When considering appeals, the board has overturned permit denials and revocations in slightly more than half the cases in the past two years.
In 2012, the board overturned the police or first selectman's decisions 76 times, but upheld them in 70 cases, meeting minutes show. In 2011, the pattern was similar, with the board overturning 86 issuing authority decisions, and upholding 80.
Milford police Chief Keith Mello called these numbers "disturbing."
"Law enforcement agencies are putting in effort to determine someone's suitability," Mello said. "When we deny someone, it is because we have determined them to be unsuitable, so it is disturbing when the board overturns those."
According to Mello, Milford police denied a pistol permit due to an individual's narcotics conviction, for example, but the board overturned the decision in October.
"We go through our due diligence and do our best to determine suitability," Mello said. "We base our decisions on any felony convictions and adverse history with law enforcement. We are obviously denying people for a reason. There is a rational basis for it. We are trying to keep communities safe and keep firearms out of the hands of people who are unsuitable to carry a weapon. It is disconcerting when over half of decisions are overturned by the board."
Supporters of keeping the board in place say it gives people a place to fight for their right to get a permit, calling some decisions to deny or revoke them unfair. And they say eliminating the board would make it too costly for people to fight decisions, as people would have to take their appeals directly to Superior Court instead.
"The repeal of the board was requested by the police chiefs' association, because they believe it too frequently reversed the denials for permits," said state Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney, D-New Haven.
Looney proposed the bill recently to abolish the board, which considers appeals of both pistol permit denials and revocations.
Cromwell Police Chief Anthony Salvatore, who is the legislative co-chairman for the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association, said it supports the elimination of the board, "or at least exploring other options."
According to Salvatore, some police chiefs have had positive experiences with the board, but others have had problems.
Salvatore said the board has never overturned any of his decisions, and applicants have only challenged his decision twice in two decades.
"We are asking for the legislature to look at the board, see if it is necessary, or look at the make-up of the board, such as if there should be someone from the mental health field," Salvatore said.
The board hears several cases each year and meets monthly, sometimes twice a month. It typically deals with about 15 cases per meeting. Currently, if an individual doesn't like the board's ruling, it can be appealed to Superior Court.
From February through June, the board is scheduled to hear 132 cases, including 65 permit denials and 67 revocations.
The board considers many appeals based on denials and revocations from the state police, with its decisions going both for and against state police, according to board meeting minutes.
State police spokesman Lt. J. Paul Vance said he is not concerned about the board's decisions.
"The process is in place and has been for a long time," Vance said.
If lawmakers decide to keep the board, another option that has been suggested is to change its composition, according to Looney.
"Maybe we need to add a social scientist or a psychologist," Looney said. "I think some change is necessary and it makes sense (to evaluate whether the board should continue as it is.) I think some reform of the board is necessary."
The board members are appointed by the governor, and are a mixture of police, gun organizations and the general public. Members include T. William Knapp, secretary and a retired Wethersfield Police Chief; Chairman Joseph Corradino, who represents the commissioner of the Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection; Craig Fishbein, a representative for the Connecticut State Rifle and Revolver Association Inc.; M. Peter Kuck, who represents Ye Connecticut Gun Guild Inc.; Col. Kyle Overturf, who represents the commissioner of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, and two public members, James Greer and Kenneth Tramadeo.
Attorney Ralph Sherman of New Britain has represented several people who either have been denied pistol permits, or have had their permit revoked.
"I see people turned down for all kinds of reasons, some which a lot of people would say are legitimate, but I also see cases where police didn't like the person's skin color, or that their name was hard to spell," Sherman said.
According to Sherman, he represented a woman whose white husband got a permit, but she is dark-skinned, with an unusual sounding name, and she was denied. The woman ultimately got a permit after a hearing before the board, when police didn't show up to defend their decision, Sherman said.
"The reason we have the board is because it is a quick, cheap and fair way to address the problem," Sherman said. "If you eliminate it, you are shutting people out of the justice system. People won't appeal because of it."
The cost of having to take an appeal to court would likely discourage people from pursuing that avenue, according to Sherman.
"The abuses we see now will be encouraged to increase," Sherman said. "It would make Connecticut ripe for a big civil rights lawsuit, because of police chiefs turning people down because of their race or their names."
The state Judicial Branch has no position on the proposal to eliminate the board, said Rhonda Stearley-Hebert, a spokeswoman for the Judicial Branch.
State Rep. Rosa Rebimbas, R-Naugatuck, said she would need to hear more information and testimony.
"The board has been established and has been working well," Rebimbas said. "Why are they asking for this? Is it an ego thing, because people don't want their decisions overturned?"
Rebimbas said she would want hard data on how often any people who got permits because of a board decision go out and commit crimes afterward.
Police reached this past week did not have any statistics on cases in which the board gave out a permit and the individual then committed a crime.
"Common sense would dictate that if something is not broken, don't try to fix it," Rebimbas said. "The last thing we want to do is put a financial burden on people, who'd have to take their case to court and hire an attorney, and bog down our judicial system, if the board is working."
While permit issuing authorities can consider one's "suitability" for a permit now, Looney has also proposed a bill that provides greater detail on what could be considered while determining one's suitability to have one.
The proposal would allow authorities to even consider one's association with persons who are not eligible to obtain a permit, for example.
Looney's bill would give issuing authorities 12 weeks to render a decision instead of eight. It would allow authorities to require applicants to consent to the release of any documents or evidence it reasonably believes will assist in determining suitability. It would delineate that an issuing authority may consider factors such as psychiatric disabilities, attempted suicide, participation in violent crime, arrests or convictions for use or distribution of a controlled substance, military service record, incidents of workplace violence, or any other factors which the issuing authority reasonably believes contributes to the applicant's suitability.
