After Buffalo shooting, police chiefs call for added ‘discretion’ on gun permits

Eric Rasmussen
Updated: March 02, 2021 10:23 PM
Created: March 02, 2021 05:39 PM

After the deadly shooting at the Allina clinic in Buffalo last month, police chiefs in Minnesota are asking for more discretion when it comes to issuing someone a permit to purchase a firearm.

While the Feb. 9 shooting has reignited calls for sweeping gun control reforms, police argue a smaller change could have a big impact on keeping guns out of the hands of potentially dangerous people.

5 INVESTIGATES confirmed days after the shooting that Buffalo Police had issued the suspect, Gregory Ulrich, a permit to purchase the firearm despite a documented history of alleged threats and concerns about the 67-year-old man’s mental stability.

The department may not have had a choice.

Source: Suspect legally owned gun used in Buffalo clinic shooting

Jeff Potts, Executive Director of the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association, says departments' hands are too often tied by the law that gives them little to no discretion when processing such permits.

Police must run a criminal background check and check a state database to see if an applicant has ever been civilly committed to treatment for mental illness.

"If they are not, the department shall issue the permit to purchase within seven days," Potts said.

A possible solution, Potts says, is to make the process look more like the one that sheriffs are allowed to use when considering a "permit to carry."

Instead of seven days, sheriffs have 30 days to process applications and they can deny a permit if there is a "substantial likelihood that the applicant is a danger to self or the public."

"That language would be helpful in the 'permit to purchase' because we know there are situations that have not yet met the judicial commitment level that create a significant risk," Potts said.

Police in Buffalo had previously documented such concerns about Ulrich.

In 2018, a police report described Ulrich as a "high threat to society and himself" after he was accused of threatening a mass shooting at the same Allina clinic.

Records show Buffalo shooting suspect had frequent interactions with police

But under the current law, that concern, alone, would not have been enough to deny Ulrich a permit to purchase a gun.

Political Director of the Minnesota Gun Owners Caucus Rob Doar says he is open to discussing small changes to the laws around gun permits, but not without stipulations. 

"If the police chiefs and sheriffs want to have some discretion on that, there needs to be a high level of accountability to make sure that they're not unduly restricting somebody's right to own a firearm," Doar said.

He says that accountability could come in the form of requiring police departments to pay the legal fees of those who challenge the denial of permit in court and win.

But Doar also says current laws should have prevented Ulrich from getting a gun because he was found mentally incompetent to stand trial in a misdemeanor case last year. Such a finding would disqualify Ulrich from owning a firearm, but it appears his case fell through the cracks when a prosecutor dismissed the case instead of a judge.

Without a judge ruling that Ulrich was mentally incompetent, police may have had to issue Ulrich a permit even if they knew about his history.

"He was a prohibited person based on being unfit to stand for trial, so what information is retained, who retains it, where it goes are all good questions to ask," Doar said.

Oakdale Police Captain Nick Newton says additional discretion and time to process permits is especially needed now because demand is high and it can take a while to sort through complicated court records. 

"There's typically this misconception that we have this big database that we punch someone's name into and it'll tell us if this person should have a permit or they should not," Newton said. "In reality, all that criminal background does is tell us if there are any potential disqualifiers that we should look into."

Newton says his department received 540 permit to purchase applications in 2020. By law, they had just seven days to process each of them and to look for potential disqualifiers in someone's history.

Others such as longtime gun control advocate Rev. Nancy Nord Bence says making small changes to the laws around gun permits doesn't go far enough.

"We always talk about 'this loophole' or 'that loophole.' Our current gun laws in Minnesota were designed to be Swiss cheese," Bence said. 

She says the shooting in Buffalo prompted her to form Gun Safe MN.

The non-profit supports previous legislation that would have expanded background checks and implemented a so-called "red flag law" that would give law enforcement to take guns away from someone in crisis temporarily or who is deemed a threat to themselves or others.

"If we had a stronger, better, safer laws in this state, this tragedy certainly could have been prevented, but no one law will do that," Bence said.

Police say making changes to who can get a gun permit is at least a start.

"What we're trying to do is figure out how can we respect that 2nd Amendment right, but at the same time focus on our obligation to keep our communities safe," Potts said. "Where we see there may be ways to make some, what I think are, fairly minor changes that we need to pursue those because again, it's our duty to go out there and try to keep our communities safe from people who may be interested in doing harm."


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