge that weapons appearing more and more on the hips of Americans will turn communities into armed camps.
Across the US, registration for handguns is on the rise. So are efforts to approve permits for adults to carry concealed handguns day or night. Starting in Florida in 1987, 13 states now allow permits for adults to carry concealed weapons.
One of the results of concern about violence in the US is a sharp disagreement: Those people who are afraid of violence say they want to carry concealed handguns for personal safety, yet those who advocate banning handguns insist banning would increase personal safety and reduce fear.
``Make it a consumer-protection issue,'' says John Calhoun, executive director of the National Crime Prevention Council. ``Don't worry about banning guns. Just say, `Okay, you can own a handgun or an assault weapon, but you've got to get a license and be tested just like getting a driver's license. And if somebody gets killed with your gun, you and your insurance company are as liable as you can be.'''
Sacramento County Sheriff Glen Craig, critical of the way Chief Byrd issues permits, says studies indicate that in California people carrying concealed weapons are all too likely to accidently shoot themselves or someone else.
He cites 1991 state statistics revealing that 551 children and teens were accidentally shot and that gunshot wounds were the leading cause of injury-related deaths in California, passing auto accidents for the first time.
``I question these state statistics because they don't pay attention to US Justice Department statistics,'' says William Gladish, a California representative of the Law Enforcement Alliance of America, a lobbying organization in Virginia for police officers across the US.
``The claim is that if you carry a firearm you are more likely to be hurt by it,'' he says. ``Yet two times as many people are killed by surgical misadventures in the US than are killed accidently by firearms. And in Florida, where restrictions for carrying handguns were relaxed, the homicide rate dropped by 17.5 percent between 1987 and 1991.''
Meanwhile, California state Sen. Patrick Johnson says he will introduce legislation early next year to restrict rural police chiefs from issuing gun permits without a showing of real necessity, traditionally the standard for law-enforcement authorities to grant permits. Applicants have usually carried weapons for business reasons to protect valuables, or they have demonstrated a danger to them or their family, such as being stalked.
Chief Byrd has issued 215 concealed weapons permits, a disproportionate amount for a town of 900, and many permits have gone to people not living in the town. Carrying a concealed weapon without a permit in California is either a felony or a misdemeanor, depending on the person's criminal record.
Seven gun-making companies in Southern California made nearly 80 percent of all the small-caliber handguns - ``Saturday-night specials'' - sold in the US in 1992, according to a study released in September by a researcher at the University of California at Davis. Both Los Angeles Police Chief Willie Williams and L.A. County Sheriff Sherman Block favor a nationwide ban on the sale of the small handguns.