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Weston v. State

Decided: January 17, 1972.

ROBERT L. WESTON, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
STATE OF NEW JERSEY, DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT



For reversal and remandment -- Chief Justice Weintraub and Justices Jacobs, Francis, Proctor, Hall, Schettino and Mountain. For affirmance -- None. The opinion of the Court was delivered by Francis, J.

Francis

[60 NJ Page 39] On August 1, 1968, pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2A:151-32-35, Weston applied to the Chief of Police of the Township of Pennsville, Salem County, for a firearms purchaser identification card. The application was denied.

No request was made to the County Court within the prescribed 30 day period thereafter for a hearing to review the denial. N.J.S.A. 2A:151-34. Upon learning that the passage of time had barred action by the County Court, on January 12, 1969 Weston filed a second application for the card with the Chief of Police. This resulted in a second denial because in the opinion of the Chief "issuance of a Firearms Purchaser's Identification Card would not be in the interest of the public health, safety or welfare." A timely request followed for a hearing in the County Court as to the propriety of the denial. The County Court affirmed the Police Chief's action, and Weston's subsequent appeal to the Appellate Division was certified on our own motion for disposition in this Court.

Under the Gun Control Law, L. 1966, c. 60 ยง 25, N.J.S.A. 2A:151-32, subd. B no person may purchase a rifle or shotgun unless he possesses a valid firearms purchaser identification card, shows it to the seller and signs a written certification indicating that he presently complies with N.J.S.A. 2A:151-33, which sets forth the qualifications for obtaining and holding such a card. Section 33 provides:

No person of good character and who is of good repute in the community in which he lives, and who is not subject to any of the disabilities set forth in this section or other sections of this chapter, shall be denied a permit to purchase a pistol or revolver or a firearms purchaser identification card, except as hereinafter set forth:

a. No pistol or revolver purchase permit or firearms purchaser identification card shall be issued to any person who has ever been convicted of any crime, to any person addicted to narcotics, or who is a habitual user of goofballs or pep pills, to any person who is confined for a mental disorder to a hospital, mental institution or sanitarium, or to any person who is presently a habitual drunkard; or

b. To any person who suffers from a physical defect or sickness which would make it unsafe for him to handle firearms, to any person who has ever been confined for a mental disorder, or to any alcoholic, unless any of the foregoing persons produce a certificate of a medical doctor or psychiatrist licensed in New Jersey, or other satisfactory proof, that he is no longer suffering from that particular disability in such a manner that would interfere with or handicap him in handling of firearms; or

c. To any person under the age of 18 years; or

d. To any person where the issuance would not be in the interest of the public health, safety or welfare.

The statute requires the applicant to complete a form prescribed by the Superintendent of State Police, and when there exists an organized full-time police department in the municipality of the applicant's residence (as in this case), the completed and signed form containing the names and addresses of two reputable citizens personally acquainted with him must be filed with the chief of police. N.J.S.A. 2A:151-34, -35. The interrogatories set out in the form to be answered by the applicant relate to and are required to be limited to the qualifications for a firearms purchaser identification card outlined in Section 33 above. Upon the filing of the completed form with him, the chief of police is obliged to "investigate the application to determine whether or not the applicant has become subject to any of the disabilities set forth in" the statute. Upon completion of the investigation, "unless good cause for the denial thereof appears [the chief of police] shall grant * * * the identification card." N.J.S.A. 2A:151-35, -36.

Weston's 1968 and 1969 applications inquired as to whether he had "been attended, treated or observed by any doctor or psychiatrist, or at any hospital or mental institution on an in-patient or out-patient basis for any mental or psychiatric condition." He answered in the affirmative, saying that he had been treated in the Salem County Guidance Center in 1966. In the 1969 form he had indicated that the problem for which he sought guidance at the Center was "environmental" and that he had been given a "clean bill of health" by Dr. Gilpatrick. In 1968 the reason given for his purchase of firearms was "hunting, formal marksmanship competition"; In 1969 the purpose specified was "trap, skeet and target shooting."

Investigation of the 1968 application by Police Chief Dwyer of Pennsville included a visit by himself or a member of his department to the Salem County Guidance Center and

an interview with a doctor associated with the Center. The doctor is said to have advised against the grant of Weston's request for permission to purchase a firearm. On that basis the Chief denied a firearms purchaser identification card by letter which simply stated the denial without any specification of reasons.

It seems obvious from the record that Weston discussed the actual basis for the rejection with the Chief, and asked him to reconsider in light of N.J.S.A. 2A:151-33(b). This section provides in part that treatment for a mental disorder shall disqualify an applicant unless he produces "a certificate of a medical doctor or psychiatrist licensed in New Jersey, or other satisfactory proof, that he is no longer suffering from that particular disability in such a manner that would interfere with or handicap him in the handling of firearms." Thereafter, on October 3, 1968, Weston delivered to the Chief a certificate from Dr. Charles E. Gilpatrick, a general practitioner of the area. The doctor who had known Weston for 20 years certified that he had always been in good general physical condition and "has never shown any signs or symptoms of paranoid or suicidal tendencies, antisocial trends or mental illness." The certificate contained no reference to Weston's treatment at the Salem County Guidance Center or the result thereof. When the Chief adhered to his original decision, the second application, that of January 12, 1969, was filed. Further investigation was engaged in by the Chief's subordinates which, as he notified Weston, still revealed that issuance of the firearms purchaser identification card "would not be in the interest of the public health, safety or welfare." The Chief's testimony at the County Court hearing, although somewhat conflicting at times, indicated that the second rejection was based on the results of investigation of both applications.

At the hearing in the County Court pursuant to Weston's request therefor under N.J.S.A. 2A:151-34, the court and the parties were unsure and in conflict as to the procedure that ought to ...


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