September 30, 2012 at 1:00 am

NRA role in training gun owners under scrutiny in Oakland County

With students firing, Sgt. Michael Warren observes at a Civilian Pistol Safety Class at the Novi Police Department Training Center. (John M. Galloway/ Special to The Detroit News)

Pontiac — The National Rifle Association recently paid $75,000 to an Oakland Township man who was accidentally shot in the face by an NRA instructor at a 2009 handgun training class.

The payment allowed the NRA to exit a lawsuit that victim Terry Gonser filed against the gun rights group, instructor Thomas Simpson and others.

The case, set for trial this month in Oakland County Circuit Court, has raised questions about state rules governing firearm safety instructors and the NRA's role in training gun owners.

In addition, a state legislator has created a task force to consider possible revisions to Michigan's 2001 law regulating concealed pistol licenses (CPL).

"More training, retraining and testing must be required of instructors to prevent this incident from happening in the future," said Gonser, 65. "The state of Michigan should supervise and make certain that the instructors are properly trained and ensure that their credentials are current."

State and national NRA attorneys did not return calls from The Detroit News.

Depositions taken in the case revealed the NRA did not know about the shooting for two years, but suspended Simpson's credentials after being told. The state has since revoked his CPL license.

Gonser, a retired GM engineer who is running unopposed in November for Oakland Township supervisor, said he has recovered from his injuries but the shooting continues to affect him.

"I still have pain whenever I eat," he said. "I never went back to obtain a CPL license."

The incident occurred May 5, 2009, as Simpson ran a CPL class for Gonser and 11 others in the garage of Mitchell and Deborah Washer in Addison Township.

Simpson, then 75, was walking with a cane and shaking so badly that he needed his assistant, Gary Chapman, then 68, to help carry his materials, the suit alleges.

The complaint alleges that both men failed to check a holstered .38 caliber Smith & Wesson handgun, owned by Simpson, to see if it was loaded.

The weapon fired, sending a bullet ricocheting off a table and into the left side of Gonser's face.

Chapman, also named in the suit, recently settled for $101,000. Like others, he told deputies the shooting occurred when "Tom was demonstrating the difference between a single-action and a double-action revolver. The pistol was in the holster and Tom pulled the trigger and the pistol discharged a live cartridge."

Simpson's attorney, T. Joseph Seward, declined to make the Washington Township resident available for an interview.

According to a sheriff's office report, Simpson told a deputy at the scene he thought the gun was loaded with plastic bullets.

Simpson wasn't charged because Gonser dropped the complaint after an assistant prosecutor guaranteed him Simpson wouldn't teach again and would have his CPL revoked, said James O. Elliott, Gonser's attorney.

"He (Gonser) didn't want to have him prosecuted, he just wanted to know this wouldn't happen to someone else," he said.

But Elliott said he found in January 2012 that Simpson had renewed his certification less than a year after the shooting.

"Since the shooting, he renewed his membership and certification as an instructor — no questions asked," Elliott said.

The court found Simpson, 78, unable to testify because he is paralyzed and can't speak following a series of strokes.

"I realize this must be difficult for Mr. Simpson to go through … but I can't understand why he would reapply for his certification to continue teaching the class after he shot me," said Gonser. "He should not be teaching a class."

Jon Lowy, director of the Brady Center for Protection Against Gun Violence, said the Gonser case should serve as a "wake-up call" to Michigan lawmakers.

"Someone was teaching a class who should not have been permitted to teach," he said. "But no one was monitoring it."

State Sen. Mike Green, R-Mayville, who sponsored the 2001 training law, said those leading classes "may not have CPL training certificates but have extensive training in firearms safety."

"I've gone through the class a couple times and they are always the same," he said. "It's safety, safety, safety. And in Michigan, gun boards made up of representatives from the county prosecutor, sheriff's office and Michigan State Police have recognized it (training) as sufficient."

Green said before the law he sponsored, concealed carry permits required no safety training.

"It could be that something has been overlooked here that needs to be addressed," he said. "But you have to understand in 12 years, this is the first time we have ever heard of any problem … involving a CPL instructor."

Under the law, permit requirements include eight hours of safety training with the Michigan Commission on Law Enforcement Standards — a training group that works with police and the military — or for civilians, a designated national group.

In Michigan, the NRA was designated to do civilian training.

Elliott believes the state may have illegally provided concealed weapons permits to thousands of handgun owners for more than a decade. Michigan has more than 337,000 CPL holders.

According to court documents, the NRA does not require testing of instructors for physical or mental soundness or firearms knowledge and safety, and does not track if they've been convicted of violent crimes, imprisoned or placed in a mental hospital.

"It's really incredible," said Elliott, who seeks unspecified damages from Simpson and from the Washers, who let Simpson conduct the class at their home.

"This group, which wields so much power, doesn't even check to see whether their certified members are criminals or insane," he said.

David Coy, a member of the NRA's national board of directors, and the group's head national trainer instructor, John Howard, both testified under oath earlier this year that the NRA does not certify instructors to teach the Michigan CPL course. They said the NRA does certify instructors to teach its courses in five other categories.

"The NRA does not issue a CPL certificate or training certificate," Howard told The News. "We have 90,000 firearms instructors nationwide in other categories — basic pistol, rifle and shotgun — but nothing regarding concealed pistol licenses.

"Michigan is to supervise that (CPL) and your requirement there is either MCOLES or a certified and recognized national organization," he said.

Coy, a professor at Adrian College and 30-year NRA member, said in a deposition he didn't know what the organization does to monitor instructors or if it requires any annual training.

The Michigan Coalition of Responsible Gun Owners lists dozens of certified NRA or MCOLES instructors statewide who run their own programs or are part of private concerns such as gun ranges and dealers — including more than 60 in Metro Detroit.

One Oakland County law enforcement agency — the Novi Police Department — offers CPL classes for citizens. "We've been doing this for several years," Novi Sgt. Michael Warren said. "We feel it is important and meets a need to have citizens using firearms safely."

NRA officials would not answer questions about the number of instructors it has in Michigan.

Michigan State Police record the number of CPL holders — 330,016 as of Sept. 6 — but don't track CPL or firearms instructors. Even the Michigan Coalition for Responsible Gun Owners — which calls itself the nation's largest state-based firearms advocate — doesn't know how many instructors are active in the state.

"We have 120 (instructors) that are affiliated with us and would expect there are about 500 in the state, most of them NRA-certified," said Brady Schicking, a legislative director with the group. "But that number is probably conservative."

He added: "I don't know if even the NRA could tell you how many."

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