Look a Person in the Eye
November 25, 2015
The pattern is clear.
A high-profile shooting occurs somewhere in America. The nation responds with disgust. Questions abound whether the killings could have been prevented. The shooter is revealed as someone with known mental health problems or hateful, violent tendencies.
And then another high-profile shooting occurs.
Officials, activists and ordinary Americans grapple with this circular series of travesties and wonder: Why didn’t somebody say something, issue some type of warning in advance that the guy responsible for the shootings was unstable and not capable of being a responsible gun owner?
Yet, in Michigan a change in law that takes effect next week that will make it much less likely that the emotionally unhinged will be blocked from obtaining a gun permit to carry a concealed weapon on the streets.
The law, as of Dec. 1, will dissolve the county gun boards — consisting of three local law enforcement officials — that have exercised discretion for nearly 90 years in approving these concealed-pistol permits. Instead, county clerks, in conjunction with the Michigan State Police, will automatically grant approval to someone who wants to pack heat, based on a successful application and a criminal background check.
Critics say shutting down the county Concealed Weapons Licensing Boards will eliminate local control and take away the judicial-like discretion of the three board members – the sheriff, the prosecutor and a local representative from the state police. These boards, in preparation for their monthly hearings, secure detailed material on first-time applicants that goes beyond arrests and convictions.
Look a person in the eye
“You need to look the person in the eye. Even if the person doesn’t have a criminal record, if he was the kind of guy who every Friday night got drunk at a local bar and got into a fight in the parking lot, you sure don’t want to put a (concealed) gun into his hands,” said former Macomb County prosecutor, Carl Marlinga, the pioneer of Michigan’s loosened gun permit rules that took place in 2001.
To be clear, those who hold a concealed pistol license (CPL), in Michigan or in 35 other states where they are readily available, have not been linked to mass shootings or a propensity toward reckless gun play.
But Michigan law enforcement officials worry that the new system is tempting fate – and possibly inviting a tragedy –by adopting a “one size fits all” approach to handing out gun permits.
Terrence Jungel, director of the Michigan Sheriff’s Association and a former Ionia County sheriff, agreed with Marlinga that granting permission to carry a deadly weapon requires the same discretion that judges exert daily in their courtroom. Beyond routine background checks, erring on the side of caution saves lives.
During the interview process for new CPL applicants, gun boards are privy to information regarding pending police investigations and covert law enforcement operations. Some cops and prosecutors say privately that the greatest value of the gun boards is that they weed out the “village idiots” who display erratic behavior but don’t show up on a criminal background check. In other cases, applicants admit paranoid delusions or extreme, racist views in the interview process.
“When I served on our gun board, there were some people who came in who you didn’t want them to leave the room with a sharp object, let alone a firearm,” Jungel said.
500,000 permits across the state
Michigan will soon become the 47th state to scrap local control over gun permits. With more than 500,000 CPL permits in place across Michigan, and tens of thousands of new applicants coming forward annually, advocates of the new statute insist that it is merely an effort to streamline the process and eliminate delays.
Though the two-bill package was strongly opposed by sheriffs and police organizations, the legislation was approved by the Republican-controlled Legislature and signed by Gov. Rick Snyder in March.
Under the upcoming law, only the basics will be checked out: whether an applicant has a felony on his record, a recent misdemeanor conviction in one of several criminal categories, or a commitment to mental health treatment. The law that takes effect next month also requires the creation in every county of a simple, online process for a 5-year renewal of a gun permit. New transgressions by the permit-holder will not warrant a closer look.
Within the current process, only Macomb County’s gun board has committed itself long-term to interview every new applicant, based in part on the overwhelming 319 percent increase in permits sought in 1994-96 when the county’s new policy went into effect. However, CPL seekers who draw red flags in other counties are routinely brought in for a hearing.
The Grand Rapids Press reported earlier this year about a man who, in an appearance before the Kent County gun board, conceded that he has a history of 18 run-ins with the police over a 24-year period. These involved altercations, harassment and threatened violence in connection to an ex-wife and several ex-girlfriends. But he had never been arrested.
The gun board denied his application for a CPL. But under the new permitting system, officials said that he’s almost certain to gain approval to carry a concealed weapon in the future, if he applies again.
Domestic violence incidents
Many of the CPL disputes that arise at gun board hearings revolve around gray areas such as domestic violence incidents where the victim refused to press charges or a court-ordered Personal Protection Order (PPO) secured by a person (usually a woman) who says she has been stalked or threatened.
In addition to the changes that take place in one week, the state Senate is eyeing legislation that would allow gun owners to seek a new type of CPL that permits concealed weapons in so-called gun-free zones: schools, churches, stadiums, child care centers, concert venues, college dorms, hospitals and eateries where alcohol is served.
In exchange for eliminating the state’s “open carry” practices, such as strapping a rifle across one’s shoulder in public places, the bill would substantially broaden the ability to carry a concealed pistol.
That bill received approval from a Senate committee in October.
Meanwhile, a statewide poll by Lansing-based EPIC-MRA released on Monday found that about 70 percent of Michigan residents oppose all guns in schools.
Marlinga, now a Macomb County Probate Court judge who decides involuntary treatment decisions for the mentally ill, said that he believes ugly rants and delusional behavior on social media sites – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and others – have a place in law enforcement activities. But a centralized, statewide system cannot keep tabs on such online warning flags, said Marlinga, a Democrat who once harbored big government approaches toward crime-fighting programs.
“I don’t want a cookie-cutter approach to this,” he said. “I think local control is important and … as I’ve gotten older I’ve really seen the value of local control. And that’s why I think we need these gun boards.”
A freelance writer from Macomb County, [email protected] was the political reporter at The Macomb Daily for nearly 30 years. At the Daily he earned 50 journalism awards and in 2014 he was named by Politico as one of the “Media Stars” in seven political battleground states. He can be reached at
A freelance writer from Macomb County, was the political reporter at The Macomb Daily for nearly 30 years. At the Daily he earned 50 journalism awards and in 2014 he was named by Politico as one of the “Media Stars” in seven political battleground states. He can be reached at [email protected]