North Carolina lawmakers are considering barring sheriffs from requesting the mental health records of applicants for concealed gun permits. But an examination of dozens of cases shows that officials in Mecklenburg rely on those records to judge how safe it is to grant someone a permit.
Access to the records have allowed Mecklenburg residents who were denied gun permits for mental health reasons to win permits when they appealed to the chief District Court judge.
Under the proposed Handgun Permit Modernization Act, which the National Rifle Association supports, sheriffs would be barred from seeking information beyond what is included in a national database.
Currently, Sheriff Chipp Baileys office requests mental health records from Carolinas Medical Center, Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center and three treatment centers. Bailey said the proposed legislation would do away with a safeguard that prevents mentally ill people from carrying concealed handguns.
NRA spokeswoman Stephanie Samford said the organization believes anyone adjudicated mentally incompetent or involuntarily committed to mental institutions should be barred from getting a permit. But, she said, We think there are serious problems when you make people release confidential files.
If the sheriff denies a permit request, an applicant can appeal to District Court. In Mecklenburg, Chief Judge Lisa Bell has reversed the sheriff based on information in the mental health records, taking into account how long ago the treatment occurred, the age of the applicant when treated, the diagnosis and follow-up.
I try to examine each one individually and look at the facts as they pertain to that individual, Bell said, noting that it is a time-consuming process. Ive written back to people and said, You have a mental health record, go have an assessment and if your psychologist or psychiatrist signs off that youre okay to have a firearm, that will be fine.
The sponsors of House Bill 310 say the proposed law is necessary to ensure statewide uniformity relating to firearms because not every sheriff requests mental health treatment records.
Another reason, said Rep. Kelly Hastings, R-Gaston, is because Presbyterian charges applicants a $20 fee for records. Hastings said he had received complaints about the extra fee. State law only authorizes an $80 application fee for a concealed-carry permit, plus $10 for fingerprinting.
Who should get a permit?
To understand the challenges facing sheriffs and judges in deciding whether a person should be allowed to carry a concealed gun, consider a few of the cases filed in big black binders in Bells office on the ninth floor of the Mecklenburg County courthouse:
• One applicant was a divorcee fearful of her ex-husband, but denied a concealed weapons permit by the Sheriffs Office because she was committed to Broughton Hospital as a child for mental health treatment.
• Another applicant was a high-end watch salesman who sought a permit to carry a concealed weapon for protection on his job. He was denied by the Sheriffs Office because he had threatened to kill himself in 2001 after he broke up with his girlfriend.
• A 23-year-old man was sent for counseling by his high school social worker in 2007 because of suicidal thoughts after his mother died. I was young and I was still grieving over my mothers death ..., he wrote in asking Bell to overturn the Sheriffs denial.
• A veteran tried to kill himself while serving in Iraq in 2005. I have never thought of it again, he wrote. I have been seeing mental health at the VA since 2009. I do not believe the denial is right. Having a weapon makes me feel safer. According to notes from the VA Medical Center in Salisbury, the man no longer has suicidal thoughts.
• A 68-year-old veteran of Vietnam and Iraq has a history PTSD, depressive neurosis and alcohol abuse. He is taking medications and keeps regular appointments at the Veterans Administration Hospital.
In all five cases, Bell reversed the Sheriffs Office and approved the permit requests.
I dont think this law was intended to punish people who do seek help or support, she said. Particularly veterans if they know treatment will preclude a handgun permit, they may be far less likely to get that treatment.
Sheriff Bailey said he is not unduly uncomfortable with Bells decisions but added, The judges takes full responsibility for making the decisions they do and bear the full weight if someone who has the denial overturned and then commits a violent crime.
That has not happened in the two years she has handled appeals, Bell pointed out, and she said she believes the Sheriffs Office could use more discretion. I think they are more comfortable with very defined rules, she said.
Overruling the sheriff
Only a small percentage of cases ever reach District Court because the Sheriffs Office approves the overwhelming majority of requests for handgun purchase and concealed carry permits.
Since January 2011, the office has denied fewer than 2 percent of requests for permits to carry a concealed handgun and 4 percent of requests for gun permits.
Once Bell gets a case, she is more likely to overturn an appeal than uphold it.
In 27 of 35 cases during the first 10 weeks of 2013, she granted permits to applicants wanting to buy a handgun or carry a concealed weapon. In nearly half of those cases, the applicants had undergone treatment for mental health issues. Other cases hinged on substance abuse and criminal convictions.
In eight cases, she upheld the sheriffs ruling. Six of those applicants were felons and automatically barred from gun ownership.
My statutory requirement is to determine if the denial (by the Sheriffs Office) is reasonable, Bell said.
There was the Charlotte businessman who was treated in 1997 for alcoholism, and is now sober. Bell granted him a permit.
Also a 30-year-old security guard denied a renewal of his concealed handgun permit because of a conviction in 2000 of simple assault and communicating threats. Bell overturned the sheriff, noting in her order that the man was granted a permit in 2004, had no other criminal charges or mental health incidents, had completed firearms training, and was certified as an armed guard.
Another man was denied a handgun permit by the Sheriffs Office because he was convicted three times in other states of possessing small amounts of marijuana when he was in his 20s. He is now 37. Bell overturned the ruling and granted the permit.
It was simple possession, which is a class 3 misdemeanor here, Bell said. It was a discretionary call on my part. Ive seen convictions from other states that, even though they are comparable, theyre not punishable the same way in North Carolina. I read through the statutes. Ive even gone so far as to call attorneys in other states.
A right to own guns
The law does not specify that appeals go before the chief judge, but Bell said she took over the process in December 2010 after realizing there was no system within District Court for reviewing appeals. She created a form for applicants to fill out and has been handling every appeal since then.
Under current law, the District Court judge has the final say. Under the proposed new law, applicants could appeal the District Court judges ruling to the N.C. Court of Appeals.
Regan Miller, appointed to take over as chief judge when Bell moves to Superior Court, said that having mental health records certainly would make it clearer whether a person should be granted a concealed carry permit.
Bell, who owns three revolvers and has a permit to carry a concealed weapon, said she believes in a persons right to own (guns) if it is all legal.
But because of what I have been doing as a career for the past 15-plus years, she said, I realize that not every one who gets access to one should have one, whether thats through legal or non-legal routes.
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