Saturday, March 21, 2015

Guest post: Background Checks and the Sins of My Youth

Background Checks and the Sins of My Youth
Ronald G. Pittenger
This is true, every word, I swear. It happened to me, and as of this writing, is still happening.

From 1973 until 1988, I held a Massachusetts License to Carry Firearms. A "pistol permit," in other words, though it also allows the bearer to carry "long arms, rifles and shotguns." There is a separate license called a "Firearms ID Card" that authorizes the carrying of long arms only. For many reasons–none of them involving legal problems; mostly a lack of time to shoot targets and hunt–I allowed it to expire.

Now that I’m retired, I found my interest in shooting sports returning. So, on August 2nd, 2014 I went to the local police department (Chiefs of Police are the "issuing authority" for these licenses) to renew it. I was told that since it had been so long since it expired, I’d have to apply as a "new" applicant. I was given an application form and an appointment with the officer who’d been put in charge of doing the interviews and background checks. The first available interview time was six weeks out. I took it.

I was also told I’d need to have a certificate from "an approved firearms safety course" and two letters of reference from non-family members. I pointed out I was a veteran of the USMC; "That’s nice, thank you for your service, but you still have to take an approved safety course. There are flyers from various schools in the lobby." I was mildly miffed as I once served briefly as a Range Safety NCO, but figured it was my own fault for waiting so long to renew. I picked up a bunch of flyers on my way out.

I looked the flyers over. For only $50 to $125, I could take the necessary 3-hour safety course that was required. Checking the "schools" online, I found they were all given by police officers, some serving, some retired, and all provided certificates saying the student had taken and passed the course. Most programs accepted cash payments only. I chose one that was close to home, cheap ($50), soon, and reserved a space in the next class, two weeks or so later.

Jumping ahead just a little, the course consisted mostly of listening to the instructor, a retired police officer from a neighboring town, tell war stories about his years of dealing with the public. Most of them started with "No shit...." (That’s an inside joke for old Marines.)

For the demographically inclined, the class had 16 students, all but one was white, and included two women; I’d guess our average age was about 55 to 58. All were seeking pistol permits. Judging by the bumper stickers visible on our cars, only one was a Democrat (could’ve easily been more as most cars had no stickers). After the class was completed, when I asked, the instructor said it was a typical group.

What I got for my $50: one bolt lock, suitable for a rifle, shotgun, or automatic pistol larger than .22 caliber (it looks like a small bicycle wheel lock); one tiny spiral notebook to take notes in; two foam rubber earbuds to reduce noise when firing your weapon; a laser-printed certificate that says I took the course on August 26th (received by mail a few days later), and a colorful pamphlet called Firearms Responsibility in the Home by the National Shooting Sports Foundation. And some advice: Treat all firearms as if they were loaded until you personally assure yourself they are not; Keep your firearms unloaded, but with the ammo nearby, few things are as useless as an unloaded handgun; Do not point a weapon, loaded or not, at anyone unless you are willing to shoot them; Keep and carry with you a copy of your License to Carry–even if you get fined for not having the actual license with you, at least you’re likely to avoid arrest as a gun-toting felon; Nothing has the authority or power of intimidation of a shotgun, but shotguns aren’t always convenient to carry around, and military style pump shotguns are the best; Make an inventory list of your firearms, including serial numbers, in case of theft, fire, et cetera; Check the local laws of anyplace you plan to carry BEFORE you do so (no other state recognizes or honors a Massachusetts License to Carry because we don’t recognize or honor any of theirs).

The instructor also offered–for an additional fee–to assist us in applying for a pistol permit from Utah valid in 41 or 42 states (but not in most of New England). I haven’t decided on that, yet. Maybe.

Back to the proper sequence. After reserving a space in the upcoming safety class, but before taking it, I started trying to get my two reference letters. This, at least, ought to be easy, right? Wrong. State legislators, even–perhaps, especially–in liberal states, are well in tune with their constituents. There is no requirement that the letter say you have good character or sound judgment. The author need not say how long they’ve known you. But, they must state in the letter that they aren’t related to you by blood or marriage. They must also say they are aware you will use the letter in applying for a license to bear firearms.

