Saturday, December 19, 2009

Should Michigan County Gun Boards Be Disbanded As Unnecessary Relics Of Our State's Racist Past?

On April 28th, the Detroit Free Press ran a story in which a 39 year-old Brownstown Township man has accused the Wayne County Clerk's office of wrong-doing with regards to its processing of Michigan Concealed Pistol Licenses (CPLs).

Michigan Concealed Pistol Licenses are permits which allow the named person to carry a concealed and loaded handgun on his person and in his vehicle. Although CPLs are state-issued licenses, they are issued by the County Gun Board of the applicant's county of residence.

Amongst the allegations levied in Mr. David Springsteen's lawsuit against Wayne County are claims that some staff members charged interested CPL applicants an expediting fee to speed up processing.

In Wayne County, it is not unusual for CPL applications to take as long as five months to be processed. In contrast, many of my CPL students from neighboring Oakland County have told me that they received their CPLs in the postal mail as soon as two weeks after submission.

Although the corruption charges alleged in Springsteen's suit are still under investigation and are - at this date - still unproven, they cast an ugly shadow on the Wayne County Clerk's Office.

The possibility of public corruption within the CPL issuance process in Wayne County should force us to revisit the sordid history of Michigan County Gun Boards and ask ourselves if County Gun Boards should continue to exist.

Ultimately, we may come to the conclusion that County Gun Boards are an unnecessary and ugly relic of our state's racist past. Accordingly, we may also find that it makes more sense for the state government to take over the role of CPL issuance, in the same manner that it uniformly controls the issuance of state Driver's Licenses.

The Genesis of Michigan County Gun Boards

In 1927, the state of Michigan adopted the Michigan Firearms Act (1927 PA 372) which amongst other things required that all handguns be "safety inspected" (i.e. registered) and created a local Gun Board in each of Michigan's 83 counties.

The law was passed at the behest of the Klan, which was very active in Detroit at the time, as a direct result of "not guilty" verdicts reached in 1925 during two highly publicized trials. The two trials centered around an incident in which a black physician, Dr. Ossian Sweet, who had recently moved into a non-integrated Detroit neighborhood.

Racism Spawned The Michigan Firearms Act of 1927

On the night of September 8th, 1925 a large mob of Klan members and sympathizers gathered in a school-yard, directly across the street, in front of the Sweet residence, while police officers patrolled the blocked-off street. A short time thereafter, protesters began hurling rocks into the home.

The scene rapidly deteriorated, as evidenced by the eventual eruption of gunfire exchanged by both the mob and the inhabitants of the house. By the time the dust had settled, two members of the mob were shot - one of which died. At this time the police officers, who had just stood idly during the gunfight, stormed the house and arrested everyone inside for the charge of murder.

Ultimately, the first trial ended as a mistrial; no guilty verdicts were reached. Additionally, the second trial actually produced a verdict - "not guilty." Obviously, the Klan was incensed at the outcome - black citizens being allowed to use lethal force against racists - and lobbied the Michigan Legislature to pass 1927 PA 372.

Michigan Gun Control Has Racist Roots

The County Gun Boards, via their newly defined powers and duties, were then utilized to deny and discourage black Michigan residents of their right to purchase and own firearms and to also inhibit their ability to acquire Concealed Pistol Licenses. CPLs at that time were issued under "discretionary" policies, whose licensing requirements significantly varied from county to county.

In actual practice, counties where large numbers of black residents lived, such as Wayne County, had very stringent licensing requirements. Thus, PA 372 was used as an effective form of gun control with the explicit purpose of lawfully disarming black residents.

Michigan Enacts "Shall Issue" Licensing

PA 381 of 2000 revamped Michigan state law with respect to the licensing of CPLs. In essence, it standardized the licensing requirements on a state-wide basis, forbade lower levels of governments from establishing its own set of requirements, and removed much of the "discretionary" authority County Gun Boards had with respect to determining who would be licensed.

As long as a Michigan resident could meet uniform criteria, the law was modified to affirm that CPL applicants "shall be" issued a license. The criteria for licensure was stiffened, however it applied to everyone, regardless of which Michigan county in which the applicant resided. Thus, the legal paradigm shift in law would - in theory - remove the racial component which had existed under prior law.

As a direct consequence of the uniform criteria, many Michigan County Gun Boards currently elect to routinely issue CPLs via mail, once it has been determined that applicants have met the state-wide uniform requirements.

For example, the Wayne County Gun Board which processes CPLs in the state's most populous county does not require an appearance before it prior to applicant licensure. In contrast, some counties - such as Macomb County - still require them.

Did "Shall Issue" Eradicate The Need For County Gun Boards?

Despite the adoption of "Shall Issue," Wayne County still lags significantly behind most other counties with regards to the time that it takes to process CPLs. Many applicants in Wayne County find out the status of their CPL applications when they are pulled over by law enforcement officers on routine traffic stops.

Accordingly, a case can be made that there is a large disparity in service levels, with respect to processing time, for Wayne County applicants relative to other counties. This is the case even when other counties still require an in-person appearance of the applicant before licensure, as is the case in Macomb County.

Service processing of CPLs in Wayne County is so slow that many Wayne County residents "temporarily" change their addresses to another county while applying. Once the CPL is approved the applicants then change their addresses back to Wayne County. Of course, this tactic is illegal but it doesn't stop folks from doing it.

The obvious conclusion is that - at least - in Wayne County, which has a racist gun control past, provides poor service to its constituents which to a large extent is African American. Gun control was created to discourage black folks from getting CPLs. Under our current system, which has undue delays compared to other counties, is succeeding in that goal - suppression of CPLs in Wayne County.

Since the County Gun Boards were created to administer separate standards of CPL issuance under "Discretionary Licensing," there is no need for them under our current system of "Shall Issue." In fact, CPL issuance done at the state level would improve processing times in Wayne County.

The only parties who would complain about moving this function from the counties to the state would be the actual counties where a large number people apply for CPLs every year. CPL application fees - currently set at $105 - is a cash cow, especially when you consider that the state of Indiana only charges $70 for its concealed handgun licenses which is good for a lifetime. Michigan CPLs must be renewed every four years.

Michigan county gun boards are nothing more than an ancient relic of an ugly time in our history. Under its current implementation, folks in Wayne County are getting substandard service. Even worse, there are allegations that the process has been compromised by corruption of county employees. The time has come to move this function to the state level.

What do you think?
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