Gun permits climb in second year of relaxed law

Applicants with mental-health issues still worry law enforcers

The number of Iowans with permits to carry concealed weapons increased dramatically again this year, the second year of relaxed laws governing their issuance.

Through the first 11 months of this year, sheriffs in Iowa’s 99 counties had issued 37,327 permits.

Those permits, combined with the 102,795 permits issued in 2011 — the first year after Iowa went from a "may issue" to a "shall issue" state — brings to more than 140,000 the number of Iowans licensed to carry weapons.

At the end of 2010, before the law change, 1.3 percent of Iowans had carry permits. That percentage increased to 3.3 percent at the end of last year and stands at 4.6 percent through the first 11 months of this year.

The number of new permits issued this year is about equal to the cumulative number of Iowans who had permits to carry before the law changed on Jan. 1, 2011, said Ross Loder, bureau chief of the Iowa Department of Public Safety.

Though the law seems to be working well, with few untoward incidents involving permit holders, sheriffs remain concerned that system allows potentially dangerous people to buy and carry handguns.

The law that liberalized the issuance of weapons permits includes a provision requiring the Department of Public Safety to forward disqualifying mental health information to the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Checks System.

While the federal Gun Control Act of 1968 prohibits the possession of firearms by the mentally ill, it specifies that people can be deprived of that right only if they have been declared mentally unfit by a court or have been committed to an institution for the mentally ill.

The FBI database, which is used for background checks on applicants for permits to own and carry weapons in Iowa and other states, flags applicants with the two disqualifying mental health statuses.

During 2011, Iowa clerk of court offices transmitted to the FBI database 2,369 mental health disqualification records, according to Loder. As a practical matter, the system includes few such records generated before 2011, he said.

“Absolutely, that is a concern,” said Linn County Sheriff Brian Gardner. “Mental illness is a key factor in most of the mass murders” such as the Dec. 14 fatal shootings in Newtown, Conn., he said.

Maj. Steve Dolezal of the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office said the “shall issue” law’s limitations on sheriffs’ discretion in issuing gun permits is especially harmful in the case of applicants with mental health issues.

“We’ve lost the ability to take input from family, friends, neighbors and employers — the people with the best insights into an applicant’s mental health status,” Dolezal said.

Gardner said jail and prison populations include a high percentage of people suffering from mental illness. In most cases, he said, “they don’t get any treatment until they come to me.”

People with mental health ailments began showing up disproportionately in the criminal justice system in the 1970s after the state began reducing services at its mental health institutions without providing adequate funding to duplicate those services within communities, according to Jessica Peckover, jail alternatives coordinator with the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office.

Today, she said, people with serious, chronic mental ailments make up 16 percent of the criminal justice system population, which compares with 5.8 percent in the general public.

The Johnson County program diverts from jail to treatment programs about 200 of the approximately 7,000 people arrested each year by the Sheriff’s Office, Peckover said.

Her clients, she said, have been arrested for lower-level offenses rather than violent crimes.

Though Gardner regrets that the “shall issue” law has taken away most of his discretion in issuing permits, he acknowledges that few if any permit holders have been involved in shooting-related crimes, either as a victim or perpetrator.

“That’s not surprising — the bad guys are not going to think it’s important to apply for a permit,” he said.

Loder said he had heard of only a few untoward incidents involving people with permits to carry, mainly drunken driving arrests of people carrying weapons.

During the past year, the Linn County Sheriff’s Office has issued 63 denials, suspensions or revocations of permits either to purchase or carry weapons, according to Maj. John Godar.

Most of those cases, he said, involve felony convictions or convictions for drug or domestic violence offenses.Godar said some disqualifications are detected when the department does an annual recheck of its database, which flags violations that may have occurred after the issuance of a permit. Johnson County also conducts annual rechecks of its database, Dolezal said.

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