Does Michigan need gun boards?
Last week, Gov. Rick Snyder vetoed Senate Bill 789, a bill that received last-minute attention because it loosened gun regulations attached to personal protection orders. As important to the bill, however, was the termination of Michigan’s county-level gun board system, a system some have criticized as both antiquated and arbitrary.
The contemporary gun board is an administrative relic, rooted in the racial and class tensions of the 1910s and 1920s. Gun boards emerged in Michigan about 100 years ago as a mechanism for vetting would-be gun owners and gun carriers.
The issuance of gun licenses happened at the discretion of gun board officials, who could deny applicants a gun license for any reason. White men of means were most easily able to obtain licenses; racial minorities and women had a harder time convincing gun board officials of their need for a firearm.
In 2001, Michigan largely did away with discretionary gun licensing by instituting a statewide set of regulations that clearly lay out who is eligible to obtain a gun carry license and who is statutorily disqualified. This is known as a “shall-issue” system.
But there was one issue with the law that the vetoed bill intended to address: the state held onto the county-level gun board structure. This means that where you live in Michigan may dictate how long you have to wait to obtain a concealed pistol license and what hoops you have to jump through to get it.
In some counties, an applicant can simply submit an application and a concealed pistol license comes in the mail weeks later. In others, every applicant must appear before the board to explain why he or she wants a CPL (but unlike under the “may-issue” system, “just because I can” is an adequate explanation).
The vetoed bill promised to fix this uneven enforcement by the county gun boards by delegating decision-making to a central entity, Michigan State Police, and reallocated funds accordingly. But in solving one set of problems, it likely would have exacerbated others.
In addition to processing applications, gun boards serve another vital function: they provide a relatively low-stakes forum for people to appeal their denials and suspensions. This is crucial for people whose criminal records are — through no fault of their own — erroneous or incomplete.
Under the current system, an applicant has the chance to gather the appropriate paperwork and present it to gun board to clear his or her record. This current appeal process is an important safety valve: as an arrest lacks the due process of a conviction, individuals should not be punished for groundless arrests, or for records that can too easily be lost, destroyed or corrupted.
Instead of making it easier to address faulty records, the vetoed bill would have make it more difficult. It would have turned over the task of dealing with gun board appeals to circuit courts.
In addition to likely lengthening the time to appeal, this would create a major financial disincentive to appeal a denial or suspension, as the vetoed bill would have required that the applicant pay all court fees if the appeal was unsuccessful. The new system would have benefited people with squeaky-clean records by expediting the issuance of their CPLs, but it would have done so at the expense of the people who “fall through the cracks” of the legal system.
For those who see the gun boards as relics of a racist past, this should be disconcerting, as it is the most disenfranchised Americans — poor racial minorities — who are most likely to be entangled in the criminal justice system, and who are least equipped to undertake the financial burden of clearing their records.
The current gun board system has many flaws, and the vetoed bill no doubt would have benefited many CPL holders. However, it would have done so at the detriment of others. Lawmakers returning to Lansing now have a second chance to reform Michigan’s concealed carry system. Let’s not replace one flawed system with another.
Jennifer Carlson is a sociology professor at the University of Toronto. Her book, “Citizen-Protectors: The Everyday Politics of Guns in an Age of Decline,” looks at Michigan’s gun-carry culture and is available May 1 from Oxford University Press.