Norm Gobert had barely begun his presentation when a heckler piped up from the back row. He’d been trying to convince a room full of Louisiana government clerks to deliver more complete records to his office at the state Supreme Court, and his audience was suspicious from the outset. “What’s it going to cost us?” called the voice of the agitator, who was the deputy clerk from Vernon Parish, a rural community at the western edge of the state. “An arm and a leg, that’s what.”
Norm, a bearded onetime linebacker with an easy-going disposition, would not be derailed. He strolled to the back of the room and gave the rest of his presentation from behind the heckler’s chair.
Just three years earlier, Norm would not have imagined that his career would hinge on the cooperation of a room full of bureaucrats. He and his wife ran a bustling sign-printing business just a block away from the New Orleans Superdome. Their prize contract had them making all the signs for the Superbowl venue that year — including the ones marking the owner’s suites and those telling the crowds to keep left for the men’s room. But when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, 53 inches of water poured into their green cinderblock building and then hung around for three weeks, rusting all their printing equipment. While his wife worked to rebuild, Norm found a job scanning documents in the mailroom at the NASA Stennis Space Center in southern Mississippi. The drive from his home was an hour and a half each way, and in the evenings many of the roads were pitch black, since all the street and traffic lights had been flooded out. He was grateful for the job, but the relentless scanning and data entry were tedious, and the long hours in the car started to seep into his bones. So, in 2009, when a job collecting and organizing records for the Louisiana Supreme Court opened up, Norm applied immediately and was hired.
The assignment was daunting: He had to convince the state’s 64 parish clerks to begin sending criminal conviction records to the State Police and the FBI. Somehow, without any real governmental authority, he had to get them to say “yes” to more work. Before he and his wife started the sign business, Norm had worked for IBM, helping companies set up and upgrade their computer systems. Now, he was using some of the customer relations skills he learned there to try to persuade clerks to adopt new computer software and share data. But doing that much work voluntarily, and with no extra funding, was laughable to the government workers. Luckily, the State Supreme Court had hired the right man. Norm developed a distinctly Southern approach to convincing the clerks to do the job. It involved cake, football, and a heavy dash of personal charm.
Louisiana Was Miles Ahead
Many days, Norm climbed into his pearl-blue Honda Accord and drove more than 550 miles, cajoling clerks from one end of the state to the other. Fortunately, there was a lofty purpose: making people safer. The criminal conviction records Norm was trying to harness would go to the State Police, and also to the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), which is used to screen people buying guns through licensed dealers. Better records would help gun store clerks stop more felons from buying guns, and help police officers making traffic stops know if they were approaching a person with a violent criminal history.
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As Louisianans know, the state has become as closely associated with violence as it is with crawfish and jazz. For 30 years running, it’s had the highest murder rate in the country, a grim record that some experts attribute to high poverty rates, high temperatures, and sparce gun laws. The state has one of the highest rates of men killing women and gun deaths. In 2012, an amendment was added to the state Constitution that makes it very difficult to pass any sort of firearm restriction.
In recent years, people across the national political landscape have agreed that the national background check system must be fixed. In 2018, Congress passed a bill, called Fix NICS, which requires federal agencies to deliver their records to the FBI quickly and completely and incentivizes states to do the same.
Louisiana, however, was early to this trend. Beginning in the late 1990s, a group of bureaucrats at the Louisiana Supreme Court decided to improve the way the state collected criminal records. They started with protective orders. Until then, every judge had made up their own protective order forms. When someone sought such an order, a clerk would file it in the courthouse and the person was supposed to carry a copy around with her day and night.
In 1997, court officials established the Louisiana Protective Order Registry, which required judges to use a standardized form and mail it to a central office in New Orleans. At the time, state court employees estimated that there were about a thousand active protective orders in the state. But every morning, the mail carrier delivered armfuls of envelopes, and they had to buy four fax machines to handle the constant influx of forms. When all the courts had sent in their orders, they totalled almost 11,000.
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The new registry even captured misdemeanor domestic violence convictions, which almost every state in the nation has struggled to track. Domestic violence misdemeanor convictions are especially important because they are the only misdemeanors that bar a person from having guns. Other misdemeanor convictions don’t do that. But it’s hard to tell from looking at a criminal record whether a crime — say, misdemeanor assault — is considered a domestic violence crime. Someone has to look closely at the case and investigate whether the perpetrator and the victim had a “domestic relationship.” And that isn’t always easy to determine. But with the Louisiana Protective Order Registry, when an order was filed as part of a misdemeanor case, the state created a simple box to check to show that that the case was domestic.
In early 2005, FBI auditors came to New Orleans. Frank DiFulco, who helped create the registry, remembers them setting up in a conference room with their laptops and dozens of stacks of files. They quickly discovered that the state was miles ahead of other places in collecting information about domestic abusers. If Louisiana had been able do that, the auditors said, maybe it was time for the state to collect the hundreds of thousands of felony records that were languishing in courthouses sprinkled across the state.
