By MATTHEW KAUFFMAN, firstname.lastname@example.org
The Hartford Courant
6:32 PM EDT, June 23, 2013
In March of 2007, a 61-year-old West Hartford man sought to renew the pistol permit he had held for 25 years. But he balked when state police asked him to produce a birth certificate or passport as proof of citizenship — an enhanced requirement imposed following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Rather than fetch the documents, which he believed the state police had no authority to demand, the applicant appealed to the state Board of Firearm Permit Examiners, which — facing a huge backlog of appeals — told him he'd have to wait 18 months for a hearing.
He eventually got his renewal, but he also sued members of the board in federal court, unleashing a litany of complaints against the panel, including the alleged "abdication" of the board's independence in favor of renegade state police officials intent on imposing their own approach to gun control, "regardless of state statutes, regulations, or constitutional principles to the contrary."
That fiery accusation was based on more than a passing knowledge of the Board of Firearm Permit Examiners. Because the plaintiff in the case is M. Peter Kuck, a member of the very board he was assailing.
Kuck's lawsuit was thrown out, but he's seeking to revive it with the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. In the meantime, he spends board meetings a few feet away from a pair of co-defendants in his suit: board Chairman Joseph Corradino and board Secretary T. William Knapp. A few feet farther down sits the board's office manager, Susan Mazzoccoli, whom Kuck accused of conspiring with the board's former chairman in a failed scheme to "sabotage" Kuck's reappointment.
Kuck, the longest-serving member of the board, is described variously as a loose cannon and a dedicated patriot — sometimes by the same people. His passion for the constitutional right to bear arms, and Kuck's impatience with local and state police departments whom he believes infringes on that right, are on display at most meetings of the board.
"'Because I say so' is not a reason to revoke or deny," he said in a recent interview. So Kuck said he sees his role merely as that of an independent citizen who studies the evidence to see if police "have gone and — how shall we put this? — not followed the law."
Kuck was appointed to the board in 1998 by then-Gov. John G. Rowland, on nomination by Ye Connecticut Gun Guild, a gun-collectors and Second Amendment advocacy group of which Kuck is the treasurer.
He became something of a folk hero among Connecticut gun enthusiasts with his federal lawsuit, which took particularly harsh aim at the state police Special Licensing and Firearms Unit, describing it as a "rogue unit" within the state Department of Public Safety, that operates "without oversight or regard for the law or the individual rights of state permit holders."
After the suit was filed, the board briefly halted hearings while waiting for an opinion from the attorney general's office on whether it was a conflict for Kuck to hear cases. Former Attorney General Richard Blumenthal declared that Kuck had to recuse himself only on cases that, like the complaint in his suit, involved allegations of excessive delays.
At hearings, Kuck is the most unabashedly pro-gun rights member of the board, voting to overturn police officials in 88 percent of non-unanimous cases in recent years, and accounting for 30 of the 40 cases in which a lone vote was cast for the appellant. He calls out police representatives who he believes stray beyond their authority. Occasionally, he faces criticism for coaching appellants and witnesses.
He is a particularly outspoken critic of state police decisions to revoke pistol permits after gun owners are arrested, and he accuses the state police of revoking permits without a legal basis, knowing that months will pass before gun owners can get a hearing before the board.
"I have a favorite saying," said Kuck, "and it's this: There are elements in our state, and perhaps in the whole country, who use the process as punishment."
Earlier this year, 25-year-old Andrew Malerba of Waterford appealed the revocation of his pistol permit after neighbors called police around 2 a.m. to report gunshots at his home. Fearing a hostage situation, it took local police hours to make contact with Malerba, who was charged with breach of peace and illegal discharge of a firearm.
The 2 1/2 hour hearing centered on whether Malerba had been drinking and whether the shots were fired into a natural berm behind his property, as he claimed, or in front of his house, where the spent cartridges were found and which is closer to his neighbors' homes. There was also a question of whether a loaded and cocked handgun was found under a pillow on the bed where Malerba's intoxicated wife was sleeping.
It was a close decision, with the board voting 4-3 to give Malerba his permit back. But to a clearly agitated Kuck, it was a grand waste of time.
"This is a nothing case," he said as the testimony wrapped up. "I have a very big problem with the state treating everybody like the absolute worst ax murderer."
"Peter, you're preaching," Corradino interrupted.
That exchange was a glimpse of the lingering personality differences on the board – though the panel runs more smoothly than it did in 2007, when Kuck and former Chairman Christopher Adams often clashed. In his federal lawsuit, Kuck accused Adams of telling others that Kuck was "clueless" and that he needed to take a Valium or spend more time at his day job.
Today, Corradino chooses his words carefully in describing his relationship with Kuck, and with Kuck's strong philosophical bent.
"Mr. Kuck has his perspective. It's different from mine and I'm the chairman," Corradino said, explaining it his responsibility to keep the meetings orderly and moving along. "Sometimes we don't have time for philosophy."
On Malerba, Corradino said: "I didn't see it as a nothing case," although he was among those who voted to return Malerba's permit.
Malerba's attorney at the hearing was Rachel M. Baird of Torrington, a prominent firearms-rights lawyer in the state. She is also Kuck's lawyer in his federal lawsuit. The opinion issued by the attorney general after the suit was filed did not address whether it was a conflict for Kuck to rule on cases brought by his private attorney.
But Corradino, a senior assistant state's attorney in Bridgeport, said it's not a practice he would follow.
"Let me just say: As a prosecutor, I would never handle a case where my personal attorney was on the other side, and I don't know of any judge who would either," Corradino said.
Baird countered that police agencies have never objected to Kuck's involvement in any of her cases.
"The state has an opportunity to challenge it," Baird said. "And if they don't see it an as an issue, I don't see why I should."
Three years after filing his lawsuit, Kuck shook up the board a second time, following the U.S. Supreme Court's decision striking down Chicago's handgun ban. The decision limited how far a state could go in experimenting with different gun-control laws in an effort to reduce violence. But the court also endorsed language in a brief that stated, "State and local experimentation with reasonable firearms regulations will continue under the Second Amendment."
Kuck, however, saw the decision as fully at odds with Connecticut's statute.
"In my opinion the use of Connecticut's vague and capricious suitability standard has been declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court because it is experimentation and local variation," he wrote in a letter to the board in July 2010. "Therefore when an appellant comes before the board with no federal disqualifying factors and the appellant meets Connecticut eligibility factors I will vote for the appellant."
Kuck has since softened that position, but still is troubled by the way police apply the suitability standard.
"Do I think that the suitability clause can be applied arbitrarily and capriciously? Of course I do," he said. "No two chiefs are going to have the same policy on suitability."
In deciding cases, Kuck follows a simple principle. "If I wouldn't feel comfortable if he had a gun and were standing behind me, I don't want him to have a permit," Kuck said. "That'd be insane."
Kuck is also outspoken beyond the board, frequently offering testimony at the legislature opposing expanded authority for the state police or bills he believes infringes on Second Amendment rights. He was particularly vocal after legislators this year voted to enact strict gun-control measures following the Sandy Hook massacre.
"You stupid, bloody damn fools. You have attacked the state and federal constitutions," Kuck wrote in an email to legislators. "From this point on your oaths are worthless and your name is Mudd."
Kuck offers no apology for his harsh choice of words.
"The Constitution means something," he said. "What were they supposed to swear to when they took office? To preserve and protect the Constitution. If they can't do that, what does it mean?
"Constitutional rights are always very important. Always," Kuck said. "Because once they're gone, you can't get them back."
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