Law taking effect Tuesday eliminates three-member bodies in the last state to maintain them, amid debate over another measure to expand gun rights
A Michigan law that goes into effect Tuesday has eliminated an individualized gun license screening that critics say has prevented many potentially dangerous individuals from obtaining a concealed carry license.
The law to eliminate local gun boards marks a long-sought legislative victory for gun rights advocates, who argued the boards indiscriminately rejected applicants, and comes as the Michigan legislature is set to continue debating a bill that would expand access to guns across the state.
But critics of the gun board elimination say local law enforcement officials have lost a safety net to prevent concealed pistol license (CPL) applicants with mental health issues or criminal backgrounds from obtaining a license.
For nearly 90 years, Michigan counties used a three-member gun board – comprised of local law enforcement officials – to either issue, deny, revoke or suspend such licenses.
If an individual wasn’t explicitly disqualified under state law, the boards could still deny a license following a face-to-face interview with an applicant, which could reveal issues that otherwise wouldn’t emerge in a criminal background check. Nearly 350 applicants were denied a license by a gun board in the fiscal year 2013-2014.
“Local law enforcement often knows persons who are not safe to have a CPL,” said Jerry Walden of the 220-member group Physicians for the Prevention of Gun Violence, during his testimony in February against the change.
“Examples of those denied licenses include juveniles with serious records, domestic abusers with misdemeanors or no felonies because their victim would not go to court, serious alcoholics and drug abusers – who will all be free to obtain a CPL under this new law.”
Under the change, county clerks and state police will now assume responsibility for the application process. Applicants are required to disclose whether they’ve been diagnosed with a mental illness, but federal law prohibits Michigan state police – which will now determine an applicant’s eligibility – from accessing mental health records, unless involuntary treatment has been ordered by a court.
The gun board interviews and investigations of an applicant would provide pertinent information, said Linda Brundage, executive director of the Michigan Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence.
“Maybe someone has not been adjudicated; no one has said this person has a severe mental illness,” Brundage told the Guardian.
Law enforcement officials have also said the interview process proved to be fruitful.
“There were several occasions where the board learned that an individual was exhibiting mental health problems based upon the nature of repeated police contacts,” Michelle Ambrozaitis, prosecutor of mid-Michigan’s Clare County, told The Morning Sun last month.
Despite the objections, supporters of the law – chiefly the National Rifle Association – hold it up as an appropriate fix to making Michigan a true “shall issue” state, where CPL permits are issued to any applicant who meets statutory requirements, as long as they haven’t been convicted of a felony, aren’t the subject of a personal protection order and have completed gun safety training. Michigan was the last state in the US to maintain local gun boards.
In 2001, lawmakers passed a law that aimed to make Michigan a shall-issue state but kept local gun boards in place. As a result, critics claimed the boards continued to arbitrarily deny applicants – but that hasn’t prevented a sharp uptick in the number of CPL holders in the state: since 2001, roughly 441,000 applicants have obtained a license, increasing Michigan’s total from 58,000 to an estimated 500,000.
Laura Cutilletta, senior staff attorney at the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, said studies show individuals in shall-issue states who have committed violent crimes have slipped through the cracks and received a CPL.
“Local law enforcement officials … have the best sense of people in the community, and so to separate that decision-making [and] remove it farther and farther from local officials is really moving in the wrong direction,” Cutilletta told the Guardian.
The new law in Michigan will reduce upfront costs to apply for a CPL, dropping the license application fee from $105 to $100, while a renewal application and license will increase from $105 to $115. Additionally, the Michigan state police must also have a system in place by December 2018 that allows CPL holders to renew their licenses online. Renewal licenses must also be issued or denied within 30 days, reduced from the previous 60-day threshold.
“This is a major victory for Michigan; no longer will residents of this state be subject to arbitrary local policies that directly infringe on their constitutional rights,” said Republican state senator Mike Green, in a statement at the time of the law’s passage.
County clerks must process a 45-day emergency CPL if an applicant has obtained a personal protection order against someone for domestic violence, stalking, or if a county sheriff has “clear and convincing evidence” that the individual’s safety is at risk. The emergency applicant would have 10 business days to complete a pistol training course.
The law also comes as Michigan lawmakers are considering a bill that would allow CPL holders to bring guns into areas currently designated as “no carry zones” – including schools, bars and stadiums.
In a statement on Monday, Brundage said: “Michiganders must be allowed to go to schools, universities and community colleges, places of worship, seek medical attention, and enjoy entertainment with friends and family knowing they are safe from gun violence.”
Brundage and the coalition plan to hold a press conference at the state capitol on Tuesday, when the state senate is expected to continue debate on the bill.
“This is a gun lobby-backed bill,” Brundage said, “and we must not allow Michigan legislation to be crafted by the gun lobby.”
Cutilletta said the timing of the bill to expand where CPL holders can carry a firearm couldn’t be more precarious, with the elimination of gun boards now making permits easier to obtain.
“That just seems like a recipe for disaster,” she said.