Sheriffs in two neighboring counties have differing views on Luzerne County Interim Sheriff John Robshaw’s refusal to sign off on paperwork needed for citizens to buy machine guns, short-barrel shotguns and rifles and silencers.
The federal form to transfer these type of National Firearms Act, or “Class III,” weapons from dealers to individuals requires the signature of the “chief law enforcement officer” in that jurisdiction. The officer is typically the county sheriff in Pennsylvania, though police chiefs and district attorneys also could qualify.
The issue came up locally because Foster Township resident Thomas F. Braddock Jr. sent a letter to Luzerne County officials this week complaining about Robshaw’s failure to consider his transfer request for a fully automatic machine gun he wants for his collection and investment purposes.
Robshaw said he won’t sign off on any such requests because he opposes civilians acquiring automatic guns and silencers and doesn’t want to be responsible if one of these weapons is used in a crime.
Lackawanna County Sheriff John Szymanski said he has taken the same stance as Robshaw since the Sandy Hook school shooting in Connecticut.
Szymanski said the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives does its own extensive background checks and ultimately decides if these transfers are approved, prompting him to question why county sheriffs are drawn into the process.
“Why do we have to sign off? I feel very uncomfortable signing for an automatic firearm or silencer. God forbid something happens. Then people will turn around and say I signed it,” Szymanski said. “We don’t think sheriffs should be involved, period.”
Monroe County Sheriff Todd Martin said he believes the sign-off is required as an extra precaution to make the federal bureau aware of any local law enforcement concerns about applicants.
Martin said he won’t critique the approach of counterparts because they have discretion over how they handle such requests, but he embraces the opportunity to evaluate and review applicants and considers it part of his job.
“I feel we’re part of the process. The officials approving these transfers likely have no idea what’s going on in our county, so they’re asking the chief law enforcement officer to determine if that person has a good reputation,” Martin said.
He said he wants to be involved in actively monitoring and tracking who has Class III items.
“I’d like to know if there are 20 people in my county who have suppressors (silencers),” Martin said. “To me, it’s public safety.”
The federal form requires chief law enforcement officers to certify they have no information indicating the applicant will use the transferred item for an illegal purpose.
Martin begins by reviewing the application and verifying applicants’ county residency. He said he may reject applications from county newcomers if he can’t gather enough information about them. He also completes background and criminal history checks, including a search for district judge-level summary offenses such as disorderly conduct and public drunkenness.
Braddock said he turned to the Luzerne County sheriff for his transfer because his municipality does not have a local police force.
Kingston Police Chief Keith Keiper, who is active with the Luzerne County Chiefs of Police Association, said he has never received requests to sign transfers and hasn’t heard of any approved by other municipal chiefs.
County District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis said she never received a transfer request and does not know if her office would process them or forward them to the sheriff’s office, which already handles concealed weapon permits.
Applicants must pay a $200 transfer fee, submit two sets of fingerprints and passport photos.
Chris Scoda, owner of gun dealer Advanced Arms LLC in Pittston, said the two previous Luzerne County sheriffs approved Class III transfer requests after conducting background checks.
“For the current acting sheriff not to want to sign is kind of odd. I don’t think personal beliefs belong in that position,” Scoda said.
He said the federal review of transfer applications is a “very intensive process” involving the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
He disputed the perception silences are being purchased for crime. Silencers have become more popular for target shooting and hunting because they reduce weapon recoil and noise pollution for neighbors and shooters who don’t want to wear ear plugs, he said.
The difficulty obtaining sheriff approval is prompting more people to resort to creating special trusts to assume ownership of Class III weapons, Scoda said. The federal government still conducts background checks of the primary trustee, but approval of the local chief law enforcement officer is not required for these transfers, he said.
Braddock is considering a trust.
Scoda said the background check is “more thorough” for individual transfers than trusts.
Attorney David Goldman, managing partner of Apple Law Firm PLLC, said his Florida-based firm “created the concept of gun trusts” about six years ago. The trusts have become increasingly popular across the country, and Goldman doesn’t agree with news articles describing them as a “loophole.”
“The loophole is that sheriffs are given the arbitrary ability to make decisions without evaluating somebody. A background check is still conducted, but the local sheriff doesn’t get to insert his personal beliefs into Second Amendment rights,” Goldman said.