Unlawful gun owners can’t ‘conceal’ truth

Published 7:54 am Wednesday, February 18, 2009

IVOR—When two men entered Richard Harris’ gun shop last year, they were both there for the same reason: to purchase an additional firearm.

They both presented a valid Virginia driver’s license as their primary identification. And they both provided a valid concealed handgun permit from Virginia as their second form of ID.

And they were both rejected after a background check by the State Police.

And that worries Harris — particularly the part about the men having concealed handgun permits.

“This really got our attention because it was within a short time frame,” said Harris, who owns Firearms Sales Co. LLC in Ivor.

Harris said the two men came in separately and were not together.

“These two individuals both had firearms already,” Harris said. “They wanted something different. They picked out what they wanted.”

The men then filled out two forms — one state and one federal — for the weapons. Harris, who is required to call the State Police afterward, calls and relays the information from those forms so that the authorities can perform a background check, something the police have three business days to complete.

“We got a delay,” Harris said. “A few minutes later they called back and said, ‘This purchase has been denied. Do not release the firearm.’ Well, I told them that this person has a concealed carry permit issued by the Commonwealth of Virginia. They said, ‘Sorry, you cannot release the gun. His purchase has been denied.’”

Harris said after a denial, he gives the person who was rejected the phone number to Virginia State Police Headquarters in Richmond.

“Due to privacy reasons, they won’t tell me why anyone’s denied,” Harris said. “But that individual can inquire.”

“If an individual cannot purchase a firearm, why would the state of Virginia issue a concealed carry permit?” Harris asked.

Concealed handguns have been legal in Virginia for many years, but the process was changed about 10 years ago, Harris said. Before the change, a judge would decide if an individual could get the permit.

“It was just the judge’s discretion,” Harris said. “If the judge did not like you, or didn’t like guns, no one in his jurisdiction got a permit.”

Harris said people complained that the system was discriminatory and arbitrary. In response, the General Assembly changed the law and Virginia became a “shall issue” state, opening the door for any citizen to fill out an application for a concealed handgun permit.

According to Harris, the applicant for a concealed handgun permit must submit his or her fingerprints, and must also either show a certificate that they have been through a handgun course, a copy of their military discharge, or proof that they have been through a hunter safety course.

The state then has 45 days to run a background check on the applicant, Harris said.

“If I can get an answer in three days on whether or not a person can buy a gun, and the Commonwealth of Virginia has 45 days to do an in-depth background check about a concealed handgun permit, are we not checking the same databases? Is there a loophole here?”

As it turns out, the State Police do pursue individuals who shouldn’t have a concealed handgun permit — but not firearms.

“If you do become convicted of a crime, or for some reason you are no longer allowed to be in possession of a firearm, then the burden is on the individual to surrender those weapons,” said Corinne Geller, spokesman for the Virginia State Police.

Geller said weapons could be turned in to law enforcement or a gun shop, where they would be put on consignment. Another option, if the weapons were valuable or have sentimental value, would be to pass them on to a friend or family member who could legally have them.

Concealed handgun permits are issued by the courts, are good for five years and have an issue date. Geller said that state code specifies that as of that issue date, when the background check is run, if nothing is found under Virginia law that prohibits an individual from having the permit, it would be issued.

“But that doesn’t mean your status couldn’t change the very next day,” Geller said.

Permits are issued under Virginia law, not federal law. So there is always the chance that an individual could be turned down for purchasing a weapon, yet they possess a concealed handgun permit, Geller said.

“There are eligibility parameters conducted through the Virginia State Police Firearms Transaction Center (that are) much broader than the parameters of eligibility that a court is mandated to look at to issue that concealed handgun permit,” Geller said.

But the State Police will not let that permit stay out there.

“Criminal records are updated daily and hourly,” Geller said. “We are constantly running the names of concealed handgun permit owners with those (criminal) names. If we come across an individual who is in possession of a concealed handgun permit, and we find that that individual is no longer allowed or eligible to possess a firearm, then we will notify the court. And the court is required to revoke that permit if that individual has not already surrendered it.”

Southampton County Clerk Rick Francis said: “There is a mechanism for the state police to notify us, and we bring (the individual) back into court to take (the permit) away from them. We will get a letter from the State Police, saying that this person has a concealed weapon permit, and they either have a case that is pending, or has suffered a recent adjudication.”

Francis said the letter is then passed on to one of the two judges who serve Southampton County and Franklin — Judges Westbrook Parker and Carl Edward Eason Jr. — and the judge may issue a show cause order, which would require the individual to appear in court and show cause as to why the permit should not be revoked.

According to Francis, individuals are usually standing before a judge within 45 days of a show cause order. But others don’t let the process get that far.

“It’s happened before that people have just surrendered their permits to this office,” Francis said, adding that it was not a common occurrence — he thought less than 10 were surrendered last year. He notifies the State Police if someone turns in their permit so they can update their database.

Southampton Commonwealth’s Attorney Eric Cooke said he believes the system works.

“It’s a good system,” Cooke said. “The far majority of the people who apply for a concealed handgun permit are law-abiding citizens. A criminal won’t even bother getting a permit; they’ll just carry their weapon around with them illegally.”

Francis said the court issued 224 concealed handgun permits for Franklin and Southampton County residents last year. Each permit costs $50.

“That’s one part of our economy that’s up,” Francis said.