UPDATED: Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam issued the following statement in response to the lapse in conducting federal background checks for concealed weapons permits:
“To be clear, a criminal background investigation was completed on every single application. Upon discovery of this former employee’s negligence in not conducting the further review required on 365 applications, we immediately completed full background checks on those 365 applications, which resulted in 291 revocations. The former employee was both deceitful and negligent, and we immediately launched an investigation and implemented safeguards to ensure this never happens again.”
A report by the Tampa Bay Times on Friday says the state of Florida failed for more than a year to conduct national background checks on the applications of ten of thousands of concealed weapons permits. The failure to perform those checks could have resulted in applicants receiving concealed weapons permits that shouldn’t have.
According to the Times report, the reason for the failure was that the person at the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS) responsible for those checks had technical issues and was unable to log on to the FBI site to conduct the checks.
A previously unreported Office of Inspector General investigation found that in February 2016 the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services stopped using a FBI crime database called the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) that ensures applicants who want to carry a gun do not have a disqualifying history in other states.
The problem went unnoticed until March of 2017, when another worker in the office noticed the problem.
The lapse in the national background checks being conducted occurred around the same time of the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando that killed 49 people and wounded 58 others. The shooting resulted in a huge increase in the number of concealed weapons permits that were applied for following the tragedy.
There were 134,000 requests for permits in the fiscal year ending in June 2015. The next 12 months broke a record, 245,000 applications, which was topped again in 2017 when the department received 275,000 applications.
FDACS employees told the Times that the failure to perform the background checks means concealed weapons permits could have been issued to people who weren’t eligible to have one. “This could cause an embarrassment to the agency,” the Times reports one employee as saying.
There are 1.8 million of the permits issued currently issued in Florida.
“The integrity of our department’s licensing program is our highest priority,” said Aaron Keller, a department spokesman, when contacted Friday by the Times. “As soon as we learned that one employee failed to review applicants’ non-criminal disqualifying information, we immediately terminated the employee, thoroughly reviewed every application potentially impacted, and implemented safeguards to prevent this from happening again.”
In a June 2017 report obtained by the Times, the department concluded that the employee in charge of background checks, Lisa Wilde, was negligent.
On April 7, 2016, 40 days after records show the department stopped using the database, Wilde reported to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement that her log-in to the background check system wasn’t working. But the investigation said she didn’t follow up after she continued to experience problems and never accessed the system again.
In an interview with the Times, Wilde said the department was “overwhelmed” by the number of concealed weapons permits received at that time and she felt pressure from her superiors to approve the applications. She acknowledged she had “dropped the ball.” She says she doesn’t know why she was put in charge in the first place. Wilde said prior to being given oversight of the background checks she had worked in the department’s mailroom.
The department did not respond immediately to a request from the Times on Friday asking for the number of permits issued that should not have been.
Democrats were quick to try and make the lapse in background checks a political issue for Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam in the governor’s race.
“This is a damning and disturbing report that should disqualify Adam Putnam from being governor,” said Terrie Rizzo, the chair of the Florida Democratic Party. “Under his leadership, the Department of Agriculture endangered the safety of Floridians. Putnam’s gross mismanagement of the concealed carry system likely put guns into the hands of the wrong people and put the lives of thousands of Floridians at risk. There likely were many people whose lives were affected by this negligence. Putnam’s failure to fulfill the basic duties of his office raise serious questions about his ability to lead Florida.”