A bill being considered by the Michigan legislature would eliminate county boards that review applications for concealed pistol permits. The responsibility would shift from local law enforcement to county clerks and state police, which could mean faster approval of permits, but also less thorough vetting of applicants.
“We’re opposed to the elimination of the board,” said Terrence Jungel, executive director for the Michigan Sheriffs' Association. “We like the local input by local officials who live in those communities.”
Under current law, Michigan residents who want a permit to carry concealed firearms must apply at their county clerk’s office, which then triggers a review by a local concealed weapon licensing board. Part of the review involves an automatic criminal history background check by the state police. But the board can also conduct its own investigation. The board includes representatives from the county sheriff’s office, state police and the county prosecutor’s office.
The form to apply for a concealed pistol permit asks for information about the applicant's mental health, prior convictions of a felony or misdemeanor charge and whether the person was ever dishonorably discharged from the United States armed forces. To be eligible for a permit, Michigan residents must be registered voters, at least 21 years old and graduates of a safety training course.
County gun boards in Michigan are an artifact of a 1927 state law and no other state has them today, according the Major County Sheriffs’ Association. Michigan is one of 37 states with a “shall issue” law mandating that law enforcement provide a concealed weapon permit to anyone who meets the minimum statutory requirements. However, it’s among 20 states that currently give some discretion to the authority issuing the permit. A county gun board can, for example, deny an application if the person appears to be a danger to himself or others. The current legislation would eliminate that discretion in Michigan.
Jungel, a former sheriff of Ionia County, Mich., said the county review boards sometimes discover that an applicant isn’t eligible for a permit -- perhaps because of mentall illness or a pending investigation that isn't on the books yet. Yet incomplete records would have resulted in an approval through the state background check system.
Annual data collected by the state police confirm that board investigations are the cause of some rejected applications, but not many. Between July 2011 to June 2012, the state recorded 82,347 applications for concealed pistol licenses. Of those, about 96 percent were issued. Local gun boards were responsible for 255 denied applications, equal to about one third of 1 percent of all applications and about one-fifth of overall denied applications. Felony and misdemeanor convictions were the most common explanations of why a license wasn’t issued.
In written testimony to the state's Senate Judiciary Committee, the Michigan Coalition for Responsible Gun Owners, a firearms advocacy organization, cited the legislation as its top priority in the 2013-2014 session. The group contended that even though state law requires the review boards to approve or deny an application within 45 days of a fingerprint analysis, some counties violate the law -- without a penalty -- by taking up to five months to reach a decision.
Beyond complaints about time delays, the group also criticized counties for inconsistent procedures that go beyond what’s spelled out by state law. The letter said some counties ask for in-person interviews before issuing a permit and others ask for information that isn’t required in a background check, such as medical certifications that applicants aren’t mentally ill. (Jungel, of the state county sheriffs' association, disputes the frequency with which boards make those additional demands.) In aggregate, the extra measures taken by the local boards create burdens and delays for the applicants, said Ryan Mitchell, a spokesman for state Sen. Mike Green, the bill’s main sponsor.
“It’s not really a pro-gun issue, in our opinion,” Mitchell said. “It’s more about streamlining.”
Along with eliminating the local gun boards, the bill would reduce fees associated with conceal-carry permit applications from $105 to $90 per application. As the legislation is reducing the amount of money collected to process applications, it's shifting costs to state police. In order to conduct the equivalent of the county board investigations, state police would need to move 58 full-time officers from patrol to application review at an annual cost of $8.4 million, or $143,843 per employee, according to a report by the Senate Fiscal Agency, a nonpartisan budget-scoring arm of the legislature.
The Michigan State Police testified against the bill in a March committee hearing, citing concerns about allocating too many officers away from patrol. Given that the state already has the county boards in place, Jungel argued that making officers at the state level do a similar review seemed inefficient. “I would think there’s a better use of that $8 million when we already have a system working,” he said.
The Republican-controlled Senate passed the bill 24 to 13 in early June, with support falling largely along party lines. All 11 Democrats present voted against the bill, as did two Republicans. The legislation still faces two hurdles before it becomes law. The Republican-controlled House would need to pass the bill and Gov. Rick Snyder, also a Republican, would have to sign it. Two years ago, Snyder vetoed similar legislation shortly after a mass shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn.