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Atty. Ralph D. Sherman

130 West Main Street • New Britain, Connecticut 06052

tel. (860) 229-0213 • fax (860) 229-0235 • e-mail


Legal Opinion

May 1998

The last word on "suitability" and pistol permits

This is the column that I promised on suitability and pistol permits.

If you have a pistol permit, you ought to know that it can be revoked any time if the police decide that you are not "a suitable person." Likewise, if you're applying for a pistol permit, you can be turned down if the police decide you're not "suitable."

True, you can appeal a revocation or a denial to the Board of Firearms Permit Examiners. But the Board also must determine whether you are "a suitable person."

Whatever that means.

The words "a suitable person" come from Connecticut General Statutes Section 29-28(b), the basic pistol-permit statute. Although many news organizations and even the NRA usually list Connecticut as a "shall-issue" state, they're incorrect. We're a "may-issue" state.

A true "shall-issue" state has a statute that says the police "shall issue" a pistol permit to anyone who has not been convicted of certain crimes (usually felonies and violent crimes). There's no vague "suitability" requirement that's open to interpretation. There's just a laundry list of certain convictions that block the permit.

In Connecticut we have both "suitability" and a laundry list, which includes all felonies and (since 1994) 11 misdemeanors.

What is "suitability"?  I don't know, but I can tell some things that could make you "unsuitable":
- Having a lot of speeding tickets on your record.
- Being investigated by the police for an alleged crime, several years ago, with no conviction.
- Being investigated with no arrest.

If you doubt these examples, I'll show you actual cases that have been appealed to the Board of Firearms Permit Examiners - cases in which the Board has found the appellants to be "unsuitable."

I'm not saying the Board isn't doing its job. The Board has to do what the statute says.

But I do think that "suitability" is just another feel-good idea that doesn't really protect anybody from criminals.

Two months ago, I wrote (in this column) about pistol permits in Texas, a true "shall-issue" state, with no "suitability" requirement. Of 114,809 people who received Texas permits in 1996, only 399, or 0.3 percent were arrested. Those arrests include minor misdemeanors and crimes that have nothing to do with guns or concealed carry. And those figures are arrests, not convictions. After some statistician sorts out the non-felony crimes and the non-convictions, the number will be much smaller.

But what really counts, I think, is an even smaller figure:  How many permit-holders were convicted of crimes that involved the permit in some way?  That is, how many individuals committed a crime that was somehow facilitated by the individual having the permit?

No one seems to have the answer to that question. But if there were really a problem with permit-holders using their concealed handguns in crime, you can bet that Handgun Control, Inc., would be waving the statistics in foot-high numerals. The truth is, the real figure must be way below the 0.3 percent who were arrested.

To my way of thinking, that shows the Texas system is working just fine. Without "suitability."

So for those of you who think that suitability is a bad criterion, I agree. It's vague and leads to inconsistent outcomes that vary unpredictably. With suitability in the statute, we need the Board, and we need the Board to be manned by good guys. If a bad governor should succeed in stacking the Board, or if the Board is eliminated by the legislature, very bad things could happen.

But I am a pragmatist. I have to consider: How do we get there from here?  We've had suitability as long as we've had permits; we've had a Board only since the late 1960s. A legislator who tries at this point to take suitability out of the statute will be accused of trying to give permits to people who have been denied by the police AND by the Board. Good luck.

More importantly, I think we have to accept the fact that Connecticut is not Pennsylvania (a very pro-gun state). Fortunately, Connecticut isn't New Jersey, either. We were a rural state until after World War II; then people started moving from the city into the country, thereby building suburbia. We are a small state with a big culture clash.

When Rep. Lawlor tells a reporter that we need to make it possible to pull permits of guys like Matthew Beck (the lottery murderer), I tell the reporter:  Suitability is already in the statute. The police and the Board ARE pulling permits of guys who have no history of convictions - in some cases no history of arrests. I think that suitability helps convince the voters in the middle - those who don't own guns and don't belong to Handgun Control - that we already have a tough standard and enough restrictions. So I see suitability as a way of keeping things from getting worse.

Not that they can't get worse. I just don't see suitability disappearing any time soon. What we have is a workable political compromise. As a rule, Connecticut residents who don't get into trouble can get pistol permits.

I have hundreds of friends and acquaintances who have had permits for years. They've never been in trouble and probably never will be. But in about 20 other states these people couldn't get permits under any circumstances. So I accept our present status as a state "in the middle."  We're not Pennsylvania, but we're not New Jersey.

And by the way, Handgun Control agrees with me. Their most recent "report card" on gun laws gave Pennsylvania an F and New Jersey (with only 2,200 permit holders) an A minus. We got a C plus.

Copyright 1998 by Ralph D. Sherman

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