Georgia Supreme Court: Gun Licenses Should Be Granted Even If Background Checks Are Incomplete

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Probate judges must approve weapons carry licenses even when they have incomplete information about an applicant’s criminal history, the Georgia Supreme Court has ruled.

In a unanimous decision issued Tuesday, December 14, 2021, the state high court overturned a DeKalb County probate judge’s denial of a carry license on grounds an applicant’s criminal background report failed to show the outcome of an arrest that could have resulted in a disqualifying conviction.

“Denials like that have been pretty common across the state, but that is not going to be the case any longer,” said Dawsonville attorney John Monroe, whose client, Clinton Bell, was denied the carry license.

Monroe acknowledged that incomplete background records could result in a carry license being given to someone who should not get one. “But if you accept the premise there are going to be clerical errors, that could happen no matter how you write the law,” he added.

In 2018, DeKalb County Probate Judge Bedelia Hargrove denied Bell’s application. She noted the background report showed that while Bell had been arrested in 1986 by Atlanta police for pointing a gun at another person, it failed to state the outcome of the case.

Bell then filed suit against Hargrove in DeKalb Superior Court. (Bell, Monroe said, was never prosecuted for the 1986 arrest.)

Under Georgia law, a probate judge has 10 days from receiving the background report to either grant or deny an application. Licenses cannot be issued for a number of reasons, such as whether the applicant has a felony conviction, a conviction for carrying a weapon without a license, certain mental health issues, or a conviction for a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence.

In recent years, probate courts have been deluged with applications for carrying licenses. In 2020 alone, there were more than 291,000 applications statewide, according to court records.

Cherokee County Probate Judge Keith Wood said many reports show applicants have no criminal histories or, if they do, show the dispositions of their cases. But it is not out of the ordinary for judges to get incomplete reports with outcomes that are hard to track down.

“We’re relying on agencies to input information into the system,” said Wood, who chairs the weapons carry license committee for the Council of Probate Court Judges of Georgia. “Sometimes it’s not done correctly.”

There are incomplete records of decades-old arrests that are stored away in paper files, he said. Also, a disqualifying domestic violence conviction can also be hard to discern because background reports often do not indicate whether the alleged victim was a spouse.

Tracking down the outcome of some cases “can be a monumental task,” Wood said.

In a court filing, the DeKalb county attorney’s office said Hargrove was authorized to deny Bell’s application.

State law prohibits probate judges from issuing licenses to potentially dangerous individuals and it also requires judges to make determinations based on “appropriate” background reports, the county said. It added if a judge receives a report with incomplete information, the judge can conclude the report is not appropriate for its intended use.

But Justice Verda Colvin, who wrote the Supreme Court opinion, said Georgia law says a probate judge “shall” issue a license unless there’s a factual finding the applicant is ineligible for one.

“(M)ere speculation or uncertainty about an applicant’s qualifications for weapons carry license cannot support a determination that an applicant is ineligible or disqualified,” Colvin wrote.

The justice added that the court was unpersuaded by the county’s argument that probate judges should be given greater discretion to deny carry licenses to protect the public from dangerous people.

“Balancing policy considerations is a job for the General Assembly,” Colvin wrote. “It is not for us to second-guess the General Assembly’s policy determinations.”

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