Published May 05. 2013 4:00AM Updated May 06. 2013 1:07PM
One goal of the laws passed in the wake of the Newtown shootings is to keep weapons out of the hands of people who shouldn't have them.
Adam Lanza, who had a history of mental health issues, entered Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14 and shot 20 children and six adults with an AR-15-style Bushmaster semiautomatic rifle. Since then, legislators and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy have said repeatedly that the goal of gun control, mental health and school safety legislation is to make it harder for criminals and people with severe mental illnesses to obtain guns and ammunition.
In the five years before the Sandy Hook tragedy, few pistol permit applications - about 1 in 1,000 - were denied. The question is whether expanded requirements will change that substantially.
The answer may lie in the multi-tiered process required for first getting a temporary and then a permanent permit, and then keeping it.
One new law expands the mental health background check for pistol permits, eligibility certificates and firearm possession. It requires an eligibility certificate to purchase long guns for the first time. It also adds two members to the Board of Firearms Examiners, which decides whether to overturn pistol permit denials or revocations and eligibility certificate denials.
If there are to be any increases in permit denials, it will be at the local level, said Lt. Eric Cooke, commanding officer for the state's Special Licensing and Firearms Unit, because local police are the ones who issue temporary pistol permits.
Lt. Albert Costa, who handles the temporary pistol permit process in Norwich, said that because of the expansion of the mental health background check, permit denials will likely increase.
"I am assuming it is going to affect some denials. How many, I don't know," he said.
Those who are buying a pistol first must apply for a temporary, 60-day permit from a local authority, such as the local police chief, warden or first selectman.
A person who passes the FBI background check and a state background check and meets a "suitability" standard is given a temporary permit. By law, the issuing authority must determine whether the applicant intends to use the weapon lawfully and is "suitable" to receive a permit.
Once issued a temporary permit by a local police department, he or she may carry a pistol throughout the state, Costa said. To purchase a pistol, one must already have a state-issued pistol permit or an eligibility certificate, he said.
The current mental health provision prevents someone who has been committed involuntarily to a psychiatric hospital by probate court in the previous 12 months from obtaining a pistol permit. The new law, which takes effect Oct. 1, expands it to five years.
Between 2007 and 2012, the Norwich Police Department denied 3.8 percent of permit applications, 34 out of 885 applicants.
Costa, who has processed pistol permit applications for two years, said he doesn't know whether the mental health provision has ever caused a denial because that information is not displayed in the background check reports.
He said he has denied a permit to someone whose mental health was a concern based on "in-house" or local police department information, he said. The man did not contest the decision.
The temporary permit holder has 60 days to apply to the state police for a state-issued pistol permit, which must be renewed after five years.
As of Dec. 17, there were 179,092 valid pistol permits in Connecticut, according to the Office of Legislative Research. Last year, 1,297 pistol permits were revoked, or roughly 0.7 percent, according to state police.
From 2007 to 2012, state police issued 73,486 new pistol permits and renewed 136,083 pistol permits. Of the 209,891 new or renewal applications, 322 were denied by the state.
Cooke, of the state's Special Licensing and Firearms Unit, said he doesn't think the new law will increase the rejection rate at the state level since local police pre-screen the applicants as part of the temporary permitting process.
Of the 322 pistol permits denied by the state in the past five years, 202 denials - 63 percent - cited criminal convictions, and 33 denials - 10 percent - were because of mental health issues. The remaining 87 were due to a variety of undisclosed suitability factors.
Some will be grandfathered
Overall, the provision prohibiting a permit for someone who has been committed involuntarily to a psychiatric hospital in the previous 12 months has resulted in few denials.
Since 1998, 6,770 people have been committed involuntarily and only 71 of them, 1.5 percent, were found attempting to get a pistol permit or had their permit revoked, Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services spokeswoman Mary Mason said.
DMHAS gets the involuntary commitment information from the probate court and enters the person's first name, last name, date of birth and gender into a secure server, Mason said. The information is transferred through a secure server to the state police, who pass the data to the FBI or the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, she said.
The FBI then compares the lists of permit holders and those who have been committed involuntarily and looks for matches, she said. When a match is found, that information goes back to the police for a follow-up, Mason said. If someone who had been committed involuntarily in the last 12 months were applying for a pistol permit, the NICS system would report the denial but would not disclose that it was due to mental health, Cooke said. It would just read "federally denied person," he said.
Come Oct. 1, those with pistol permits who had been involuntarily committed in the past five years will be grandfathered, said Mike Lawlor, undersecretary for the criminal justice division of the Office of Policy and Management.
Paul Appelbaum, director of the law, ethics and psychiatry division at Columbia University, said Friday that policies aimed exclusively at those with mental illnesses are not likely to make people safer. Editor's note: This corrects an earlier version of this paragraph.
Also effective Oct. 1 is a provision that specifies that those who had voluntarily committed themselves to a mental hospital may not possess a firearm or receive a permit or eligibility certificate for six months after their release from the hospital.
Appelbaum said this might discourage people from voluntarily committing themselves, and there is no data to suggest that this provision will improve public safety.
He said he would rather see more funding provided for mental health services.
The department has not determined how it will track voluntary commitments because they are not recorded in the NICS system, Mason said. The department will work to create a similar confidential system so that state police see only matches in which the names of people who are applying for a permit and have voluntarily committed themselves to a psychiatric hospital in the previous six months show up, Mason said.
Suitability hard to define
In Connecticut, someone who commits a felony or one of 11 misdemeanors is not eligible for a pistol permit. But it is less clear how authorities should determine suitability.
"What is suitability? We don't have that clearly defined," Lawlor said. "Here, it is really left up to local police, state police, Board Of Firearms Permit Examiners - and that is one concern that has been identified."
Someone could be considered unsuitable because of drug or alcohol abuse, or a record of assault or illegally discharging a firearm, Costa, of the Norwich police, said.
"Disqualifying someone for suitability is kind of tough," he said. "You have to have a lot of circumstances or disqualifiers or concerning circumstances to disqualify someone for suitability."
Someone who is denied a permit or has a permit revoked can appeal to the state Board of Firearms Permit Examiners, which has had seven members, including two gun-club members. The new law adds a representative from DMHAS and a retired Superior Court judge.
The board received 386 pistol permit appeals last year, but 164 of them were settled before the hearing, either because the issuing authority granted the permit or the person withdrew their appeal.
Of the 222 appeals heard, 45 percent were granted or went to the permit applicant by default because the issuing authority did not show up to the hearing, according to the board's data. Denials were upheld in 34 percent of the cases, and the appeal was withdrawn at the hearing in 20 percent of the cases, according to board data.
"I think everybody, including the governor, agrees this system doesn't work the way we would like it to work," Lawlor said.
The board hearings can get unwieldy, he said, and it's not clear that questions board members ask have anything to do with suitability.
"The governor has asked his staff to develop some clearer standards," he said.
M. Peter Kuck, a board member from the Ye Connecticut Gun Guild, said the board process is fair. Kuck said he looks at the totality of the situation. Does the applicant work? Is he or she married or have children or a criminal record or a lot of speeding tickets?
"I always say to myself, 'Would I trust that person behind me with a loaded gun?'" Kuck said.