"According to the police chiefs, there are times when there is some disagreement about what is suitable, and there needs to be more clarification," Looney said. "This could and should mean other people in a household."
According to Looney, there have been cases in which a relative without a criminal record applies for a permit, in a household where someone has recently been released from prison.
"Then, the spouse with a clean record applies -- which raises questions," Looney said.
The police chiefs' association would like the extension for determining suitability to 12 weeks because sometimes there are delays in getting background information on candidates from other agencies, according to Salvatore.
"We would like to see suitability addressed, to allow the local chief to require any documentation that is necessary and consider matters like mental health," Salvatore said. "We can consider suitability now, but are asking for a specific definition."
John DeCarlo, a former Branford police chief who is now an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of New Haven, said the bill addressing suitability is a great idea.
"It gives the issuing authority more time and the ability to ask for more documentation," DeCarlo said.
Sherman, however, asserted that police and other issuing authorities abuse the "suitability" standard.
"I've seen police turn people down because a relative has a criminal record," Sherman said. "Police can do almost anything with this 'suitability' standard, and can pretty much turn people down for any reason. It is shameful."
"It is clear Looney wants to give police more power," Sherman added.
New Fairfield First Selectman John Hodge said many applicants appear to be deliberately deceptive on the applications when questioned about prior arrests or convictions.
There are specific cases when an individual doesn't have to acknowledge an arrest, such as if the charge was dismissed or nolled, if they were acquitted or received an absolute pardon.
However, Hodge said he has gotten applications that don't disclose the information that should be disclosed.
"There is great responsibility with owning and carrying a gun, and if you can't get past the first step with honesty and candor, then that is a problem," Hodge said. "There was one gentleman who said he was never arrested, but the background check showed seven different charges. It is not uncommon, and it takes a lot of legwork, and I get frustrated."
Hodge said he has approached state lawmakers about pursuing penalties for people who provide false information, such as making them wait at least a year before being eligible to apply again. While applicants are warned on the application that they could be subject to a second-degree false statement charge, a misdemeanor, if they lie, Hodge said he doesn't believe this is enforced now.
With much of the gun discussion coming in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, Looney said his proposals are "not necessarily directly related to the circumstances of the Lanza case."
Adam Lanza fatally shot 20 children and six adults at the Newtown school on Dec. 14, using a weapon owned by his mother, Nancy Lanza, who he also shot to death.
Police seized a Bushmaster .223 caliber rifle with a high capacity 30-round magazine, a Glock 10 mm handgun, and a Sig-Sauer 9 mm handgun from inside the school, and a 12 gauge shotgun from Lanza's vehicle in the parking lot, according to state police.
The Bushmaster was used on the victims in the school, and Lanza shot himself with a handgun, according to Vance.
Vance has refused to say whether Nancy Lanza had a pistol permit, which allows an individual to carry a pistol, or an eligibility certificate, which allows someone to purchase a firearm and transport it to their home or place of business.
One solely needs an eligibility certificate to purchase the Bushmaster, according to Vance.
Newtown police Chief Michael Kehoe deferred comment to Vance.
The board has indicated they have had not had any hearings involving the Lanza family.
Scott Wilson, president of the Connecticut Citizens Defense League, noted that Adam Lanza committed the murders without any permit.
The 20-year-old Adam Lanza was too young to even apply for either a pistol permit or an eligibility certificate.
"Now that there is a window open after this atrocity, (some lawmakers) are trying to put everything under the sun on the table," Wilson said. "It is not fair to the law-abiding citizens of Connecticut."
Wilson said he thinks the board should remain in place, as he asserted that many denials are made because an issuing authority just doesn't want to issue a permit.
"(The board's hearings are) a fair process, and going to the board is a better option than going to court," Wilson said. "The board has voluntary members who work very hard. They are very fair. If they have an instance where someone is unsuitable, they are going to stand by it. We have a system that works. It would be a shame to force people to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars in court."
Wilson claimed some municipalities make it harder to get permits than others, such as Hartford and New Haven.
"We need an impartial board," Wilson said.
Vance said police don't keep a list of how many permit applicants are rejected and why.
Typically, an applicant will be rejected "because they don't meet the statutory qualifications," Vance said.
Felony convictions, certain misdemeanor convictions, pending restraining or protective orders and being deemed "unsuitable" to carry a pistol or revolver, can result in being denied.
Many cases are withdrawn or resolved before they come before the board.
"We don't keep statistics on how often we side with police versus an appellant," Knapp said. "It truly is on a case by case basis. Sometimes we find for the issuing authority, and sometimes the reasons for the denial were ridiculous and we found for the appellant. Sometimes the appellants have a good day, and other days, people might wonder 'Why bother appeal?'"
In response to proposals to eliminate the board or change who is on it, Knapp said, "I know police chiefs -- I was one. Some have big egos. I can give ridiculous reasons why people have been denied, like vindictiveness -- one chief was getting back at someone who had competed against him for the police chief's job."
"If they want to expand and put a psychiatrist on the board, then do it," Knapp said.
Knapp said he doesn't know of any cases in which someone committed a crime with a gun after the board overruled a permit denial or revocation.
"The board works very hard for long hours," Knapp said. "One time, we went until 5 a.m., and we are volunteers. If there is no board, people who appeal would have to spend money and add to the court docket."
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