Pennsylvania to upgrade background check system for concealed-carry license requests
A switch to an online system and additional staffing are expected to speed up Pennsylvania's approval of concealed weapons license applications this year, eliminating delays like those plaguing Allegheny County, state officials say.
A $1.2 million upgrade is planned for the Pennsylvania Instant Check System, which is used for the background checks sheriff's departments and firearms dealers must run to issue concealed-carry licenses or sell guns, said Capt. Scott Price, director of the Pennsylvania State Police operational records division in Harrisburg.
Today, phone operators and an automated phone system service handle inquiries made to the nearly 15-year-old system. But local sheriffs and firearms dealers say high call volumes in recent months have occasionally overloaded the system.
“We want to do the best we can to keep up with that kind of volume,” said Nancy Kent, a Pennsylvania State Police civilian program analyst who works closely with the Harrisburg-based check system.
Under the upgraded system, sheriff's departments and firearms dealers will be able to complete the background check on a computer. The phone system still will be available, Kent said.
Requests for concealed-carry licenses jumped in Allegheny County and across the country after the Newtown, Conn., elementary school massacre in which 20 children and six adults were slain Dec. 14.
From January through April 2012, Allegheny County received 6,500 license applications. In the same period this year, the county received 8,751 applications, building a backlog of about five months, Sheriff William Mullen said.
The sheriff's firearms department is chipping away at the stack, he said, but hundreds of people continue to apply.
“We're overwhelmed. ... We're catching up. We should be caught up shortly,” Mullen said, adding that he couldn't give a firm time frame for eliminating the backlog. “We're working very diligently in checking with the state police. That's all we can do.”
To speed the process, Mullen hired an extra staff member, installed another phone line to connect to PICS and has approved staff overtime.
Mullen said his office struggles to pay for providing the service because, rather than financing costs, the $20 license application fee goes to the county general fund.
In spite of the backlog and budget drain, Mullen requires staff to perform two background checks in addition to PICS: a search through the FBI's National Crime Information Center database and an independent search for any protection-from-abuse orders against applicants.
Mullen said he prefers a “double check,” even though PICS is designed to determine whether a person has a criminal background.
“There are certain people who try to get these permits when they aren't eligible. So we take some extra time in weeding them out so the people who deserve (a license) get it,” Mullen said.
State law gives sheriffs up to 45 days to issue a permit or notify an applicant of his or her status. Price said he isn't aware of a county ever being penalized for surpassing the limit.
Jason Laura, 39, of Turtle Creek said he submitted an application to renew his license to carry a concealed weapon nearly two months ago and hadn't received it or been contacted by Mullen's office as of Thursday.
“I don't like driving around without appropriate permits,” he said. “I can't target practice because I don't feel comfortable without having appropriate documentation.”
Allegheny County, which issued the most concealed-carry permits in the state last year, isn't alone in its backlog. Law enforcement officials in other parts of the country are struggling to process a surge in requests.
Connecticut State Police are behind in processing about 4,800 fingerprint cards that accompany concealed-carry permits, said Lt. J. Paul Vance. The Newtown school shooting and stricter gun laws have caused people to rush to get permits, sometimes 200 a day, he said.
“We just work at it,” Vance said. “Chip away one step at a time.”
In Portland, Ore., the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office stopped processing license applications for out-of-state residents, mainly from Washington, because of a four-month backlog, Lt. Steve Alexander said. The halt was intended to give workers a chance to play catch-up with in-state applications, he said.
Pennsylvania received about 400,000 calls into the PICS system in the first four months of 2013. That puts the state on a pace to break last year's total calls of slightly more than 1 million, Price said.
Second Amendment advocates such as Dave Workman said more people want concealed-carry licenses to protect themselves against violent crimes.
“It's an understandable reaction,” said Workman, communications director for the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms. “People have realized that in spite of their best intentions, police can't be everywhere all the time.”
Christina Gallagher is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-5637 or firstname.lastname@example.org.