VA background checks, WVA bar checks

A roundup of notable coverage on politics & policy from the southeast

COLUMBIA, SC — With the national gun control debate now focused on the proposed expansion of background checks to private gun sales, one Virginia newspaper made a solid effort to connect what’s happening in the state to the larger conversation in Washington.

On Sunday, The Richmond Times-Dispatch crunched the numbers to illustrate the apparent efficacy of the state’s instant firearms background check system—in both “keep[ing] guns out of the hands of those who shouldn’t have them,” as a Virginia criminal justice expert told the paper, and “help[ing] identify and punish individuals trying to illegally obtain guns.”

According to state police records, Virginia’s background check system stopped 16,623 felons from getting guns between 1989 and 2012, and, all told, the paper reported, the system “has stopped 54,260 gun transactions over the past 24 years,” including “3,444 in 2012 alone, or 0.08 percent of that year’s record-setting 432,387 firearm transactions.”

The piece noted that Virginia “pioneered the background check system among states” and reported that it “appears to be a leader in arrests of people who were stopped from illegally buying a gun.” Missing, however, was an explanation of how Virginia was a pioneer on the issue and why it makes more arrests than other states—points that would have added important context. Those questions aside, the paper laid out in detail two recent examples of how law enforcement in Virginia busted someone trying evade the background check law.

One was the case of a felon—someone with more than a dozen convictions for things like carrying a concealed weapon, assault, robbery, grand larceny—lying on a background check form at a gun show.

The gun seller’s check through the Virginia Firearms Transaction Center quickly turned up [the buyer’s] felony record. But because of a misread computer screen, [the buyer] was allowed to purchase the .38-caliber handgun and take it to his Petersburg home.

The seller soon realized his error, notified Virginia State Police, and within two days [the buyer] was arrested and charged with multiple felonies.

The other example was a murkier scenario involving a New Jersey man with a history of mental health issues and a state cop getting tipped off about it by the man’s family as the man tried to buy a gun at a Virginia gun show. Wrote the Times-Dispatch:

While felons trying to buy guns represent the largest category of people who have been denied through background checks, authorities have increasingly turned their focus on the mentally ill in the wake of several mass shootings that involved disturbed gunmen.

Stopping such people can be difficult because of variances in how states enter mental health records that can be electronically checked to deny a gun purchase. State police recently wrestled with that issue after a New Jersey man drove here to buy a firearm at a gun show at the Richmond International Raceway complex.
While the man was prevented by the police from purchasing a gun in Virginia, and an officer “entered information from the man’s mental health files through the Virginia Firearms Transaction Center to prevent him from purchasing a gun in the future,” the paper reported, “it couldn’t immediately be determined whether New Jersey authorities had earlier entered the man’s records.”

The piece explained that “existing law requires only federally licensed dealers to conduct background checks for gun purchases,” and noted that “several bills proposed during the current session of the General Assembly that would have required background checks for the private sale or transactions of firearms in Virginia, including those at gun shows, were defeated,” but only careful readers—of an accompanying photo caption—learned that “state residents polled are overwhelmingly in favor.”

The Times-Dispatch’s effort could have been stronger had the reporter cast his expert net a bit wider, rather than talking to just one professor at a local college. One big-picture question the paper left unaddressed (and often goes unaddressed in this debate): What’s the relationship between effective background checks and reduced gun crime?

Overall, the piece takes the emotion out of the debate, steers clear of the he-said-she-said partisan politics, and cuts straight to the data while giving readers real-world scenarios in which to contextualize it. As national leaders debate gun laws in response to recent mass shootings, and calls for more background checks are met with resistance by some lawmakers and organizations, more reporting like this will be necessary.

Turning to North Carolina—and still on the general topic of law enforcement—the daily newspaper in Charlotte on Saturday published an interesting piece exploring how a city board charged with looking into allegations of police misconduct has always sided with the cops since it was created—15 years ago.

From The Charlotte Observer:

It’s not surprising citizens have never won: The board has no independent power to investigate, and citizens must meet an unusually high standard of evidence for the board to even hold a formal hearing. Instead, the 11-member, volunteer board has met behind closed doors-first with citizens, then with police-and voted to dismiss almost every case.

The Observer’s courts reporter Gary L. Wright came up with the idea for the piece and brought in projects reporter Fred Clasen-Kelly to help out when Wright was in court, Clasen-Kelly tells CJR.

Together, their wide-ranging reporting on the shortcomings of the city’s Citizen Review Board—which only held four hearings in 15 years for citizens who complained about police—made for a persuasive story about the virtually unchecked power of Charlotte law enforcement. And it laid out the case for how the board could be one of the weakest of its kind in the nation. The web version came with a useful sidebar by Wright explaining how citizens can bring complaints, along with a list of high-profile cases that never led to a hearing.

Finally, in West Virginia’s Charleston Gazette-Mail on Sunday, reporter Phil Kabler had a sharp, detailed look at some goings-on at the state’s ethics agency.

For instance, Kabler explained how since 2008 lobbyist spending on public officials has gone up in West Virginia, while the number of registered lobbyists has dropped significantly.

To explain the latter, Kabler offered this anecdote:

Take my friend, the late Les Milam, for example. Although registered as a lobbyist, he didn’t lobby legislators per se, but tracked bills for clients. (Prior to the legislative website, that required physically being at the Capitol to pick up paper copies of House and Senate journals, the bills themselves, and committee agendas.)

As the recession hit, and the legislative website approached near-real time updating, many businesses cut the expense of hiring bill trackers, since it could be done with in-house staff via the website.

As for the increased lobbyists’ spending, Kabler writes:

a key factor was the addition of first-dollar reporting in 2005 legislation to toughen the Ethics Act.

That was a simple, but significant change, eliminating the plausible deniability that went with the old $25 threshold before lobbyists had to report spending on any individual legislator or public official.

Among other things, that ended the endless tab at the Marriott bar, in which multiple lobbyists would split the legislators’ nightly bar tab, providing a cover so that there would be no way to verify that any one lobbyist had spent more than $25 on any one legislator.

It’s fair to say that lobbyists’ spending hasn’t nearly doubled since 2004—but they are more accurately reporting what they spend.

Nice trick there in West Virginia for wining and dining lawmakers while skirting lobbying regs. Unfortunately it’s the sort of thing that doesn’t typically get reported until after the jig is up. Government reporters might want to check that out in their home states.

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Corey Hutchins is CJR's correspondent based in Colorado, where he is also a journalist for The Colorado Independent. A former alt-weekly reporter in South Carolina, he was twice named journalist of the year in the weekly division by the SC Press Association. Hutchins recently worked on the State Integrity Investigation at the Center for Public Integrity and he has contributed to Slate, The Nation, The Washington Post, and others. Follow him on Twitter @coreyhutchins or email him at Tags: , , , , , ,