Grief Over Gun Permits
Delays In Renewals, Appeals Lead To Suit
By TRACY GORDON FOX
Courant Staff Writer
October 8, 2007
James Goldberg was never in trouble with the law, never even had a traffic ticket. And he had no difficulty obtaining a gun permit to carry a pistol to his job as night manager of a liquor store for protection.
So when Glastonbury police seized Goldberg's gun and revoked his permit - following his arrest on charges of breach of peace June 21 at Chili's restaurant after an employee complained about seeing the gun under his T-shirt - friends and family, even the Wethersfield police chief who signed off on the gun permit, figured it was a misunderstanding that would be quickly corrected.
The misdemeanor charge was dismissed about a month later in Superior Court in Manchester, leaving Goldberg, 29, with a clean record. But he will have to wait until May 14, 2009, for a hearing before the Board of Firearms Permit examiners, a civilian board that hears appeals on revoked or denied gun permits.
Goldberg, who has hired an attorney and plans to file a federal lawsuit over the delay, is not alone.
In fact, M. Peter Kuck, secretary of the Board of Firearms Permit Examiners, who was appointed by Gov. M. Jodi Rell for the firearms permit board, has filed his own federal lawsuit against the state police, saying that even he could not have his permit renewed in a timely manner. He cites an average delay of 17 to 20 months and sometimes up to three years that he and others have to wait for a hearing.
Kuck blames the State Police Special License and Firearms unit for mismanagement, arrogance and attempting to create its own laws on gun permits. The unit, composed of troopers, is responsible for the issuance of state pistol permits, oversight and regulation of firearm sale transactions, and issuance of licenses.
When a permit has been denied or revoked by police, a gun owner can go before the seven-member civilian board of firearms permit examiners, a kind of last resort to get a permit. About 300 cases are brought to the board each year. The case load increased dramatically after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, according to records.
Both Kuck and Goldberg are claiming a violation of due process rights for citizens seeking gun permits, a frustrating problem that has in some cases put careers on hold as people wait for months to get a hearing before the review board.
Even though Kuck is one of those board members responsible for the permits of others, he cannot get his own permit renewed until he goes for a hearing Nov. 13, 2008.
"It is not only him, but a lot of people, and we don't even know how many at this point," said Rachel Baird, Kuck's attorney. "It is clear that his due process rights were being violated."
"Since the complaint has been filed, additional information has come to light that will require amending the complaint and adding new defendants," Baird said.
Standing up for his civil rights has not made Kuck popular with the board. He recently learned that there has been an attempt to remove him from the board because his actions were costing the state money.
"We have tried to involve the governor's office to have him removed, but the statutes [on appointments] tie their hands," Susan Mazzoccoli, executive director of the civilian board, wrote in an e-mail to an employee of another state agency.
Abuse Of Power?
Scott Hoffman, owner of Hoffman's Gun Center in Newington, said the waiting time and hassles are a constant complaint with his customers.
"There is no due process," Hoffman said, adding that the state police firearms unit is understaffed and under-funded to do the job. "It's nuts, completely nuts."
He said he is glad that two gun owners are finally taking the state and the review board to task. "It's like fighting city hall. It's a very hard thing to do. You have to have the money and the stomach to do it."
Kuck, a member of the Ye Connecticut Gun Guild Inc., submitted his application to the Department of Public Safety to renew his permit on March 19, prior to its April 16 expiration date. But state police demanded that he submit a birth certificate or U.S. passport for the renewal, saying one of those forms of ID have been required for renewal since Sept. 11, 2001.
Kuck claims the state police firearms unit has abused its authority by punishing gun owners with long delays and implementing policies that have no basis in law. Kuck says the Department of Public Safety "caused the backlog of cases by not reviewing, processing, and preparing the appeal cases in a reasonable and timely manner for the board's review," according to the suit.
According to Goldberg, he left his job as the night manager of a liquor store on June 21, and went to the takeout section of Chili's to wait for his order. He was wearing camouflage pants and a T-shirt that covered the weapon, which showed when he went to reach for his wallet. An employee became alarmed and called police.
Officers arrived and pushed Goldberg against the wall, while customers and wait staff watched. Goldberg, the soft-spoken son of a 30-year police veteran, said he calmly told the officers he had a permit to carry. They checked it out and found that he did. But because the waitress was alarmed he was arrested for breach of peace. While Connecticut law is silent on concealment of a weapon, many police officers believe the weapon must be hidden from view because of the alarm it causes.
"I have no problems with the officers' actions with regard to the incident," Glastonbury Police Chief Thomas Sweeney said.
But Goldberg, who was working toward becoming an executive security specialist and who would carry a gun as part of the job, said, "This whole situation is making me sick to my stomach. I can't go forward in my career."
State police acknowledge the delay and say they have made some changes. They deny the firearms unit has done anything wrong.
"I will say generically we disagree with the allegations in the complaint, and we expect it will be handled by the attorney general's office," Public Safety Commissioner John A. Danaher III said. "Our people are doing their job correctly."
Lt. J. Paul Vance, a state police spokesman, said guns are not arbitrarily seized, but are taken for good reason. He said the state police must provide information to the civilian board, which hold hearings "that are like a mini trial."
"They are a volunteer board. They can only hear so many cases."
Number Of Appeals Rising
From July 1, 2005, to June 30, 2006, there were 329 appeals filed to the civilian board. Between 2006 and 2007 during the same period, there were 338 cases. This year, it is predicted there will be 398 cases, Mazzoccoli said.
Mazzoccoli attributes the delays to a number of factors, including understaffing of the state police.
"I think it's a combination of everything," she said.
The delays were substantiated in a report by state auditors, who in 2005 audited the previous two years, 2003 and 2004, and found that state police "contributed to the backlog by not reviewing and settling a majority of the cases until the month of the scheduled hearing."
Auditors recommended that the civilian review board should ensure timely hearings by increasing the frequency of hearings or the number of appeals scheduled for each meeting. The board meets about once a month, and its members are volunteers. There are about 20 to 40 cases a month on the docket, but they only hear about a dozen.
Regarding the backlog, Danaher said he has taken steps to ease the delay, but would not discuss them because of the pending legal action.
Goldberg and Kuck also have found a mutual ally in Edward Peruta
, a free-lance journalist who has been helping them research the issue after they contacted him. Peruta has spent hours on the phone and digging through materials, and has offered to help finance Goldberg's lawsuit.
"I have known James Goldberg since the day he was born. Everybody's rights are being violated when the government violates his rights, and they happened to pick the wrong person," he said. "There are people who deserve to have their permit taken away. James is not one of them."
Contact Tracy Gordon Fox at email@example.com