Milt Warrell is a fast-talking former cop who thought common sense and decisive action would serve him well when he became Bucks County sheriff in January.
Little did he realize how little good intentions matter when you’re talking about keeping guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them.
His mind-numbing ordeal over just the last few weeks has given even me a dizzying headache. And all he set out to do is to better enforce a law already on the books in Pennsylvania.
“Common sense,” Warrell told me in an unvarnished interview Tuesday night, “is not so common.”
His odyssey began earlier this year.
The sheriff decided to more aggressively identify people who lie on their county gun permit applications and then to prosecute them. People do it frequently when applying for a permit to carry a concealed firearm, sometimes accidentally, other times not.
They’re asked if they’ve committed any disqualifying crimes. They’re asked where they live and other basic stuff. They’re even asked to provide, on a state police form, the names of two character references with contact information.
But Warrell learned that his predecessor and other sheriffs in Pennsylvania have not done a whole lot of catching or prosecuting people who make false claims on applications for concealed carry permits.
Bucks County, it seems, is particularly lax. The first elected Democratic sheriff in decades found this out only after huddling with the deputies and staff of the office he’d sworn to uphold in the first week of January.
Warrell asked them what the office did well and where it fell short. Their answer: They didn’t fully vet the applications that came in for these gun permits.
Sure, people were put through a computerized state police background check system. But applicants also had to submit two references. And no one from the sheriff’s department ever called the references to ask a thing.
If people were lying, they’d be caught only if the database flagged something obvious.
At the same time, if any cases did come up as denied and containing false information, the District Attorney’s Office wasn’t notified of any so-called lie-and-try instances. The sheriff, for at least five years, never referred any for investigation or prosecution, Deputy District Attorney David Keightly Jr. told me Tuesday.
“There is very little in county government that you can do on this issue, but this is something that we were supposed to do anyway,” said Democratic County Commissioner Diane Ellis-Marseglia. “We were actually derelict.”
Warrell, a Democrat, and Republican District Attorney Matt Weintraub have agreed to jointly pursue more aggressively investigations of denied applicants when they involve misstatements.
Weintraub has assigned a detective to do so. Of 15 applications flagged so far this year, one has led to charges and another is close. A man lied about a domestic abuse conviction, Keightly said.
“The sheriff and DA agreed that, where appropriate, this kind of case should be charged,” Keightly said.
Warrell rightly wants more deputies on staff to do some of this work. He’s hoping the county commissioners approve eight new hires — most of whose labor will go toward clearing a backlog of more than 10,000 outstanding warrants. But they’d also call references on these gun forms, at minimum to verify that the applicant isn’t lying about something as basic as his or her address.
Which is exactly where the policy, if you can imagine it, is becoming a bit of a problem for Warrell.
Turns out that there is some debate over whether sheriffs have the right to pick up the phone and even call these references.
Warrell’s office announced his initiative on Facebook this month. It drew Berks County gun rights attorney Joshua G. Prince into the comments section. Prince declared that this was quite likely illegal.
Prince has sued state sheriffs over the privacy of what’s put onto concealed carry applications. He says it is against state law to pick up that phone and call a single reference. There’s even some question about whether asking for references is lawful.
Prince has sued one county sheriff over the fact that the office sent out postcards reminding gun owners that time to renew their permits was coming up. Information placed on a permit application should not be shared, he argued — not even with a postal carrier delivering a mailing.
Prince told me that his interpretation of the state’s 1990s-era concealed carry law is that contacting character references is also prohibited.
“What the General Assembly intended was that if the sheriff knew the person to be of bad character, then the sheriff could use that to deny a license to carry,” Prince said. “It was never intended that the sheriff do all forms of background checks.”
Warrell has called lawyers across creation for their opinions. He’s even talked to Prince. Getting a conclusive answer has been hard.
That won’t stop the Levittown native, who talks a mile a minute and still sounds as straight as a guy new to public office. He’s going to better enforce a law that seeks to protect public safety as much as it does to protect gun owners. As he sees it, the sheriff has the right — and he’s the new sheriff in town.
“No one will give me a clear answer on that,” he said, “and right now, I’ll say, ‘Yes.'”