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January 25, 2010

A Familiar Pattern

During the past decade, independent audits of concealed handgun permit holder rosters in states such as Florida, Texas and Tennessee have revealed that violent individuals can—and frequently do—obtain carry permits. Last summer, the Indianapolis Star, conducted an in-depth, independent investigation of their own in their home state, examining more than 900,000 concealed carry permit applications, court records, and police reports.

The Star uncovered “a system that breaks down in numerous ways, enabling people with troubled and often violent pasts to legally keep a loaded gun in their waistbands and on their passenger seats.” Specifically, 450 permit holders with “dubious backgrounds” were identified in Marion and Lake Counties. In many of these cases, “local police recommended disapproval but the Indiana State Police granted the permit.” Several of these individuals went on to commit additional acts of violence with the guns they had been legally permitted to carry.

Indiana is a “shall-issue” state, which means that law enforcement authorities are required to issue a concealed carry permit after an applicant passes a computerized background check (which determines if the applicant is prohibited under federal law from possessing a firearm). However, the state lays out additional requirements for applicants. They must be of “good character and reputation” and a “proper person.” The definition of “proper person” is detailed in the law—and defines additional behavior that would prohibit someone from obtaining a permit. Applicants who have “a propensity for violent or emotionally unstable conduct” are specifically prohibited. What it means to be of “good character and reputation,” however, is left up to the discretion of law enforcement.

There are approximately 300,000 active concealed handgun permits in Indiana. In 2008, State Police reviewed 77,429 applications, including renewals. Of those, only 1,278 (about 1.6%) were denied. For whatever reason, Indiana State Police have failed to deny a permit under the “good character” provision since the 1980s. Additionally, because the State Police frequently receive incomplete records from local officials, it can be difficult to confirm who is a “proper person.”

Certainly more applicants should have been denied. Among the Indiana permit holders turned up by the Star were the following:

  • Tony Thomas had five misdemeanor convictions before receiving his permit in 2006. Several months later, Thomas held his wife captive in their home for four days, threatening to shoot her and their four children.

  • William Gammon threatened to kill his girlfriend at gunpoint in 2008 and left “a very noticeable round circle mark” on her forehead. Gammon also had five misdemeanor convictions (one was a felony reduced to a misdemeanor) before receiving his permit in 2006.

  • Brandon Kennedy had several misdemeanor convictions and two documented incidents of firing his handgun in the air in public before receiving his permit.

Miguel Roa, an Indianapolis police officer who was on duty last year when Gammon threatened his life, said, “You can have an extensive criminal history and still have a permit … At some point you should say enough is enough.”

The Star made several recommendations regarding how to address this problem:

The Indiana state legislature, however, has decided to address the problem in a decidedly different way. After outrage was expressed by the National Rifle Association (NRA) at “the irresponsible actions of Indiana newspapers,” the Indiana House Natural Resources Committee voted 11-0 on January 14 to approve legislation that would prevent information about concealed handgun permit holders from being released to the public or the media.

The argument for the legislation involves “privacy issues,” as well as concerns that criminals will use the database to target permit holders for gun thefts. “To protect the safety of gun owners and non-gun owners, it is better to have this information available only to law enforcement,” said Rep. Mike Murphy (R). Neither the NRA nor anyone else has provided a single example of a criminal targeting an individual based on information from a permit holder database—in any state.

Dennis Ryerson, Editor of the Star, pointed out that his paper never published individual information about any legal gun owner. Furthermore, he pointed out that without access to Indiana’s concealed handgun permit holder database, “We would never have been able to show our readers how hundreds of bad guys were able to get concealed weapons permits over the objections of local police jurisdictions … We would never know how government is acting on these kinds of matters and, in the process, point to needed corrections in the system.”

Ryerson is undoubtedly aware that the NRA has drafted and pushed through laws in 27 other states that prohibit the release of permit holder information. The pattern is by now familiar: 1) An independent audit of concealed carry permit holders uncovers permit holders with violent histories; 2) The NRA reacts with indignation and demands that legislators ban such information from the public, and; 3) The legislature complies with the NRA’s demands and does nothing substantive to address the threat to public safety.

For the sake of Hoosiers, let us hope that the final chapter in their own story has a different ending.