Background checks focus for law enforcement

In a matter of minutes, a Pennsylvania resident can walk into their county sheriff’s office, and after clearing a background check and paying a small fee, leave with a concealed carry weapon permit good for five years.

But those who do not clear the background check or are otherwise denied a firearm purchase are also free to go – even if their criminal history prohibits them from attempting to obtain a firearm or concealed carry permit.

In Pennsylvania, falsifying information to obtain a concealed carry permit or purchase a firearm is a third-degree felony punishable under the Uniform Firearms Act. An individual found guilty of intentionally lying on their application could face up to seven years in jail, a $15,000 fine or both.

Nationally, only 44 individuals out of 80,000 who applied to purchase a firearm in 2010 faced criminal charges after it was discovered they had lied on their application, according to data from a Justice Department study.

Of the about 30 applicants who seek a concealed carry permit each day, the Blair County Sheriff’s Office does not see many individuals intentionally trying to defraud the state background check process, said Holly Garner, chief sheriff’s deputy.

The office runs all applicants through the Pennsylvania Instant Check System before issuing a concealed carry permit, Garner said.

“There’s nothing that would prohibit us from issuing a permit under Pennsylvania law if the PICS check comes back clean,” Garner said. “It’s very effective. It combs through their entire background history.”

Pennsylvania State Police Firearms Division operates the PICS unit, said Trooper Adam Reed, public information officer.

The system searches Pennsylvania criminal and mental health records, similar to the National Instant Check System records utilized in other states.

Reed said federally licensed firearms dealers also use the automated PICS system to complete background checks on weapon sales, including handgun purchases.

If the application is flagged for discrepancies, the call is then transferred to an operator, who reviews the denied request with law enforcement or the store owner placing the call, Reed said.

The sheriff’s office or licensed firearm dealer is then responsible for denying the sale or not issuing the permit, said Lee Stanek, owner of Bub’s Archery and Hunting Supplies in Patton.

“I’m the guy that actually has to tell the person,” Stanek said. “It has caused some uncomfortable moments in here because of denials.

“If you’re denied, you’re not getting a gun,” he said.

Recent surges in firearms sales throughout the commonwealth have temporarily shut down the system due to a heavy volume of calls, Reed said.

Despite heavy call traffic and wait times in excess of half an hour, Stanek said the system is effective in stopping criminals.

“The system here works,” Stanek said of PICS. “I think the way we do it works.”

State police could easily be notified if a convicted felon or wanted fugitive is attempting to purchase a gun during the background check process, Stanek said.

Although state police could act, law enforcement and the county district attorney are not immediately notified if a felon is attempting to purchase a gun.

“I think it would be an extra level of protection, but I don’t know if it’s necessary,” Stanek said.

Individuals convicted of a crime under the Uniform Firearms Act, Controlled Substance, Drug, Device and Cosmetic Act, or any violent crimes, are not eligible to apply for a concealed carry permit or firearm.

Individuals who already possess a concealed carry permit are required to notify law enforcement of any criminal proceedings which may result in their forfeit of their permit.

After processing about 500 applicants over the past month, only about five individuals were denied a concealed carry permit request through the sheriff’s office, Garner said.

The majority of denials are from mistakes on the part of the applicant, she said. Questions about active protection from abuse orders and different grading of crimes are typical errors that block applicants from clearing the background check, Garner said.

Despite checking individual Social Security numbers and birth records, the system sometimes flags common or similar names in the system, Garner said.

“If they’re denied, we keep a record in our system that they’re denied,” Garner said.

Shira Goodman, executive director of advocacy group CeaseFirePA, applauded Pennsylvania lawmakers’ approval of a provision to allow the state to share mental health records with the national background check system.

Individuals who attempt to purchase guns despite their criminal history or dealers who ignore mandatory background checks should face harsher penalties, she said.

The majority of all gun owners and NRA members agree with strengthening background checks, Goodman said.

“That’s a place of common ground where we can build from,” she said.

Mirror Staff Writer Zach Geiger is at 946-7535.