Fingerprints sticky issue in gun permits

Some sheriffs are issuing permits before finishing background checks.
Thursday, March 11, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 12:25 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, July 2, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — At least 220 Missourians had applied as of Wednesday for concealed gun permits, but state law enforcement officials declined to reveal how many had passed background checks because of uncertainty over whether that information must be kept secret.

The Missouri State Highway Patrol, which helps process the state and federal fingerprint checks required under the concealed guns law, has received applications from numerous counties led in quantity by Audrain, Lincoln and Phelps, said spokesman Capt. Chris Ricks.

But Ricks said the patrol did not know, and was not revealing, how many applicants’ fingerprint checks had been completed and approved.

He said the patrol was seeking advice from Attorney General Jay Nixon’s office on whether it could legally release any information on approved fingerprint checks. Ricks cited a provision in the law closing records relating to information on holders of concealed weapon permits.

Concealed gun opponents also have asked Nixon to investigate whether sheriffs have violated the contentious new law by granting concealed gun permits to people whom they know well without waiting for the results of the fingerprint checks.

The Law

The Missouri Supreme Court last month upheld the general constitutionality of the law, which allows most adults age 23 and older to receive concealed gun permits from their local sheriffs after passing firearms training courses and background checks.

The latest debate centers on the process for handling and approving applications.

The law requires sheriffs to take fingerprints from applicants for state-level and FBI criminal history checks. The law states that “upon receipt of the completed background checks, the sheriff shall issue a certificate” to carry a concealed weapon.

But a separate sentence in the law states that before approving an application, “the sheriff shall make only such inquiries as he or she deems necessary into the accuracy of the statements made in the application.”

Concealed gun supporters interpret that language to allow sheriffs to run their own instant state and federal background checks — based on the name, birth date or Social Security number supplied by the applicant — and to approve certain applicants before receiving the fingerprint check results, which can take up to a couple of weeks.

Their argument is that the only additional information supplied by the fingerprint check is a confirmation of the person’s actual identity, which would not be in question for applicants with whom sheriffs have had long personal relationships.

The debate on background checks

But attorneys Richard Miller and Burton Newman, who represented concealed gun opponents in the recent constitutional challenge, interpret the law to mean permits can be issued only after the fingerprint background checks are complete.

They raised that claim, among others, in a letter Tuesday asking Nixon to investigate the Moniteau County sheriff’s quick issuance of concealed gun permits to the law’s sponsor, Rep. Larry Crawford, R-California, and his wife. The Crawfords were issued permits March 1, just four days after the Supreme Court upheld the law.

If sheriffs are not waiting for the results of fingerprint checks, “that obviates the whole need for that aspect of the law,” Miller said Wednesday. “You could issue a permit to anybody you want to and say, ‘I’ll get around to (the fingerprint check) later on.’”

Nixon issued a statement Wednesday saying the letter “contained numerous legal and factual inaccuracies,” without naming them specifically nor commenting upon how he would address the request. Nixon spokesman Scott Holste had no immediate comment on whether Nixon believes sheriffs can legally issue permits without waiting for the results of fingerprint checks.

Firearms trainer Tim Oliver of Boone County, who distributes a widely read e-mail newsletter to gun rights advocates, said the sheriff of Stone County issued four concealed gun permits to people he knew extremely well.

“If the sheriff knows the applicant exceedingly well, and knows they are who they say they are, he does not have to wait for the fingerprint check, which proves identification, before issuing the permit,” Oliver said.

The sheriffs from Moniteau and Stone counties did not return telephone messages Wednesday.

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