If you’ve never had your handgun or pistol permit denied by your local police chief, you probably aren’t aware of the state Board of Firearm Permit Examiners.
In Connecticut, obtaining a permit to carry a handgun is a two-step process. First, you must apply with your local police chief or resident state trooper. The application process includes fingerprinting, a background check, and a questionnaire. The local police chief or resident state trooper has eight weeks to either approve or deny the application.
If the application is denied, then the individual can appeal to the Board of Firearm Permit Examiners.
But local police chiefs have recently expressed reservations about the seven-member board, which some feel may not be taking the decisions of the police chiefs seriously enough.
Cromwell Police Chief Anthony Salvatore said he’s been successful both times he’s been before the board, but his colleagues in the Connecticut Police Chief’s Association have expressed concern.
“There are other police chiefs who haven’t done as well as I have,” Salvatore said. “But every case is different.”
Unlike in big cities where the responsibility of reviewing permit applications and background information often is done by detectives, Salvatore said he is the deciding authority in his community.
“I personally review them, but by the time it gets to my desk our staff has located any state records, checked the FBI database, and sometimes have re-interviewed individuals to clear up any discrepancies,” Salvatore said.
South Windsor Police Chief Matthew Reed told the legislature’s gun task force Monday that a lot of police chiefs get upset when their decisions are overturned by the board.
“They feel they are making decisions that they think are best held at the local level,” Reed said.
The police chiefs are supporting legislation proposed by Sen. Majority Leader Martin Looney, who is calling for the elimination of the Board of Firearm Permit Examiners.
“Sometimes it tilts too much toward issuing permits,” Looney said. “I think it should be eliminated or substantially changed.”
Over the last two years, 660 appeals came before the board. Of those, 346 appeals ended with permits being issued in favor of the appellants while 314 ended in permits being denied in favor of the issuing authorities.
But Reed said he doesn’t know if eliminating the board is the best option. He said that when the chiefs have to defend their decisions in front of the board, a lot of the discussion boils down to a vague definition of “suitability” for the permit in the state statute.
Reed said there may be information in an application that the police chief would like to use in making a decision. But because of privacy laws, police chiefs aren’t allowed to ask for things like employment, school, or health records.
That’s why the chiefs also are recommending broadening the definition of “suitability” because, up until now, if a chief demands the release of employment or school records an individual can deny them that information.
The chiefs also told the committee that the only time mental health information shows up on the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System is when a person is involuntarily committed through the probate court system. If a person voluntarily commits themselves to seek mental health treatment and then applies for a gun permit, there’s a good chance the police chief approving the permit will never know about the voluntary commitment, Reed said.
He said much of the application process relies upon the applicant self-reporting the information.
Reed said a person recently called to tell him one of their co-workers was walking around with a target talking about how he plans on getting his gun permit. Reed found out where the person lived and called the police chief in that town to warn them the person may have voluntarily sought mental health treatment. The chief called and the applicant admitted he had received treatment and withdrew his application.
The police chief in that town “had no idea there had been any psychological history behind it,” Reed said. “How perfect was the timing to say here are the kinds of folks who can slip through the system? So now you asked the question: How do we figure out that information?”
“I don’t know,” Reed said.
What if police chiefs were publish the names of individuals applying for permits?
“So that the public could actually help the police vet some of the candidates,” Reed suggested. “I think we all know people in our lives who probably shouldn’t have guns.”
Rep. Rosa Rebimbas, R-Naugatuck, said she didn’t think that was such a good idea because people could manipulate the system and try to get people into trouble. She said that already happens with the Department of Children and Families.
She wondered if there was anything on the application regarding mental health status.
“Have you been confined in a hospital for mental illness in the past 12 months by order of a probate court?” the application reads.
But Salvatore warned that they also don’t want to stigmatize people who seek mental health treatment. He said disclosing that information should not automatically mean a person is denied a gun permit.
Craig Fishbein, a Wallingford attorney who is one of the seven members of the Board of Firearm Permit Examiners, said he doesn’t believe the board arbitrarily denies the police chiefs’ appeals. He said that it is often the case that more information becomes available and many times the chief ends up granting the application before the board even gets a chance to hear it.
He said Looney’s legislation ignores the fact that if the police chief believes the board made the wrong decision it can appeal it to Superior Court.
“Part of the issue there is cost,” Looney said.
In these tight fiscal times, municipalities may not want to be using their resources to appeal gun permits. But Fishbein says that ignores the reality that municipalities can appeal to Superior Court, just like the appellant can if they feel they were wrongly denied by the board.
As for leniency, Fishbein said the board recently denied an applicant a permit because of an incident that happened 13 years ago. He said the incident was “distressing” enough to lead to the board to deny the permit even though it had occurred so long ago.
There are other checks and balances in the system already.
Fishbein said a police chief can even go to a judge and get a warrant to seize a firearm from an individual who has not committed any crimes, but who is displaying signs they may have become mentally unstable.
According to a 2009 Office of Legislative Research report, police departments applied for 277 court warrants and seized more than 2,000 guns from October 1999 to May 2009.
“It’s proof we have a system in place that is working at some level,” Fishbein said.
He said allowing the appeals to be heard directly by the courts would bog down an already overburdened judicial system.
But Looney, who lives in a community where handguns are a bigger problem than assault weapons, believe something needs to be done.
“If it is to be preserved I think we should take a fresh look at who should be on it,” Looney said, referring to the members of the board.
According to state statute, the seven board members are appointed by the governor. Five of the seven are nominated by the Commissioner of Public Safety, the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association, the Commissioner of Environmental Protection, the Connecticut State Rifle and Revolver Association Inc., and a group called Ye Connecticut Gun Guild Inc. The other two seats are members of the public and at least one member of the Board “shall be a lawyer licensed to practice in Connecticut, who shall act as Chairman of the Board during the hearing of appeals.”
Looney and other lawmakers have suggested adding a mental health professional or changing the basic makeup of the board.
In Connecticut, only handguns and pistols require permits. Long guns and rifles do not require permits, but without a hunting permit there could be up to a two-week wait to purchase one.