This is when one finds out who his friends really are. I could have simply paid two drunks down at the local bar each one beer and $5 to write letters they wouldn’t remember writing the next day. It would’ve been quicker, easier, perfectly legal, and I’d still have some friends I thought I’d known for decades.

Not me. I wanted letters from people I was proud to have known for a long time, people who really knew me. I asked the lady who was my wife’s bridesmaid at our wedding. I’d known her for 23 years, done her a thousand favors–she doesn’t drive–and helped her many times in many ways.

"Oh, I can’t do that. Guns are evil.. So are the people who carry them."

"But, you know I’m not evil. You also know I already have guns. When we moved into this house 20 years ago, you helped me carry them inside."

"No!" Scratch one friend. She’d rather feel holy and leave me inconvenienced than be associated with–perhaps, responsible for, in her mind-- any possibility that I’d suddenly shoot up the town with weapons she knows I already have (Damn! I guess I can’t shoot’em up without a license!).

Next, I asked a guy I’d worked with for 15 years. I helped him get his last promotion.
"Sure, I can do that. When do you need it." "Next week," I said to be sure I had it early.
I talked to my wife about her bridesmaid. Another lady friend of ours was there and overheard. "Oh, I can do that. God damned liberals. I’ll whip it up on my laptop computer in five minutes and print it on your printer and sign it." She did and I did and I was half done. I’ve only known her for 14 years.

A week passed. No letter from my former co-worker. I called him; it went to voicemail. I left him a message. That was last August; I’m still waiting for his reply. Scratch two friends.

I took the safety class described above.

Next came filling out the application. No, I’ve never been arrested. No, I’ve never been found guilty of a felony. List every court appearance omitting minor traffic violations: two divorces. Drug use: none (at least 25% of Massachusetts residents use one illegal drug or another; short of testing, how do they verify this? They don’t). Do you abuse prescription medications: no. Psychiatric treatments: none (there are at least 5,000 psychiatrists, psychologists, and licensed social workers practicing in the state. There are no databases that include them all. How could they check this? They don’t). Have you ever been denied a license anywhere? No. List everywhere you were licensed. List every jurisdiction you’ve ever resided in: a long list before 1969, since then, only two towns in Worcester County of Massachusetts. (Again, how could they check other than by criminal records?) Are you now or have you ever been under a restraining order for domestic violence? No. (This one can be a real problem for many people. In a nasty divorce, if an aggrieved spouse gets an order because they "feel threatened," even if no actual threat has been made, you will NEVER get a LTC in Massachusetts until a judge lifts the order. Your neighbor, co-worker or boss can probably do it, too. I’m lucky my ex never heard of this because she’d have done it just for spite. Yes, it was that bitter. But, why is this a life sentence for someone who has broken no laws?) Do you owe any motor vehicle fines or excise taxes or state income tax or other taxes? No. There were other questions on two pages of small type and two more pages of instructions. All to be signed under penalties of perjury (which is frightening to read but difficult to prove. How do you distinguish between merely mistaken and purposeful lying?). Fortunately, I’ve led a mostly boring life, so this was relatively simple.

Over drinks a week later, I mentioned the difficulty of getting a second letter to a very liberal lady I’ve known for about 3 years. "Oh. I don’t like the idea of people running around armed, but if there is anybody I’d trust to do it, you’re him. I’ll write you a letter." And, so I got my second letter. Now, I was ready for the interview.

I went prepared on September 17th. I had my driver’s license, my passport, my adoption papers (my birth name was different and changed in the adoption), my expired LTC, and my DD-214. Also, a check for the $100 license fee along with the reference letters and safety course certificate.

The examining sergeant took my check, training certificate, letters, looked briefly at my IDs, waved most of them away and took my driver’s license. Then the two of us went over my application literally line by line. He omitted all the "residences" while I was in the USMC (he couldn’t check with the no-longer existent Republic of Vietnam, anyway). Since I enlisted at 17 years, 3 months of age, literally all my adult life since discharge has been spent in Worcester County. After entering all my answers on his computerized form, the sergeant checked my criminal record. He found my one (1) speeding ticket in 1998. Then he scrolled down, and down, and down.

"What’s this in 1969?" he asked. "Huh?" was my brilliant reply. "When?" I asked back.

