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Published: Sunday, 4/22/2007

Buying a handgun: Just how hard is it?

BY STEVE POLLICK
BLADE OUTDOORS EDITOR
Theresa Cleland of Cleland's Outdoor World, with a .44 Magnum, has refused to sell to questionable customers. Theresa Cleland of Cleland's Outdoor World, with a .44 Magnum, has refused to sell to questionable customers.
JEREMY WADSWORTH Enlarge

Buying a handgun legally in Ohio is a relatively simple process. But step across the state line into Michigan, and the purchase becomes much more complicated.

The question of handgun purchases was thrown into the national spotlight by last week's mass murders at Virginia Tech, and as always, the devil is in the details, or loopholes, of the laws set by the 50 states and the District of Columbia.

Ohio requires buyers to be at least 21 years old and well-behaved. It is among at least 16 states that have no restrictions beyond the basic federal requirements, according to a compendium of state firearms laws by the National Rifle Association's Institute for Legislative Action.

Michigan, on the other hand, requires buyers to obtain a license first and then pay a visit to their local police chief or county sheriff, among other restrictions.

In Ohio, all that an individual has to do in making an initial purchase from a dealer - that is, a holder of a federal firearms license - is to pay the purchase price and fill out federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms Form 4473, which aims to confirm an individual's identity and behavior record.

In Ohio, anyone who wants to buy a handgun must fi ll out a federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms Form 4473 to the bureau s satisfaction before a sale goes through. In Ohio, anyone who wants to buy a handgun must fi ll out a federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms Form 4473 to the bureau s satisfaction before a sale goes through.
JEREMY WADSWORTH Enlarge

"That's pretty much it. It's pretty much an easy gig," said Lt. Bobby Leist, in charge of the detective bureau of the Lucas County Sheriff's Office.

John Madigan, Toledo law director, agrees that Ohio is a minimalist state nowadays when it comes to purchasing handguns.

Certain local gun restrictions in some Ohio cities and counties were erased March 14, when the so-called state pre-emption law took effect and superseded all local gun-control ordinances.

Toledo, for example, has stopped enforcing city laws requiring an identification card to own or purchase a handgun, the so-called Saturday Night Special ban, the so-called assault weapons restrictions, the child-safety ordinance, and weapons-in-public-places ban after the state law took effect, Mr. Madigan said.

Those laws remain on the books in case the state law is reversed, he added.

The lone law the city now can enforce is the ban on discharge of a firearms within the city limits. "If you read House Bill 347 [the pre-emption law], it doesn't talk about discharge [of firearms]," Mr. Madigan said.

One of the only other controls over sales in Ohio is the instincts of scrupulous dealers, who can refuse to sell guns to a questionable customer.

"I've done that more than once," stated Theresa Cleland, of Cleland's Outdoor World, a well-known firearms and sporting goods store in Swanton. "If I have a feeling about something I am uncomfortable with, I have the right to refuse."

One of Ms. Cleland's chief concerns, however, is what happens after the initial sale.

The same gun that she sells to a customer can be resold virtually without scrutiny and without a trace in five minutes, five days, or five years.

A private individual also can sell a handgun at the ever-popular gun shows around the state without paperwork or scrutiny. Federal firearms license holders and dealers at the same shows, however, do have to fill out the forms.

"It's a loophole. We do all this paperwork, but to me that is the big loophole. We're regulated to the teeth, but then we have this huge gray area where people just go out and sell them without keeping any records," Mrs. Cleland said. "It makes it look like we're controlling guns, but we're not. That's what we're dealing with, with the Virginia Tech thing. It's not the gun issue but that the system failed."

Ms. Cleland noted, moreover, that there is no limit to the number of handguns that a customer can buy. Multiple purchases within five days, however, requires a dealer to file a special report with the ATF.

In making an Ohio handgun purchase, successful completion of Form 4473 is contingent on showing proper identification, such as a driver's license, and a go-ahead from the FBI through an instant background check of its computerized database. The check, called NICS for national instant background check system, is made through a toll-free call by the dealer to the FBI and usually takes just a few minutes.

About 35 states rely on NICS for background checks. The rest, including Virginia, also check their own state systems because their gun-buying laws are more stringent than the federal controls.

In an NICS check, the FBI operator will tell the dealer whether to proceed, delay, or deny the purchase. A delay gives ATF three days to further investigate the transaction, after which the seller may proceed unless a deny order is issued.

Although Virginia Tech killer Seung-Hui Cho's mental problems were well-known, they were not well-communicated, according to an investigation published Friday by the Los Angeles Times. Moreover, his mental problems did not register during background checks in his gun-shop and pawn-shop purchases of a Glock 19 9mm semi-automatic pistol and a Walther P22 .22 semiautomatic pistol.

Although Cho was considered mentally ill, technically he had not been committed to a mental institution or declared mentally incapacitated, the Times reported. So his name never aroused suspicion in a firearms-purchase background check.

And he obviously chose not to reveal that side of himself when filling out Form 4473, which requires a yes or no answer to the question: "Have you ever been adjudicated mentally defective [which includes having been adjudicated incompetent to manage your own affairs] or have you ever been committed to a mental institution?"

In Michigan, a strict license law, on the books for 80 years, requires that each handgun be licensed and that a paper trail follow every handgun, even in private or secondary sales.

A Michigan resident must obtain a license to purchase from the local chief of police or county sheriff. The buyer must be 18 or older, a U.S. citizen, have no felony convictions, have never been judged insane [unless restored later by court order], and must score at least 70 percent on a basic pistol-safety review questionnaire.

The license to purchase must be filled out in triplicate at the time of the transaction, with a description of the handgun sold and signatures of both buyer and seller. The seller retains a copy and the buyer retains two.

After delivery of the handgun, the buyer must then return the license to purchase, plus the handgun - unloaded and encased or trigger-locked - to the local police chief or sheriff within 10 days.

The buyer then will be issued a safety-inspection certificate [registration] for the handgun. One copy of the license will be held locally for six years, and the other is forwarded to the commissioner of state police.

A Michigan handgun-purchase license, once issued, is void if not used within 10 days. A holder of a valid Michigan concealed-carry license is exempt from having to obtain a license to purchase but is still subject to registration requirements and an NICS check.

To sell a handgun privately in Michigan, a license to purchase must be obtained and the same procedure followed through the police chief or the sheriff.

Essentially, a paper trail follows the pistol or revolver throughout its life.

A certificate including serial number, make, and model - matching the license information, to assure the gun is not stolen - is issued at the time of the pistol safety inspection by police, said Sgt. Tom Deasy of the Michigan State Police. He is a member of the state police executive resource section and fields inquiries on handgun licensing.

"Along with the gun, that's what they walk out the door with," he said. A copy of the certificate also goes to the state police databank.

When it comes to police scrutiny of a handgun purchase, "the biggest thing is criminal history," Sergeant Deasy said.

Among other things, Michigan police investigate an individual to make sure there are no felony convictions or insanity or mental deficiencies.

Contact Steve Pollick at:

spollick@theblade.com

or 419-724-6068.



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