ND 'overwhelmed' with applications seeking concealed weapons licenses
BISMARCK -- North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem says the state crime bureau is "overwhelmed" with applications for concealed weapons licenses, creating longer wait times for applicants at a time when a change in state law recently raised the application fee from $45 to $60.
To help alleviate the backlog, the state Bureau of Criminal Investigation is hiring additional employees and reassigning existing ones, approving more overtime and even using senior citizen volunteers three days a week to help with filing and stuffing envelopes.
"We have found that we're not just inundated, we are overwhelmed," Stenehjem said.
Through September, the BCI received 12,338 applications for new concealed weapons licenses or renewals. That's only 100 less than the number of licenses issued in all of 2012, which was a record total that more than doubled the 5,313 licenses issued in 2011.
North Dakota law requires the BCI to approve or deny a concealed weapons license within 60 days of receiving a properly completed application.
Attorney general's spokeswoman Liz Brocker acknowledged that the deadline currently isn't being met, but she said it's difficult to say how much longer it's taking because it depends on the type of license sought, the applicant's criminal record and the number of applications waiting to be processed.
Kevin Fire, president of the North Dakota Shooting Sports Association, said he submitted his license renewal application in late May and finally called the attorney general's office on Thursday after not receiving a response. The Grand Forks audiologist said he was told to write a letter to the BCI stating that it had been more than 60 days since he applied.
"I'm assuming there was nothing wrong with the application," he said. "I just haven't heard any communication from them."
Application rate 'unprecedented'
Brocker attributed the backlog to the sheer volume of applications, particularly a large spike that occurred in the months before the law approved by the Legislature took effect Aug. 1.
House Bill 1327 bumped up the application fee from $45 to $60 to cover the cost of a new requirement that all applications go through a fingerprint-based criminal history check by the FBI.
The new law also put all of the responsibility for processing applications -- including all background checks -- in the hands of the BCI. Previously, local police and sheriff's offices would receive the application first and then had up to 30 days to conduct local background checks before forwarding the application to the BCI.
Stenehjem said the change aimed to take the burden off local agencies and "eliminate the middle man."
Stenehjem, who has a concealed weapons license, said he understands applicants want their licenses sooner rather than later.
"We are just seeing an unprecedented increase in the number of applications," he said.
The number of applications shoots up every time there's mention of possible federal rules on firearms, Stenehjem said.
Tom Reiten, a certified test administrator for concealed weapons licenses and secretary-treasurer of the Forks Rifle Club in Grand Forks, agreed.
"The current administration's anti-gun approach has got individuals looking to get their firearms before things become more restrictive," he said.
Reiten said he's also seeing increased interest in gun ownership among women.
Concerns in North Dakota's Oil Patch also have spurred more license applications from western counties, Stenehjem said, though he noted applications are up statewide. The number of licenses issued last year increased in all but two counties, Cavalier and Traill.
The Fargo Police Department processed 765 license applications from January through July before the BCI took over, compared to 611 applications processed in all of 2012, Lt. Joel Vettel said.
"It was steady all year," he said.
Five years ago, the BCI had one person processing concealed weapons licenses. Now, it has three full-time and three part-time staffers dedicated to the task, with one of the part-timers expected to go full-time by the end of the month.
The Legislature authorized that additional half-time position, as well as a full-time position that's already been filled.
Existing staff in the BCI's concealed weapons licensing section also are scheduling voluntary overtime hours to do data input, check criminal histories and print licenses. The bureau said it's closely monitoring the employees to prevent burnout.
At BCI headquarters in north Bismarck, an electronic ticker displayed outside one office keeps tabs on how many backlogged fingerprints have been processed. As of Friday, the number was up to 16,251 sets of fingerprints since May 10.
Eventually, the BCI will have an online application option that should reduce processing times, Stenehjem said. Applicants currently may fill out an application online, but they still must print it out and mail it to the BCI, which then has to mail it back if any mistakes are found.
BCI Director Dallas Carlson said applicants should be able to submit their forms electronically within the next two to three months, which also will alleviate the burden on BCI staff of having to enter each applicant's information manually.
To make the entire application process computer-friendly will prove more challenging, however, because of the additional components, including finding ways to send photographs and fingerprints electronically and tie them to the application submitted online, officials said.
Reiten, the test administrator, said that while most of his students won't carry a concealed firearm, he recommends they obtain a concealed weapons license anyway if they're going to transport a gun -- "even if it's just between their home and the range" -- because of the many restrictions on doing so.
"It's just to not inadvertently be in violation of state law," he said.
Reiten said he's had more students go through concealed weapons license testing this year than in all of his previous years of instructing. He said people who apply for a license "need to be patient" because of the BCI's "tremendous workload."
What can be doubly frustrating for applicants is that state law prevents the BCI from providing information about the status of an application for a concealed weapon license, even to the applicant. Like Fire, they're told they can write a letter.
"They won't get a response to that, but the bureau will follow up on it," Reiten said.