AUGUSTA — Riverview Psychiatric Center has eliminated a backlog of applications for concealed-carry firearms permits screening — a turnaround from a year ago, when the average wait was 11 days, according to a quarterly report issued by the state hospital.
Along with evaluating and caring for individuals with mental illness, one of Riverview Psychiatric Center’s lesser-known functions is to screen applications for concealed-carry firearms permits.
The records check is conducted to determine whether an applicant ever has been committed involuntarily for treatment at the state hospital.
The national Gun Control Act of 1968 prohibits people committed to a mental institution from possessing firearms and ammunition. And in Maine, Riverview and Bangor’s Dorothea Dix Psychiatric Center, the two state psychiatric hospitals, are responsible for doing the screening.
Part of the application for a concealed-handgun permit is an authorization to allow Riverview and Dorothea Dix to disclose to state police “any record of whether I have ever been committed to (those facilities).” The requests for screening come to Riverview from the Maine State Police or municipal police departments, and the turnaround time for Riverview’s response is considerably shorter than it was a year ago because of the hospital’s reactivating of medical records by email, according to a quarterly report issued by the state hospital itself.
“The turnaround time from receipt to determination is about a day and a half,” said John Martins, director of communications for the Department of Health and Human Services.
Previously, Riverview’s own records showed a considerable backlog in responding to applications. In March 2013, the hospital received 2,623 applications to screen and was able to turn each around in 11 days, on average.
Now there is no backlog.
“I sat down with the management team and we have a new working agreement,” said Lt. Scott Ireland, commanding officer of the Maine State Police Special Investigations Unit. “We have a strong working relationship with them.”
Riverview reports on how rapidly it responds to these screening requests as part of its Quarterly Performance Reports.
The hospital has come under increased scrutiny over the past year. A particularly vicious attack by a patient on a mental health worker resulted in corrections officers being brought in to supervise aggressive patients. That response and other findings by federal regulators caused the hospital to lose about $20 million in federal funding and led to the recent ouster of its five-year superintendent as the commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services sought a leadership change there.
The lone staff member at Riverview assigned to this project receives applicants’ names, aliases and dates of birth in order to do the screening.
The hospital, in one of its quarterly reports, noted that it received 1,652 applications for screening in December 2013, and they were all dealt with promptly.
Ireland said applicants encounter few problems at that screening stage, and only a few applicants get rejected then.
The state police receive 40 to 50 applications a day for concealed-carry permits, but Ireland said it can go up to more than 200 a day. “The numbers vary by what is seen on the news,” Ireland said. Hunting season, too, brings an increase in the numbers.
Between 25,000 and 26,000 people hold active concealed-carry permits issued by the Maine State Police. About 16,000 of the permit holders are from Maine and 8,000 are from other states, Ireland said. For the state police, the entire permitting process itself now takes one or two months. Ireland said one full-time employee and several part-time employees work on issuing the permits.
“We can only be as fast as the other agencies that are responding to our requests,” Ireland said. “Everybody’s trying to do it with existing staff.”
Among the other agencies that check applicant’s information are law enforcement agencies in the places where the person lived for the past five years, courts and armed forces.
The Maine State Police processed 11,000 permit applications last year for 360 municipalities in the state and all applications from out of state, according to its website.
A number of municipal departments in Maine issue the permits as well. However, a bill, L.D. 222, which passed last week in the Maine House and Senate, would make the state police the sole issuing authority for concealed-weapons permits.
Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, chairman of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, said the concealed weapons permitting process has been a problem for a number of years.
With this new bill, he said, “We’ve finally got a handle on the concealed-weapons permitting process.”