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Kentucky's Background Checks For Gun Owners Stand Out

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For years, Kentucky has led the nation in the number of firearm-related background checks processed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

There's a reason for that, and it's not a gun culture in overdrive.

Since January, the FBI has processed more than 2.9 million background checks in Kentucky, according to data from the agency. Each check does not necessarily represent a firearm purchase; however, background checks are commonly used as a measure of gun sales nationwide.

But outside of higher-than-average gun sales in the state, one reason Kentucky reports such a high number of checks annually — more than double the number of Texas and California combined so far this year — is a policy that requires automatic monthly background checks on every holder of concealed-carry permits in the commonwealth.

Kentucky appears to be the only state with such a policy.

More than 295,800 firearm-related background checks were processed in Kentucky during November. Just more than 264,000 of those were for concealed-carry permit holders, representing nearly 89 percent of the state's background checks, according to data provided by the FBI.

Taking this into consideration, the number of background checks related to actual firearm sales in Kentucky — roughly 31,000 in November — is less remarkable and more in line with those of other states.

For instance, there is an average of about 26,000 background checks related to the sale of firearms in all 50 states and five U.S. territories, according to FBI data. And though the number of background checks in Kentucky is still higher than the national average, it is comparable to states of similar population.

Kentucky has a population of about 4.4 million people, according to U.S. Census data. For November, the state's firearm sales were just lower than those in Louisiana — with 35,800 background checks and a population of about 4.6 million — and just higher than in Oregon, where there were 25,400 background checks among a population of 3.9 million.

Keeping Track

The background check system is used by many gun dealers and law enforcement agencies to determine whether a potential buyer is eligible to purchase firearms or explosives.

Kentucky conducts monthly checks to ensure law enforcement officials maintain up-to-date information regarding who is eligible to possess firearms, said Kentucky State Police spokesman Sgt. Michael Webb.

"If someone is issued a concealed-carry permit several years ago and they commit an offense afterwards, how would we know that if we weren't doing checks on it," he said. "We think it's in the best interest of the safety of the public."

Under state law, Kentucky concealed-carry permit holders who obtained a permit after July 2006 are exempt from background checks for new gun purchases for five years. Webb said it's important to keep track of those individuals.

He said there are three reasons a resident could have their permit revoked or suspended from findings of a background check. Residents who have been convicted of a domestic violence charge, a felony offense or those who have been adjudicated as mentally ill are subject to having their permits revoked or suspended.

But it's difficult to verify someone as mentally ill, as it's up to the buyer to self-report their mental health status during a purchase, Webb said.

From the inception of the state's concealed-carry permit program in 1996 to the end of 2015, nearly 335,000 such permits have been issued, according to Kentucky State Police data. During that period, more than 9,800 permits have been revoked or suspended due to findings in background checks, domestic violence orders being issued and other conditions, such as non-residency, the state police data show.

And KSP has denied more than 8,300 applications for concealed-carry permits during that time after findings in background checks, age qualifications or other issues, the data show.

State law mandates that upon revocation of a concealed-carry permit, the commissioner of the state police must order a peace officer to personally seize the permit from the ineligible holder or direct the ineligible permit holder to surrender the license to the sheriff's department within two business days.

Failure to surrender a suspended or revoked license as ordered is a Class A misdemeanor, according to state statute.

It's unclear how proactive state law enforcement agencies are regarding the removal of permits and firearms from residents who are deemed ineligible to possess them.

Kentucky State Police officials failed to answer multiple requests to detail their processes for responding to instances where background checks prove someone should not be in possession of a firearm.

They also declined to answer questions relating to how often, if ever, officers are dispatched to remove firearms or permits from ineligible residents.

Kentucky Still Earns Failing Grade for Gun Laws

For the monthly background checks to be effective, law enforcement must work diligently to revoke permits and firearms from people who fail such screenings, said Allison Anderman, a staff attorney with the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, a San Francisco-based nonprofit focused on gun violence prevention.

Advocates with the center praise Kentucky's efforts to monitor permit-holders, and Anderman said she's unaware of any other state that conducts such regular checks.

"Unless states require permittees to undergo background checks on a regular basis, they are unable to determine whether people carrying concealed firearms in public are prohibited from doing so," she said.

The checks are a positive step toward reducing gun violence, she said. But she stressed that the state's gun laws are still very weak compared with other states.

Kentucky was one of 27 states to earn an failing grade on the center's 2014 gun law scorecard. The state ranked 47th out of 50 for lacking gun laws that are attributed to reducing violence, according to the report. Those include not requiring background checks on private sales and "not significantly regulating ammunition."

Anderman said to boost the state's ranking, Kentucky lawmakers would need to enact a series of policies, such as prohibiting the transfer of assault weapons, regulating ammunition sales and limiting the number of firearms than can be purchased at one time.

Jacob Ryan is the managing editor of the Kentucky Center for Investigative reporting. He's an award-winning investigative reporter who joined LPM in 2014. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.