Who can have a gun in Phila.? Often, Florida decides

Posted: October 02, 2011

Earl Page and his friend Rashad were hanging on a North Philadelphia corner on a summer night when a man began firing a gun, spraying bullets wildly.

Page caught a .45-caliber slug in the back and collapsed; his friend died of a bullet in his brain. At first, Page, who was just 14, told detectives from his hospital bed that he didn't see his assailant - "I'm worried about my family," he later admitted.

But at an August 1999 preliminary hearing in the case, Page testified that as he was "laying on the sidewalk," he saw his assailant - Rafiq Williams, a gun in each hand, "still shooting." At the trial, Page reverted to his original account, the jury hung, and at a retrial, Williams was acquitted.

Fast-forward to 2011. Rafiq Williams operates a North Philadelphia security firm and has a permit to carry a concealed handgun - issued by the State of Florida.

He obtained it even though Philadelphia police rejected his application on "good character" grounds. He was also rejected on appeal by a city licensing panel after members heard about another case in which Williams fled police and was captured in a fortified "drug compound." A further appeal is still pending in the Philadelphia courts.

Like 900 other Philadelphians - a number that has skyrocketed in recent years - Williams easily circumvented the local licensing process by obtaining a mail-order gun permit from Florida, where the rules are less stringent.

And because Pennsylvania and Florida have a reciprocal agreement to respect each other's gun licenses, local police are compelled to honor his permit, despite their opposition. Legislation pending in Congress - and endorsed by a majority of House members - would extend the reciprocity nationwide.

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey said such broad reciprocity "undermines the traditional authority of state and local governments to protect their citizens."

The city argues that it needs latitude in determining who is a threat, because of long-standing problems in the court system. An Inquirer report last year noted that while prosecutors in other big cities win felony convictions in half of violent-crime cases, in Philadelphia, prosecutors had been winning only 20 percent.

One oft-cited reason is witnesses' changing their stories or failing to appear in court, leading to acquittals for lack of evidence or reasonable doubt.

Increasingly, Philadelphia police are discovering suspects arrested here have Florida concealed-weapons permits.

That's because most of the gun permits are going to the city's higher-crime areas, with concentrations in Olney and West Philadelphia.

Seventy Florida permit-holders list addresses in West Philadelphia's zip code 19143, which includes the Cobbs Creek and Kingsessing neighborhoods. In 2005, there were three Florida permits in that zip code.

No other area of the state has that concentration of Florida permits, according to an Inquirer analysis of Florida permit data. Among America's 10 largest cities, only New York has more, with 1,400, and its population is five times larger. Philadelphia has more Florida permits per capita than any other big city.

As Florida permits have grown in popularity here - even former State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo, now imprisoned on corruption charges, had one - a cottage industry has sprung up to ease the application and approval process.

A local psychologist offers a firearms-training program tailored to the Florida law, and a local lawyer has been suing police who detain Florida permit-holders and seize their guns.

Minor brushes with the law or character issues are not considerations for granting or rejecting a permit in Florida. The key is that the applicant has not been convicted of a felony.

"I've never been convicted of anything," said Williams, who is incensed because he has been denied a local permit.

Bruce Eimer, a psychologist and gun instructor who has trained dozens of Philadelphians seeking Florida permits, said Florida's reciprocal agreement with Pennsylvania and 31 other states was a key reason people want that state's license. He stressed that people with permits typically are law-abiding citizens.

"The people who don't have permits, those are the people who commit crimes," said Eimer, who also attests to the mental fitness of applicants for state security-guard licenses.

But Ramsey points to the case of Marqus Hill, a Florida gun-permit-holder awaiting trial on a murder charge.

Police know him well.

Hill, who had a previous attempted-murder charge dismissed, was denied a permit in Philadelphia in 2008.

When Hill lost his appeal after a hearing in the Criminal Justice Center, he became agitated, witnesses said.

They said he immediately began cursing in the hearing room and was ordered to leave. In the hallway outside, he struggled with police and was charged with felony assault for allegedly hitting an officer. He pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct, and other charges were dropped.

Still, he had no felony convictions, and in 2009 he got the permit from Florida.

Nine months later, he was charged with the murder of 18-year-old Irving Santana, one of three teenagers who tried to break into Hill's car when it was parked in Olney.

Fortunato N. Perri Jr., Hill's attorney, has said his client shot Santana because he feared one of the three teens had a gun.

Williams got his mail-order permit from Florida even before the city's gun-licensing panel rejected his appeal of the original police turn-down.

