Editorial: Due diligence sometimes not enough


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A graduate student at the University of Iowa was killed in a Sunday night standoff with police; the incident began when 28-year-old Taleb Salameh reportedly began shooting at officers responding to a domestic-disturbance call at his North Liberty home.

Salameh inflicted non-life-threatening injuries on three police officers, who were treated at the UI Hospitals and Clinics; Salameh died on the scene. The incident has raised questions about the efficacy of background checks in preventing potentially dangerous individuals from acquiring weapons.

In March 2010, Salameh applied for a gun permit with the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office. Because Salameh was a University of Iowa student at the time, the university provided the Sheriff’s Office with some information about Salameh’s criminal and medical history.

As a Des Moines Register investigation uncovered last month, the UI had been sharing confidential information, including grades and disciplinary history, about UI students seeking gun permits with the Sheriff’s Office. The program, which had been in place since the early 1990s, has been suspended since the results of the Register’s investigation were made public.

Upon reviewing Salameh’s 2010 application, UI Dean of Students David Grady recommended that the Sheriff’s Office at least delay Salameh’s request for a gun permit. His was one of only two applications that Grady has raised concerns about since he became the dean of students in 2009.

“I have serious reservations about Mr. Salameh’s intention to purchase a handgun,” Grady wrote to Johnson County Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek at the time. “… I respectfully request that you carefully consider this information when evaluating Mr. Salameh’s application for the gun permit.”

Grady cited Salameh’s previous arrest for assault and potential mental-health concerns as grounds for denial or delay. In this respect, the information sharing system between the Sheriff’s Office and the university worked wonderfully.

Part of the information included in the background check and research gathering done by the Sheriff’s Office included a letter sent from Salameh’s psychologist to the Sheriff, posted Tuesday by the Press Citizen. This letter stated Salameh did not show any reason that he should not be allowed to obtain a permit to own firearms. With this, and despite Grady’s warning, Salameh received a gun permit.

The reason for this is simple. Under Iowa law, it is very difficult for county sheriffs to deny gun-permit applicants. In fact, thanks to a 2011 update to Iowa’s gun laws, it has become even more difficult to deny these applications.

The Iowa Code states “any person who is not disqualified under section 724.8, who satisfies the training requirements of section 724.9, and who files an application in accordance with section 724.10, shall be issued a nonprofessional permit to carry weapons.”

This basically means that people who have been trained to use guns and properly fill out the application forms must be issued a non-professional gun permits if they meet a the criteria laid out in section 724.8.

According to this section, people are disqualified from getting a non-professional gun permits if they are under 21 years old, addicted to alcohol, or a felon. Iowans may not get gun permits if they have committed a serious misdemeanor involving a gun or explosive in the last three years or have been otherwise barred from owning a gun by the federal government.

There is one more criterion that is worth quoting in full. An Iowan will be denied a gun permit if:
“Probable cause exists to believe, based upon documented specific actions of the person, where at least one of the actions occurred within two years immediately preceding the date of the permit application, that the person is likely to use a weapon unlawfully or in such other manner as would endanger the person’s self or others.”

Those are the only rules, and together they afford county sheriffs with remarkably little leeway in deciding whether to issue gun permits. Even when due diligence is done on potential gun applicants and concerns are raised — as they were in Salameh’s case — there is little a sheriff can do without concrete proof that applicants are likely to use their weapons in a dangerous way.

Iowa needs to change its gun-permit laws to give its county sheriffs more discretion when deciding who gets a gun permit and who doesn’t. The current system renders even the most thorough background checks almost useless by denying sheriffs the ability to act upon their findings.

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