By Brian Haas | The Tennessean
On some days, the state of Tennessee is fine with Bob Armentrout buying a gun.
Other days, he's not so lucky.
His attempt to buy a shotgun was blocked one day after he bought another gun.
"I had bought a handgun the day before. It went through fine, no problem. The next day I went to buy a shotgun I had been looking at. It was rejected," Armentrout said, describing a 2009 purchase. "This past Christmastime, I was buying a little .22-caliber pistol, and it was denied, too. I had to go through the same process."
He eventually got his guns, but he isn't alone in his frustration. Tennessee has the highest rate of gun purchase denials in the nation, according to a February report by the U.S. Department of Justice. In 2010, Tennessee rejected about 4.3 percent of gun buyers' purchases based on state criminal background checks, according to the report -- more than twice the national average of about 1.5 percent.
A majority of those who appeal their cases win, allowing them to eventually get a gun. Just like Armentrout did.
It's a system that annoys both buyers and sellers and could become an even bigger headache if new federal efforts to require background checks for all gun sales are successful.
"I can't even imagine how they're even going to keep up with the processing," Armentrout said. "They can barely keep up now."
The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, which conducts a $10 background check on all gun purchases from gun stores, acknowledges it has a high denial rate.
Kristin Helm, spokeswoman for the agency, said that its criminal background system, called the TBI Instant Check System, or TICS, is great for recording arrests but doesn't always get updated as to the outcome of those cases.
"Missing dispositions has been an issue with criminal records; however, it has vastly improved over the last 10 years," Helm said. "When an appeal is filed on a denied transaction, TICS staff diligently tracks down each record from clerks' offices across the state to locate any missing information, which also updates the criminal history system."
In Armentrout's case, it was an out-of-state felony fraud charge that ended up being dismissed. He has had a valid concealed weapon carry permit for years, so he has already gone through the state's background system. But he still has had to put up with rejected gun purchases.
"Apparently, Tennessee is doing something different, because I've never had any problems in the state of Washington, in the state of South Carolina, in the state of Ohio," he said. "It tells me Tennessee is doing something odd with what they're doing with background checks. Or it points to the fact that these records are not real accurate, they're not up to date."
In 2010, 12,728 gun purchases were denied in Tennessee alone, according to the Department of Justice report. Of those, more than 7,700 denials were appealed -- about 4,400 of those successful. In all, about 57 percent of appeals were successful.
Most of the denials are due to some sort of apparent criminal background, whether it be a felony or a domestic violence charge, according to the federal report.
Curtis Dodson has seen firsthand the inconvenience of these frequent denials. Dodson has owned The Armory gun store in Lebanon since 2006. When a customer wants to buy a gun, Dodson checks to make sure he or she is a Tennessee resident, takes the $10 background check fee, logs on to the TBI's system and plugs in the customer's information.
Results typically take a few minutes, tops, though the system has been prone to stall for hours at a time, he said.
When a customer is denied, Dodson said, there's never an explanation. And while he will give customers all the information to file an appeal, they sometimes hold it against the store owner.
"Not only is it frustrating, it's embarrassing," Dodson said. "That's probably the biggest source of frustration. We may not get that customer back."
Since the Dec. 14 massacre of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., there have been efforts to introduce federal legislation tightening control on gun purchases. One proposal calls for universal background checks.
Under current law, private sales don't require a background check. That sometimes includes vendors at gun shows who operate as private sellers -- the "gun show loophole." The current proposal would require background checks even on private sales between neighbors.
While the measure is still being debated in Congress, it picked up key support last week from the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a trade group that represents major gun manufacturers.
But if universal background checks pass, that could spell even more headaches for Tennessee gun buyers.
The state had a flood of background checks to run in the past two months because of worries that new gun legislation might restrict certain semi-automatic rifles. Dodson said the volume made background checks even more of a problem.
The TBI said it dealt well with the increase in gun sales, which saw jumps after Obama was elected in 2008, after he was re-elected in 2012 and after the Newtown shootings. The agency said it will be able to handle additional increases if universal background checks pass.
"It would alter our staffing model a bit -- requiring more work of staff and shifting the routine processing to the call takers," Helm said. She couldn't offer a guess as to how much staffing would be needed in that scenario but said that inconveniences caused by erroneous denials are ultimately worth it.
"Waiting on the final outcome of an appeal might be an inconvenience on a small percentage of individuals," Helm said, "but that outweighs the risk of releasing a firearm to someone who is ineligible to purchase one."
Contact Brian Haas at 615-726-8968 or firstname.lastname@example.org.