At that hearing in 2009, Sgt. William Rodgers testified about what happened when police arrested Williams in the drug-compound case.

Rodgers said there was an outstanding warrant for Williams when he spotted him on Nov. 14, 1996, near 32d and Cumberland Streets, and gave chase.

He said Williams ran into a nearby house, where police found six guns, including a sawed-off shotgun, and three bulletproof vests that had been stolen from the Police Department. Rodgers said there also was a photograph of Williams holding some of the guns.

Police also found more than two-thirds of a pound of powdered cocaine and another container of crack cocaine, Rodgers aid.

Williams was arrested on drug charges and gun charges, but the charges were later dismissed.

At the gun hearing, his lawyer - Bernard L. Siegel, who was also Williams' attorney in the 1998 murder trial - acknowledged that it was "wrong" for his client to be in such a house, but pointed out "that was 13 years ago." He also noted that Williams had obtained a Florida permit.

Bradford Richman, an attorney for the city, countered that the house where Williams was arrested was a "drug compound that was reinforced and armed for confrontation." That was enough to show there were serious character issues that argued for denying Williams a permit, he told the four-member licensing board.

It agreed with Richman and rejected Williams' appeal.

Florida permits are attractive because the chances of being approved there are far higher than in Philadelphia.

Last year, for example, 15 percent of Philadelphia's permit applications were denied. (Nearly 4,400 permits were approved in the city during the same period.)

Florida denied 1 percent.

Philadelphia police said that when they cannot quickly verify an out-of-state license, their commanders have told them to take the permits and guns from the suspects.

That has spurred lawsuits, some of which have been settled for cash awards, and problems of community relations.

Montrell Bolden said he was suing. He said he got his Florida permit after being acquitted of drug charges in 2007.

He says police subsequently detained him in 2009 and confiscated his .40-caliber Smith & Wesson, which he said was worth $800, and never returned it. He said the Florida permit was valid at the time.

Bolden currently is facing new drug-dealing charges but said that should have had no bearing on his suit.

The person who got the biggest settlement is also in part responsible for Philadelphia's dramatic increase in Florida permits.

Richard Oliver, who runs the Parapet Group security firm, received a $20,000 arbitration award after his 2009 arrest on charges that he was carrying a concealed firearm without a license - a felony. The case was quickly dismissed, but the record of the arrest still has not been expunged.

A memo on the arbitration award, written by the city attorney, said police refused Oliver's "request for medical treatment and for physician-prescribed medication which he takes for high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol and edema."

Oliver said in an interview that he showed police not just his Florida gun permit but also valid permits from New Hampshire and Utah. Police also rejected them, he said.

He had the permits because part of his business has been training people to get out-of-state permits.

Oliver estimated that he had helped 100 to 200 people get Florida licenses during the last five years.

"In Philadelphia, you can't get a permit to carry if you owe parking tickets," he said. "You owe the city, you cannot get a permit to carry."

Ronald Robinson agrees. He also was arrested by Philadelphia police for carrying a concealed weapon without a permit, a case that was subsequently dismissed.

"It's protection. It's a right," Robinson said of his license to carry. "I didn't go though loopholes."

He said Philadelphia police denied his application for a concealed-weapons permit because of his past conviction for resisting arrest.

Robinson had pleaded guilty to the charge in 1999 in Delaware County and was put on probation for two years.

Police had contended that he was "the type of person who would hurt someone" when they denied his permit, he said.

So, Robinson said, he simply sent an application to Florida, and had no trouble getting his permit there.

Another Florida permit-holder in Philadelphia, Shykeem Leslie, was viewed by police as a midlevel drug dealer, constantly hustling dope and involved in violent crimes.

Before Leslie got his Florida license in January 2009, he had been arrested in three separate felony cases, involving charges of robbery, drug dealing, and aggravated assault. All those cases were dismissed.

In December 2009, Leslie was arrested twice on drug charges in North Philadelphia.

During one of the arrests, police discovered a secret compartment in the console of his car, between the front seats. Hidden there was $3,650 in cash and 100 packets of drugs.

Police also seized his Florida gun permit, for the second time.

Leslie, 24, never had to go to trial.

In the predawn hours of Aug. 18, 2010, he was felled by a hail of gunfire, shot in the chest, shoulder, and arm in the 3200 block of North 27th Street.

He was pronounced dead at Temple University Hospital.

Contact staff writer Mark Fazlollah

at 215-854-5831 or mfazlollah@phillynews.com.

Staff writer Dylan Purcell contributed to this article.


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