According to a recently released state audit of the Office of Governmental Accountability, Connecticut residents can wait up to 18 months to receive an appeal hearing after a firearms permit has been revoked or denied.
Despite holding more meetings to address a chronic backlog of cases, the Board of Firearms Permit Examiners – the state board that hears the appeals – has struggled for more than a decade to keep up with an increasing caseload.
Currently, the board has a backlog of 631 cases, and is scheduling new hearings in January 2022 for people who had their licenses revoked. That backlog was exacerbated by two months of cancellations due to COVID-19, but the problem of delays has already been highlighted by the State Auditors of Public Accounts in seven audit reports dating back to 2001.
Retired Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Encon Police Col. Kyle Overturf, who serves as the board’s secretary along with managing the Blue Trail Range in Wallingford, said most of the backlog is from appeals of permits being revoked, not denied. Before the board was forced to suspend meetings due to the pandemic, the wait time for a hearing to appeal a permit denial had been reduced to two months, Overturf said.
The board splits hearings nearly evenly between denial appeals and revocations. In the five meetings that have been postponed since it last met on March 5, the board was scheduled to hear 52 denial cases and 75 revocations.
Many of these revocations are required by statute, said Overturf, if the permit holder was deemed a threat to themselves or others, for example, in cases of protective or restraining orders, and risk warrants.
Local police departments provide initial oversight over firearms permits for Connecticut residents, who can be disqualified for obvious cause, for example domestic abuse convictions, which is one of the more common reasons, according to Gregory Cerritelli, an partner with Knight & Cerritelli, who has represented clients appealing before the board.
Local law enforcement also has the discretion to make judgement calls, when for example someone has a history of service calls to the police for suicidal ideation, or the police feel they have shown a lack of good judgement, he explained. Cerritelli said that he took a call from one applicant who had been denied a permit they were legally blind.
An encounter with the police could result in a firearms permit being revoked. When a permit holder is arrested, the police send the police report and the permit to the State Police Firearms Permit Examiners, who determine whether to revoke the permit.
Cerritelli said that he has represented clients who had a permit revoked because police found a gun in the home when making a domestic arrest, another was arrested for a DUI and had a weapon in the vehicle, another had a drug overdose and was found with a pistol in their vehicle.
“Someone could get arrested for domestic violence, and their permit gets revoked. They can do the Family Violence Education Program, and the charges against them are dismissed,” Cerritelli said. “In those instances, they can almost always get their permit back from the state police, but they end up waiting a year-and-a-half for a hearing.”
Audit reports have been critical of the backlog.
In a 2019 audit that covered the board’s activity in 2016 and 2017, auditors wrote that the delay for a hearing showed the board didn’t “reasonably determine,” how often it needed to meet. An audit released in May declared that the wait times in 2017 through 2019 “may deny appellants the right to a timely hearing.”
The all-volunteer board is known to take meetings into the evening. Cerritelli recalled a meeting a few years ago on a hot summer day in Middletown, when the air conditioning shut off at 5 p.m. and hearings continued in the hot building into the night.
In response to each audit, the board has agreed that it needs to trim the backlog, and has gone from meeting 11 times a year at the end of the 2000s to 21 scheduled meetings this year. Still, the Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection wrote in response to the most recent audit that there will always be a backlog because there are more revocations each year than there is time to hear them all.
The number of revocations spiked after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, which sparked sweeping changes to gun laws – including a requirement that people have permits to buy long guns and ammunition. The number of revocations has continued to rise in recent years, from 291 in 2015 to 446 in 2019, according to the most recent audit.
Overturf said the board is looking to return for its next scheduled meeting on June 18, weighing its options and working out the logistics of holding either virtual hearings, or in-person hearings with distancing measures.