Only weeks later, Hurricane Katrina hit. The state Supreme Court was flooded, and forced to move operations from the French Quarter 80 miles west to Baton Rouge, where a skeleton crew processed only the most dire cases, like homicides and emergency actions related to the storm. The plan to start collecting felony conviction records was delayed indefinitely.
It was hard to imagine, at the time, that the storm could bring anyone good luck. But three years later, when court administrators finally got back to collecting criminal convictions from the state’s court clerks, one of them heard that there was a hard-to-ruffle guy with a computer background who’d been commuting all the way to Mississippi every day for a mailroom job. Maybe he could be enticed to help out? A few weeks later, Norm Gobert was hired to convince clerks across the state to update their records-keeping systems.
Norm’s Secret Weapons
In March 2009, Norm started visiting clerks. He began by driving to the East Carroll Court Clerk’s Office far to the northeast. Even though he’d lived in Louisiana his entire life, he had never been to that corner of the state. The East Carroll clerk had actually asked Norm for help. Her staff was still taking trial minutes by hand and recording criminal convictions in big, green ledger books, and she wanted to figure out the best way to create a digital recording system. But other clerks weren’t so receptive. Jeff Skidmore, who was then the chief deputy clerk in Vernon Parish, but has since been promoted to chief clerk, admits that he heckled Norm when he implored clerks to submit more data at a meeting of the state clerks association. “I’m thinking this is a lose-lose situation,” Skidmore remembers. Not only did he suspect that the state was trying to give him extra work with no money to pay for it, he thought they were going to take valuable convictions data, which clerks can sell to private background check companies to fund their operations, and sell it themselves. “I gave him hell in front of everyone,” Skidmore recalled recently.
Norm remembers more than one clerk asking him to show them “where it says I have to do what you are asking.” He was forced to share the sad truth: He had no power to make them do what he asked. Louisiana, and about half the states in the nation, don’t have unified court systems. That means that state officials can ask local court clerks to report their data, but without passing legislation, they can’t make them comply.
When a clerk’s office was missing a piece of information that the State Police and FBI needed — an arrest date or a state ID number, for example — things could get even more complicated. Norm remembers how, in some parishes, police and prosecutors were entering the state identification numbers into their computers, but those numbers were not showing up on the printed rap sheets that they sent to the clerks. So Norm had to convince yet another group of overworked government employees to reconfigure their computer systems to fix a problem they didn’t immediately understand.
Gradually, the unflappable bureaucrat with the easy belly laugh began to develop a few tricks. On the way to one of Louisiana’s more far-flung parishes, he might make a pit stop at a different clerk’s office. He’d pop in to say hello and introduce himself. Overflowing with friendliness and warmth, he’d shake some hands and leave donuts or Louisiana king cakes on the counter. “I’d tell them, ‘I can’t stay long today, but I’ll be back.’”
On his second visit to a clerk’s office, Norm would pull out his second secret weapon: high school football. Norm had been a linebacker at LaGrange High School in Lake Charles Parish. When he busted his knee, he chose Xavier University, a college with no football team so he wouldn’t be tempted to mope over his lost glory. But it didn’t work. Within months he found himself shouting from the sidelines for the Tulane Green Wave, and refereeing high school games for $50 a pop. Years later, he still kept track of the best high school players across the state. When he’d drop in on a clerk, he’d check his or her last name to see if it matched one of the star local players, and scan desks for team flags and banners. “There’s always going to be somebody’s mom there,” he said. “That made it easy.”
While he couldn’t offer money or staff, he could usually find ways to get them time-saving technology. “Listen,” he’d say, “I can help you get a grant for newer computers or up-to-date software.” When a parish didn’t have an in-house IT person, Norm stepped into those shoes, too.
When he really had a hard time convincing a clerk to cooperate, he would appeal to their sense of duty. The reason this is important, he would tell them, is that it’s going to make our notoriously dangerous state a little safer. Keeping guns away from anyone can be a touchy subject in Louisiana. So Norm talked about police officer safety: An officer should know who they’re dealing with before they walk up to a car window or respond to a 911 call. And he talked about accountability: A judge sentencing someone who has committed a violent crime should know if it’s the defendant’s first offense, or his third. “The people entering the information need to know the value of their job,” said DiFulco, Norm’s predecessor at the State Supreme Court who helped him visit clerk’s offices and build relationships in the early days.
Norm learned that language mattered. At first, when he would check that the information each clerk was submitting was accurate, he called it an “audit,” and when he found discrepancies he would send them something he called an “error report.” That annoyed the clerks, who felt that all their hard work and effort to comply was being criticized. So he changed tack, asking to “survey the data,” and “review the records.” Suddenly, the clerks seemed open to the same task that, days earlier, they had fiercely resisted.
