Traverse City Record-Eagle

Archive: Thursday

December 20, 2012

Sheriff, chief worried by new gun rules

New handgun law could weaken background checks

TRAVERSE CITY — Two top cops believe a new law approved by Gov. Rick Snyder weakens background checks for people who want to buy a handgun.

A local gun rights advocate disagreed, and said authorities can still weed out potential problems.

Grand Traverse County Sheriff Tom Bensley and Traverse City Police Chief Mike Warren aren't pleased with a new bill Snyder signed into law on Tuesday. It eliminated a long-standing requirement that those who wish to purchase a handgun from a store must first obtain a permit from their local law enforcement agency.

The law is separate from another bill that would have permitted some people to carry concealed guns in schools. Snyder vetoed that measure the same day.

Those who want to purchase a handgun from a store now must only submit to the same federal background check done for those who want to purchase a rifle or other long gun. That check — called NICS — is intended to identify convicted felons, illegal immigrants and others who aren't allowed to own guns under federal law.

But Warren and Bensley contend the local law enforcement check was much more thorough, in large part because local departments can find plenty of red flags that won't necessarily pop up in the federal check.

"We have access to a lot more background, history and information in our system than would show up in the NICS," Bensley said. "We do a more thorough check."

A sheriff or police chief had the authority to deny a purchase permit based on probable cause that a person could present a danger to themselves or others. For example, Bensley could deny a purchase permit for someone who made repeated threatening comments to others or displayed aggressive behavior in the past, even if that person never was convicted of a crime.

He also could deny someone who had repeated minor run-ins with the law or other troublesome issues that likely wouldn't appear in the federal check.

Bensley and Warren are concerned that only requiring a NICS check is a recipe for trouble. They approved roughly 1,800 permits this year and denied about 45, and many of those denied would have been able to get a gun if they were only subjected to a NICS check.

"It's an additional, necessary safety step so that a lot of these people aren't falling through the cracks in the federal checks," Warren said of the now-defunct local review.

Local attorney and gun rights activist David Bieganowski said the NICS system is good enough. The local check was unnecessary and was far too subjective, he said. He contends a sheriff could find any number of reasons to deny someone a permit.

"He does, at the local level, have other information that is not on NICS. Arrests, contacts with police. In that respect, it is a higher level," he said. "But that also opens the door for his discretion to mess with people."

Too many people who should have received a permit were denied, Bieganowski said, at least in part because enforcement officers tend to assume the worst.

"They think everybody is lying to them and they think everybody is going to do something stupid," he said. "They come with that bias."

The new law does not change regulations for citizens who purchase handguns from one another. They still must submit to the local background check.

Federal law prohibits someone who has been judged by the courts to be mentally ill from owning a gun. But plenty of people with mental health issues never end up in court, and Bensley said he's long been bothered by how difficult it is to do a thorough mental health check on someone due to strict privacy rules.

He'd like to see those rules loosened, especially in light of news that Adam Lanza, the Connecticut man who killed 20 school children there, suffered from mental problems. Getting health information is often tougher than "getting gold from Fort Knox," he said.

"This country puts personal privacy at an extremely high level," he said. "However, might we want to open up or relax some of that privacy when it has to do with mental health issues and guns for those doing background checks?"

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