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Counties differ in checks on conceal and carry applicants

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Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher
Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher, pictured at his office in St. Paul, Minn. in Sept. 2008.
MPR File Photo/Ambar Espinoza

Sheriffs gave permits to carry concealed handguns in public to nearly 22,000 Minnesotans last year.

They said 'no' to 374 applicants.

Sheriffs said those people had records of domestic abuse, driving while drunk, theft, arson, assault, or being suicidal.

But 55 of those people now have permits to carry guns. They appealed and their denials were overturned.

State law requires sheriffs to give concealed weapons permits to every trained adult -- unless they have specific criminal convictions, or if the sheriff thinks they're a public safety risk.

The sheriffs in Ramsey and Hennepin counties, who last year issued one-fifth of all permits, take very different approaches to the state's conceal and carry law.

Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher initially denies about 10 percent of applicants.

People who can lawfully possess firearms may have a wart or two in their background. We never said permit holders would be perfect, and they're not.

In Hennepin County, Sheriff Richard Stanek denies 2 percent, in line with the statewide average.

 "Our job is to follow the law and give out permits as is dictated by state statute and that's what we do," said Lieutenant Todd Turpitt, who oversees the permit process in Hennepin County. 

The law mandates checks of local and national crime records. But it doesn't bar deeper investigations. 

That's what Ramsey County Sheriff Fletcher says he does. 

 "In Ramsey County, we conduct generally a more thorough background investigation than some other counties might," Fletcher said. "And the cases that we do that are in cases where an individual has been arrested generally multiple times but never convicted of an offense that would require them to be prohibited."

Those offenses are usually assaults or DWI's, he said. 

 "We'll go out and talk to friends and relatives and determine if the person has behavior issues that indicate the person would be a danger to themselves or others," Fletcher said. "I think in Ramsey we set the bar really high... With good reason; it's a huge responsibility, carrying a handgun in public."

Twelve of the 30 people who appealed Fletcher's decisions last year were successful.

In one case, an admitted gang member obtained a handgun permit on appeal, records show.

In the much larger Hennepin County, 32 people appealed denials and 22 were issued permits.

Graphic: Permit to carry applications
The sheriffs in Ramsey and Hennepin counties, who last year issued one-fifth of all permits, take different approaches to the state's conceal and carry law.
MPR Graphic/Than Tibbetts

The rationale for granting such successful appeals isn't clear, as it is not included in an annual report by the state department of public safety. Permit holders names are private.

Sheriffs say one reason is that they occasionally mistake one person for another with a record while doing background checks.

In other cases people appeal and argue the convictions or charges on their record happened long ago. That either leads a sheriff to change his mind, or a judge overturns the denial.

The appeals show Ramsey County Sheriff Fletcher's approach is unnecessarily heavy handed, said Joe Olson, president of the Gun Owners Civil Rights Alliance.

"He's probably kept somebody from getting a permit who might have caused a problem," said Olson, also a law professor at Hamline University. "But so have all the other sheriffs.

"People who can lawfully possess firearms may have a wart or two in their background, Olson said. "We never said permit holders would be perfect, and they're not."

But Ramsey District Court Judge Gregg Johnson said he tries to be cautious when considering appeals.

"If the sheriff has denied that permit, it suggests to me they have concerns about public safety based on the investigation," Johnson said. "So I try and weigh the evidence and balance it and make a determination based on that and hope I've done the right thing. That's all you can do."

In Dakota County, where less than one percent of more than 1,500 hundred applications were denied last year, the permit process has helped officials make decisions about applicants with spotty backgrounds, Sheriff Dave Bellows said. 

"There's something in the past that obviously made you take a second look, take a hard look," Bellows said. "And because the law doesn't allow for denial of the permit, there's always something in the back of your mind that makes you a little concerned, just because of the history there."

It's not clear whether a more aggressive approach to background checks prevents crime. 

The Department of Public Safety report shows 144 gun permit holders statewide were convicted of crimes last year. 

Officials should be conservative when granting appeals to people denied concealed weapons permits, said Heather Martens, executive director of Citizens for a Safer Minnesota, which advocates "common sense" gun laws and regulation. 

"It's important to understand if a person is prone to these types of behaviors like terroristic threats they should not be issued a permit," Martens said. "That seems clear to us."