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Who should have the authority to issue gun permits in Rhode Island?  It's a question that has sparked a heated debate in one community, but now may have statewide implications with legislation introduced just this week. Jim Hummel speaks with firearms advocates and the president of the police chiefs association about who should be getting permits - and who should be issuing  them.


To see the current laws on permitting click here and here.



The crowd filling the Metcalf Elementary cafeteria last month was ready to let the Exeter Town Council hear it - and for nearly an hour many did.

``I want the right to defend myself from the nitwits and the killers out there.''

The issue: a potential change in how the town issues permits to carry concealed weapons.

Edwards: ``They do not want the town of Exeter to issue permits to carry - they want it to go to the AG's office.''

Lance Edwards was right in the middle of  the discussion that night - excoriating the council for wanting to shift the permitting power away from local officials to the state, where critics say applicants would have a tougher time obtaining a permit.

While the Rhode Island Constitution - like the U.S. Constitution - guarantees to the right to bear arms, it is state law that regulates how citizens can obtain a permit to carry weapons outside of their homes or businesses.

The town of Exeter is a microcosm for many of the discussions going across the country when it comes to guns - and a window into how heated some of the debate has become.

And it was two simple words that had the crowd in Exeter worked up last month:  shall and may.

The law says to get a permit a person must be 21 years old, have a fear of injury to himself or property and be suitable to carry - in other words pass a criminal background check. If he or she does that then the law says a local police chief quote ``shall'' issue the permit.

But another section of the law says if you apply for a permit from the attorney general - he quote ``may'' issue a permit upon a showing of need.  And that, the critics say, gives the AG undue discretion to deny somebody a permit.

Exeter is the only town in the state that has no police department, so the  permitting authority has fallen to the town clerk and town sergeant - both elected positions. The majority of the council believes the clerk and sergeant are not in a position to make the decision to issue - and they want to shift the responsibility to the AG's office.

Hummel: ``Because we don't have a police department, because we don't have that mechanism that other towns have that these people are not equipped or in a position to be able to make that decision for a permit, so how do you react to that?''

Edwards: ``I think it's a lie. I think it's an untruth. I think it's an excuse.''

Desmarais: ``Our association had problems with that wording: that a police chief  or license board shall issue.''

Cumberland Police Chief John Desmarais  is the president of the Rhode Island Police Chiefs Association, which supports moving gun permitting from local departments to the AG.

Desmarais: ``The chiefs are just not comfortable with that. We're law enforcement officers,  we're chief executive officers and to give someone a gun permit, a license to carry a concealed weapon throughout the state, it just doesn't sit well with some police chiefs, including myself. And that's  what we're looking to do - have one state entity, looking at all the permits in one way with the same criteria regardless of who you are, then issuing a permit or denying a permit.''

In fact Desmarais already steers potential applicants away from the Cumberland Police Station to the attorney general's office, unless they insist on applying locally.

Swann: ``It's not a guaranteed issuance of a permit, there are definitely steps that need to be met, once those steps are met, then there's a limited amount of discretion he still enjoys, as opposed to the AG, who has a vast, vast - essentially unlimited amount of discretion - on the AG's part.''

Roger Swann is president of  the Rhode Island Firearm Owners League, which has gone to court  when local police departments have been hesitant to process for gun permit applications.

A decade ago the group won its first major case in Smithfield,  where the chief at the time  refused to even accept an application for a permit. A Superior Court judge said that violated state law.

Swann: ``Some towns it was just as you would expect it to be, you ask for the application, you fill it out, you meet the requirements, provide the fingerprints, provide the picture provide the signoff from the instructor that you qualify, then you got your permit. Other towns you had to struggle just to get the application.''

Hummel: ``Is your sense from looking at this statewide, that it's an ignorance within the police departments or more they want to wash their hands of it and push it toward the state.''

Swann: ``I think a very small number... I wouldn't call it an ignorance , it's something that's never crossed their radar, nobody's ever come in and asked them for an application, so it's never anything they've had to deal with.''

So what about the perception it is more difficult to get a permit from the attorney general's office? The department supplied The Hummel Report with statistics showing that over the past decade past decade an average 85 percent of new applications and 98 percent of renewals were approved.

The permit is good for four years.

At the end of 2012 there were 3,403 active pistol permits issued by the AG.

Hummel: ``Shall with the local communities. May with the AG. And that's what comes down the crux of it for you, does it not?''

Swann: ``It does. Because one is discretionary.''

Hummel: ``So even if you meet X,X,X...''

Swann: ``You can still be denied.''

Desmarais: ``With the attorney general's office issuing the permits is they track it - so if we run a records check on someone and they have  gun permit issued by the attorney general's office, it's going to appear. So the officer on the street knows they have a license to carry.''

Hummel: ``Is that a concern right now that one town may be not be talking to another literally or figuratively.''

Desmarais: ``That's correct.''

Hummel: ``It's not synched up.''

Desmarais: ``It is not synched up and that's what we're looking to do; instead of having 39 ways of issuing gun permits, have one statewide.

On Tuesday Attorney General Peter Kilmartin announced he seeking legislation to have all permitting fall under his department, as part of a larger package of gun control  bills. The bill would eliminate the option of applying to a local police department and would also require a national criminal records check, including fingerprinting with the FBI.

Desmarais: ``If you're a law abiding citizen and you have a necessity to have a gun permit or you feel you should carry a gun for whatever reason it is, you shouldn't have to worry where you go; you shouldn't have to worry whether you go to the  state or the federal system as long as you can articulate why you need a permit  and that you're of sound mind and body and a law abiding citizen it shouldn't matter where you go.''

Swann: ``Our biggest fear is messing with something's that not broken. We have very good statutes, if you read our statutes, we have case law that supports our interpretation of the statues.''

Hummel: ``Even in those places where people go in and they're getting denied for really no other reason - it  seems like you're having to fight each brush fire as it comes up.''

Swann: ``It is a brush firefight. But the statute's good, the statute's on our side.''

And for Lance Edwards - the battle is just beginning.

Edwards: ``I'll be taking names of volunteers for the next election to go door to door to make sure these people do not get back in office again.''

Hummel: ``Why do you think this has struck such a chord?''


Edwards: ``So many people nowadays are so concerned about their rights being stepped on - at the lowest level in town government, you see what happens when it happens. There's very little I can do in Washington, I'm just one person - but there's a lot I can do Exeter.''


In Exeter, Jim Hummel for The Hummel Report.