Skidmore says Norm started to win him over when he met his jibes with a wry smile and a good-natured retort. “I think it was that little sheepish grin he’s got,” he said. “I was thinking, either you’re a good guy or you’re really up to something.” Charles Jagneaux, the St. Landry Parish clerk, said Norm persuaded him gradually, with long lunches of gravy and rice. He said he’s not surprised that Louisiana outpaced other states in entering criminal convictions into the records databases. At its heart, convincing clerks to buy into the idea, and work through glitches that come with setting up the system, depends on building relationships. No one, he thought, knows how to do that better than the people of his state. “People often talk about the South, and Louisiana in particular, as being hospitable. But it’s more than that,” Jagneaux said. “Because we were an entry point for this country, I think we have a tolerance for different beliefs, different races, all that. And that allows us to get things done with less conflict than a lot of other parts of the country.”
Initially, new records came in slowly, while Norm helped the clerks work through snags in the system. In the first five years about 36,000 conviction records were added to the NICS index. But then, the clerks started getting comfortable with the electronic systems, and the database started filling rapidly. By 2015, there were more than 350,000 records, most of which were criminal convictions, in the system; by 2018, there were more than 600,000. Today, only five states in the country have more records in the NICS database — and they are states with a different posture toward gun regulation, like California, Connecticut, and New York.
In the eight years after Norm started wooing court clerks, the number of people who tried to buy a gun in Louisiana and were denied went from about 4,200 a year (1.8 percent of all sales) to about 6,800 (2.1 percent), which was the highest denial rate in the country in 2017. It sounds like a small change, but it adds up to thousands of people who might otherwise have slipped through the cracks.
If We Don’t Do This, We Are Putting Women at Risk
At the same time Norm was delivering king cakes and sleeping in roadside motels, activists like Kim Sport, and lawmakers like Rep. Helena Moreno, who has since become a New Orleans City Councilwoman, were pushing for laws to keep guns out of the hands of people with criminal backgrounds. In 2013, state legislators passed a law requiring clerks to do what Norm had been pleading with them to do for five years: send in their conviction records. Soon, lawmakers put their growing records database to use, passing a law in 2018 that prohibited domestic abusers from having guns. Because Louisiana’s conviction records were becoming more complete, police could look them up and tell whether a person was prohibited from having a gun when they found him with one during a car stop or a 911 call. The records would also allow a gun store employee to stop a felon from buying the firearm that he might otherwise use to kill someone.
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When police in Minden, Louisiana, showed up at a domestic abuse incident in 2016 and found a man lying on his couch with a .45-caliber five-shot revolver in his waistband, they checked his record and found that he’d been convicted of a felony for cross burning seven years earlier. They arrested him for illegally possessing the gun.
When Baton Rouge Police stopped a man in a stolen car and found a loaded pistol in his lap in March 2019, they were able to find his five previous felony convictions and charge him with illegal gun possession. He was later sentenced to 46 months in prison.
In the wake of the Fix NICS legislation, Southern states like Alabama, South Carolina, and West Virginia have won hefty grants to improve their record-keeping systems. Alabama has vowed to replace the paper forms it uses to record case outcomes with an electronic reporting system, while the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals says it will use grant money to help clear its reporting backlog. South Carolina has already won praise for huge improvements to its mental health record reporting, and is now working on buying better machines to capture defendants’ fingerprints. Anthony Coulson, a government consultant who has helped Arizona improve its NICS records collection process, says people talk a lot about which software systems work best, and how to solve coding glitches. But the most effective way to prompt agencies to submit records is to send in people who understand their work and can build relationships with the relevant clerks. Coulson says it takes just a few minutes being around someone to tell if they have the interpersonal skill to explain the importance of the work in a practical way (“If we don’t do this, we are putting women at risk”) and validate the concerns of the people who are doing it.
Norm continues to travel the state, helping clerks develop more efficient and accurate ways to maintain all kinds of records. In Vernon Parish these days, he’s using federal grant money to create a single and seamless records system connecting the sheriff, district attorney, and clerks offices so that everyone has the same information instantly about criminal charges against a person, and the status of the case. “It’s developed into a great relationship,” his former heckler Jeff Skidmore said. Norm and his colleagues at the state Supreme Court are humble when asked about what they accomplished. It’s not work that many people know or talk about, even within law enforcement or state government. “You never really know what you might have prevented,” said Norm’s boss at the Supreme Court, judicial administrator Sandra Vujnovich.
But activist Kim Sport, who lives in New Orleans, says she has seen Norm’s efforts translate into a safer community. “When police respond to a domestic disturbance, they know what they’re walking into, and whether the person is allowed to have a firearm,” she said. “And if a person tries to purchase a firearm he’s not supposed to have, it’s more likely he’s being stopped.”