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State police defend handgun purchaser database

Wednesday, June 14, 2000

By Jonathan D. Silver, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, a gun owner and member of the National Rifle Association, claims the Pennsylvania State Police are breaking the law by maintaining a database of everyone who has legally bought a handgun in the commonwealth since 1923.

Metcalfe, R-Cranberry, and 19 other legislators sent a letter last month to the state police expressing their concerns and requesting an explanation.

"It appears to us they, in fact, are not keeping the law they are charged to enforce," Metcalfe said in an interview this week. "They should destroy all their records to protect the personal privacy of our law-abiding gun owners."

In a written response to Metcalfe meant to be hand-delivered yesterday, state police defended their practice and stated their intention to continue it. They denied Metcalfe's assertion that police are keeping a registry of gun owners, which is illegal in Pennsylvania.

The issue of registration is hot among gun rights advocates, some of whom believe it is a precursor to confiscation of firearms by the government. The NRA fiercely opposes registration.

Whatever the terminology, personal information about the buyers of roughly 160,000 handguns was recorded by state police last year.

In Pennsylvania, when a handgun is bought legally via a federally licensed firearms dealer, the buyer fills out two forms, one federal, one state. The dealer must initiate a background check through the state police, which check both state and federal databases for any signs of criminal activity or mental instability.

In approved sales, the dealer gives one copy of the state form to the buyer, keeps another for 20 years and forwards the original to the state police. The federal form is also kept by the dealer.

Included on the state form are the applicant's name, address, birth date, gender, race, physical description, social security number and information about the gun.

Pennsylvania law explicitly directs the state police to purge from their computers information used in the background check. They must destroy the form within three days of the check if the buyer's record is clean.

The law states, in part: "An application/record of sale received by the Pennsylvania State Police pursuant to this subsection shall be destroyed within 72 hours of the completion of the criminal history, juvenile delinquency and mental health records background check."

Another section of the law states: "Nothing in this chapter shall be construed to allow any government or law enforcement agency or any agent thereof to create, maintain or operate any registry of firearm ownership within this commonwealth."

State police have a different interpretation of the Uniform Firearms Act, which dates to 1995. They acknowledge that the law tells them to destroy the records, and police said they do not store the information used for the background check.

Police point out, however, that the law directs dealers to send them the record of sale.

"As soon as we approve a gun sale, we destroy the information. The record of sale form is in a different section. It's always been kept," said Ronald Plesco, director of the state police's policy office at its Harrisburg headquarters. "We use it to investigate crimes and to clear people from crimes."

Plesco could not give any specific examples of how the information has been used in investigations.

Information on the forms is sometimes requested by people whose guns are stolen, said Lt. Joseph Elias, director of the state police firearms division. Other times, the information assists police trying to return lost firearms that are found or stolen guns confiscated from criminals.

State police do not consider their warehousing of gun sale forms to be a registry. Plesco noted that police do not require people who move to Pennsylvania from out of state to register with authorities if they have a gun.

"I consider this a record of sale database. I looked at what our chief counsel said, and they don't consider it a registry either," he said.

Metcalfe, a freshman legislator, first became interested in the issue after hearing murmurings about a state police registry from concerned gun owners.

He put a letter together, got the support of 13 other Republicans and six Democrats, and sent it to state police Capt. Jeffrey Miller, director of legislative affairs.

Among the local representatives signing the letter were John Pippy, R-Moon; Tom Stevenson, R-Mt. Lebanon; Jeffrey Habay, R-Shaler; David Mayernik, D-Ross; Timothy Solobay, D-Canonsburg; Guy Travaglio, D-Butler; and Jane Orie, R-McCandless.

As of Monday, Metcalfe was unhappy that the state police were taking so long to address a "very serious question."

"The longer he takes to get back to me, the more concern there is they're having a hard time giving us a good answer," Metcalfe said. "I think I've been very patient."

Plesco said the delay is resulting from careful research by the general counsels of both the state police and Gov. Ridge's office.

A Ridge spokesman had no comment yesterday.

In 1998, the NRA sought to bar the U.S. Department of Justice from performing background checks on gun buyers because it objected to the FBI being able to retain the information for up to six months.

In a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., the NRA claimed that federal law requires the FBI to destroy the records immediately.

A judge denied the injunction request and dismissed the case in July.

Registration of handguns is employed in Hawaii, parts of Kansas, Michigan, parts of Nevada, New York, parts of Ohio, the District of Columbia and Chicago, according to the NRA.

Records of sale are reported to state or local governments in parts or all of 27 states and Washington, D.C., the NRA said.

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