"Looks like you went to court in September," he said.

"Oh, my God. I forgot all about that. Wait a minute! That was a traffic violation. I was ticketed and found guilty of driving unregistered because of a conflict in state laws between here and Kentucky. I bought a Triumph TR-3 and transferred my Kentucky plates to it as allowed by Kentucky law–it said so right on the back of the registration, that I had 7 days to inform the registry–but the cop said I couldn’t do that here. I was fined $25 and a bunch of court costs. I remember being irritated because the costs were more than the fine."

"Okay. If that’s all it was, you’ll get your license. But it says the record is on microfiche and I’ll have to have them send me a copy because I’m required by law to "view" it."
We went into another room where I was fingerprinted and had my photo (mugshot) taken.

"You ought to hear something from us in four to six weeks, Mr. Pittenger."

"Phone call?" I asked. "No, we send you a postcard." "Great. They always get lost in my mail, mixed in with advertising flyers." We both laughed. That was September 17th, 2014.
When I had gotten no response by November 17th, I wrote a short reminder note asking for a status report. The sergeant called, saying he was still waiting for the copy of the microfiche. I left a brief message on December 17th, wishing the sergeant a Merry Christmas. I skipped January, 2015. He called me on February 9th, 2015.

"We called the people who have your record. They say they can’t read it because it’s so old." We both laughed, but if I had hair I would’ve been pulling it out. "We requested that they send it anyway. I don‘t have to be able to read it, just view it." "How long do you expect that to take, sergeant? Obviously they know where to find it already or they couldn’t say it was illegible." "A few more weeks."

On March 8th, I called the sergeant. "In a week or so, it will be six months since we started this process, sergeant. Since it took me six weeks to get an appointment to see you, that means from my point of view, it will be seven and a half months since I started. What have you got to report to me? Please give me a call. I have some questions."
Perhaps he had the next day off. But, on the morning of March 10th, he called. "Good news. We finally got that record. I just put through your approval. It’ll take a week or two for the license to be processed, produced and sent to us for you to pick up. And, I’ll call you or have the secretary do it if I’m not here to let you know when you can pick it up."
Hallelujah! I felt like I’ve been readmitted to the world of real adults.

About an hour after the sergeant called, the secretary called me. "As soon as your license is ready, I’ll send you a postcard." "Please just call me. Those things always get lost in our mail." "Okay. I’ll make a note to call you. Expect it to take three to five weeks."

I do have to wonder. I think that if this had been a matter of securing evidence for a trial, that record would’ve been ready to hand within days, at the most. Because it was a mere "request," and for something the Commonwealth doesn’t see as being to its advantage, it must’ve had a very low priority, assigned to one or two people with no real motivation to produce it.

Today is Saint Paddy’s day, March 17th, 2015. I don’t yet have that license in my hands, but I’ve been promised that it was coming. I won’t hold my breath.

And, someone ought to give a lesson in setting expectations to town employees. Tell me you’ll have X in six weeks, produce it in three and you’re my Hero. Reverse those number, not so much.


Note: Wisconsin is a "shall issue" state. As a Marine veteran, I didn't have to take the class. Took less than two weeks to get a concealed carry permit, using my DD-214. Open carry is legal in WI without a permit unless you are a felon. Have to say, when I was a State Senator in Massachusetts, I didn't give gun letters to folks who asked [Ron would have been an exception--he's a Marine Buddy of long standing; we met at Camp Geiger in 1964.] because a gun charge against someone I wrote a letter for, even if bogus, would have gotten me in the press and be used by my next opponent. I used to say the Senate President wouldn't let us write them to protect the Senate [a stretch--he discouraged it] because a case involving a Senator, a gun letter and I think a mob action had drawn bad press [true]. BTW, I think I was there when Ron bought that TR-3. It had electrical problems, if I recall, which is why he got stopped on Route 2. ~Bob Hall


  1. Absurd, disgusting and illegal, all of this crap!

    "Shall not be infringed!"

    Carry anyway... They are going to make any right illegal eventually.

  2. Yes, Bob, you were there. And tried to talk me out of driving home at dusk with questionable headlights. Which did get me stopped. Just one example of your good advice I failed to take over the decades. Ron P.