Last week, the Joint Behavioral Health and Gun Safety Task Force heard presentations from the United States Department of Justice and Connecticut State Police as they work to design appropriate legislation to address Rhode Island’s gun safety laws.
Attorney Jean Miller of the Department of Justice came to the State House last Thursday to deliver her presentation, detailing what is needed to form a Disqualifiers Relief Board for those who are denied when attempting to purchase a firearm due to a flag in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS).
Run by the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), NICS is used by licensed firearm sellers to instantly check if an individual attempting to purchase a firearm has a criminal record or other factor that does not allow them to own a firearm. Miller explained certain factors need to be in place to operate an appropriate disqualifier’s board.
Although there are federal categories that would prohibit an individual from purchasing a firearm, Miller said that states are able to design their own form of a relief board.
“We want to give you, the state, the ability to steer the ship,” said Miller.
Examples of individuals who would be denied a firearm or firearm license because of a flag in NICS include those convicted of a crime resulting in imprisonment over one year, fugitives of justice, unlawful user or addict of controlled substances and an individual adjudicated mental defective or involuntarily committed to a mental institution.
When an individual is flagged when trying to purchase a firearm, Miller pointed out that only identifying information – including name, gender and date of birth; no information as to why one has been flagged – is released.
When it comes to who will hear the appeal, Miller said the state can decide to form a board for that specific purpose, let the process go through state courts, or another lawful authority such as the police can hear the cases.
According to Miller, a person must be able to apply for appeals, and so long as the individual being granted relief is not contrary to public interest and not likely to act in a manner dangerous to public safety, the individual should be given relief. Miller added that states can determine what information is provided to the board, but the minimum needs to be criminal and mental health history.
Miller added that a state can determine additional requirements, including a fee to appeal, but they must be reasonable.
“You need to make sure the additional criteria doesn’t make it impossible to apply for relief,” said Miller.
When given the chance to ask questions, Cranston Senator Frank Lombardi was concerned about individuals placed under guardianships being flagged, especially because of Rhode Island’s guardianship program.
“Guardianship is given to those in need of an alternate decision maker; it’s a very important decision to be made by a court limited in their resources,” said Lombardi.
In response, Miller explained that Rhode Island would be able to address that in the language of the bill they eventually create.
Although there appeared to be confusion as to how to handle individuals flagged for reasons that could be legal in Rhode Island, Representative Deb Ruggiero, head of the task force, found the presentation very helpful.
“It was very beneficial,” said Ruggiero. “[It was good] to see how we need to set up a relief disqualifiers board.”
Lt. Eric Cooke of the Connecticut State Police gave a presentation detailing the state’s special licensing and firearms policies, which were enacted last year, following the events in Newtown, Conn.
Although the purpose of their presentation was not to speak about their assault weapons ban, Cooke explained that Public Act 13 updated many procedures, including the weapons ban, which prohibits over 100 weapons.
He went on to explain that residents of Connecticut who wish to obtain a license to carry and purchase a pistol must first obtain a temporary license from their local police department, then go to the state police.
“That’s where NICS comes in,” said Cooke, explaining that the State Police are the point of contact for NICS.
Being the point of contact means they are responsible for both providing the information to NICS about those who are flagged and performing background checks through the system.
“All the information flows through us to get to NICS,” said Cooke.
Cooke explained that he still only receives identifying information.
“I could not query the Department of Mental Health and Addition Services,” said Cooke. He added that if someone wants to know the reasoning or gain more information, the State Police directs them to NICS. “We’ll direct them to the NICS appeal process and they will tell them where the flag came from.”
However, Cooke added that his department would have access to criminal records, not mental health.
“It’s very insightful to see how other states report,” said Ruggiero. She added that learning the State Police was the point of contact for NICS was interesting. “They have a lot more responsibility.”
Ruggiero added that having the state police as a point of contact would likely not be the route for Rhode Island.
“It would not be through state police; it would be using a district court system for reporting,” said Ruggiero.
The representative added that presentations such as this are very helpful to the task force as they try to determine what is best for Rhode Island.