For more than a year, the state of Florida failed to review national background checks on tens of thousands of applications for concealed weapons permits, potentially allowing drug addicts or people with a mental illness to carry firearms in public.
A previously unreported Office of Inspector General investigation found that in February 2016 the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services stopped using results from a FBI crime database called the National Instant Criminal Background Check System that ensures applicants who want to carry a gun do not have a disqualifying history in other states.
The employee in charge of the background checks could not log into the system, the investigator learned. The problem went unresolved until discovered by another worker in March 2017 — meaning that for more than a year applications got approved without the required background check.
During that time, which coincided with the June 12, 2016, shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando that left 50 dead, the state saw a historic spike in applications for concealed weapons permits. 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.
Department employees interviewed for the report called the NICS checks “extremely important.” Concealed weapons licenses “may have been issued to potentially ineligible individuals.” If it came out they weren’t conducted, “this could cause an embarrassment to the agency,” the report said.
Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam has made it a priority to streamline the system for requesting concealed weapons permits since he was elected in 2010. In 2012, he held a news conference to tout the state’s one millionth concealed weapons permit, noting the time it took to process an application fell from 12 weeks to 35 days on his watch. There are now 1.8 million concealed weapon permit holders in Florida.
Now running for Florida governor as a Republican, Putnam’s campaign touts his expansion of concealed carry permits as one of his top accomplishments.
New details about his agency’s lax oversight come after his campaign has weathered criticism of Putnam’s full embrace of gun rights.
In a tweet posted last July — and a month after investigators found that his office had botched thousands of background checks — Putnam claimed he was a “Proud NRA sellout.”
Last month, victims of the Parkland tragedy and activists conducted die-ins at Publix grocery stores and called for a boycott of the company after it was reported that the supermarket chain donated more money to Putnam than any candidate in history.
“The integrity of our department’s licensing program is our highest priority,” said Aaron Keller, a department spokesman, when contacted Friday. “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.”
Keller added that the NICS database is used for “non-criminal disqualifying offenses” and during this time, the state conducted criminal background checks using two other databases.
The June 5, 2017, report, obtained by the Tampa Bay Times in a records request, concluded that the employee in charge of background checks, Lisa Wilde, was negligent.
The only other employee who regularly accessed the database was a mailroom supervisor who was barely trained in the system, the report stated.
On April 7, 2016, 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 .
In March of 2017, another employee wondered why the department had not recently received any notices of denials. The employee reached out to FDLE, which handles appeals for denials. FDLE responded that it had not received an appeal from a concealed weapons applicant since September 2016, setting off alarm bells.
It is unclear why it took so long for someone to realize the background checks were not completed. But the report indicated that the department may not have a backup system to ensure the task was completed.
In a Friday interview with the Times, Wilde said the licensing department was overwhelmed with the number of applications and she was under pressure from supervisors to quickly approve applications.
From July 2016 through June 2017, which covers most of the period when the system wasn’t accessed, 268,000 applications were approved and 6,470 were denied for reasons like an incomplete application or the state discovered they were ineligible, according to the state Agriculture Department’s annual concealed weapons permit report.
In the year since, there were fewer applications, about 200,000, but 2,000 more denials than the previous year when the federal background check system wasn’t accessed.
The report, which was forwarded to Putnam, recommends that the department identify all erroneously issued permits.
Hours after the Times story published Friday, the department said upon learning of the lapse in 2017, it “immediately” reviewed 365 applications and revoked 291 concealed weapons permits.
The National Instant Criminal Background Check System was created in 1993 by the FBI. It allows states and firearm retailers to check the criminal and mental health history of someone looking to purchase a firearm.
The system will flag applicants who have served time in prison for more than a year, are convicted of drug use in the past year, are undocumented immigrants or were involuntarily committed or deemed to have a “mental defect” by a court or dishonorably discharged from the military.
In Florida, it is also used to background check an applicant for a concealed weapons permit for any out-of-state offenses.
In the recent legislative session, Putnam proposed legislation that would require permits to be approved in cases when an application is in limbo because background checks are inconclusive. But the legislation was pulled after the deadly mass shooting in Parkland.
In her interview with investigators, Wilde acknowledged she “dropped the ball.”
Yet on Friday, Wilde told the Times she had been working in the mailroom when she was given oversight of the database in 2013.
“I didn’t understand why I was put in charge of it.”
This story was updated after publication to clarify that Adam Putnam's office did not review the results of background checks for concealed weapons applicants for non-criminal offenses for more than a year.
Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau staff writer Steve Bousquet and Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.