Seneca County Sheriff Jack Stenberg released his first statement on New York State's newly passed and signed gun control law known as the NY SAFE ACT. He says while there are many parts of the package he likes, the ACT itself should be re-examined.
Today, I returned from a week-long Conference in Albany where I joined with fifty-three other Sheriffs’ from across New York State. One of the main topics of the conference was the recently enacted NY SAFE ACT recently signed by the Governor dealing with gun control issues. I purposely withheld public comment on the new law knowing that we would be meeting this week to review the language of this complex law and now would like to make my comments available.
As Seneca County Sheriff, I join with my fellow Sheriffs’ of New York State to go on record supporting many of the provision of the SAFE Act, and believe that they will enhance public safety and help shield citizens from gun violence. However, there are also parts of this new law that need clarification and some that we think should be reconsidered and modified to address the concerns of the law enforcement community and the public at large.
I concur with my fellow Sheriffs’ the following six provisions of the new law are helpful and will increase the safety of our citizens.
Restriction on FOIL requests about pistol permit holders. By granting citizens the option of having their names and addresses withheld from public disclosure, the new law does provide a mechanism to allow people to decide for themselves whether their personal information should be accessible to the public. We believe, however, that no one should have to explain why their personal information should remain confidential. A better procedure, we believe, is simply to exempt all this personal information from FOIL disclosure.
Killing of emergency responders. The new law makes killing of an emergency first responders aggravated or first degree murder, enhancing penalties for this crime and requiring life without parole. First responders need the protection, evidenced all too often by attacks on them when they attempt to provide help, and in special recognition of the terrible attacks on two firefighters in Webster, NY and attacks on first responders in Jefferson County.
Requirement of NICS checks for private sales (except between immediate family). We believe that this will ensure that responsible citizens will still be able to obtain legal firearms through private transactions, with the added assurance that private buyers are approved by the Federal National Instant Criminal Background Check System. We remain concerned that this provision will be very difficult to enforce and will likely only affect law abiding citizens.
Comprehensive review of mental health records before firearms permits are granted and review of records to determine if revocation of permits is required. Sheriffs believe that t here is an urgent need to increase funding for mental health care. The new law imposes reporting requirements on many mental health care professionals and others who make a determination that a person is a danger to himself or others. The law further gives needed authority to courts or others who issue firearms permits to deny permit applications or to revoke permits already issued. We believe that this issue demands a much more full and detailed discussion about how to keep guns out of the hands of such people. The Sheriffs of New York want to pursue these issues with the Governor and State Legislature.
Safe storage of firearms. The new law provides that guns must be safely stored if the owner lives with someone who has been convicted of a felony or domestic violence crime, has been involuntarily committed, or is currently under and order of protection. We agree that firearms owners should have the responsibility to make sure that their weapons are safeguarded against use or access by prohibited persons, and the new law adds these protections to ensure that weapons are safely and securely stored.
Increased penalties for illegal use of weapons. The new law adds several increased sanctions for violation of New York gun laws and creates new gun crime which did not previously exist. These new provisions will provide added tools for law enforcement to prosecute such crimes. We further believe that the new provisions should help deter future misuse of firearms. We also suggest the legislature consider limitations on plea bargaining for all gun crimes.
As Seneca County Sheriff, I join with my colleagues to affirm that we understand our Constitutional obligations and concerns of our constituents. Sheriffs’ and other law enforcement officers are not called upon by this new legislation to go door-to-door to confiscate any weapons newly classified as assault weapons, and will not do so.
Sheriffs’ represent all the people, and we take an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States and the Constitutions of the State of New York. Sheriffs’ will continue to enforce all laws of the state and will protect the rights of all citizens, including those rights guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of New York.
It is my view and that of my colleagues that anytime government decides it is necessary or desirable to test the boundaries of a constitutional right that it should only be done with caution and with great respect for those constitutional boundaries. Further, it should only be done if the benefit to be gained is so great and certain that it far outweighs the damage done by the constriction of individual liberty. While many of the provisions of the new law have surface appeal, it is far from certain that all, or even many, of them will have significant effect in reducing gun violence, which is the presumed goal of all of us. Unfortunately, the process used in adoption of this act did not permit the mature development of the arguments on either side of the debate, and thus many of the stakeholders in this important issue are left feeling ignored by their government. Even those thrilled with the passage of this legislation should be concerned about the process used to secure its passage, for the next time they may find themselves the victim of that same process. In 2012, Senator Michael Nozzolio and Assemblyman Brian Kolb introduced bills in their respective chambers which would allow me as Sheriff to appoint Peace Officers who with the required training could be deployed to such tasks as Marine Patrol, Court Security and Cou n ty Office Building Security, saving taxpayers thousands of dollars each year. Both bills were debated in their respective chambers and committees for an entire legislative session and then sent to the Governor for his signature. The Governor with the stroke of his pen vetoed these bills and several similar bills across the State. The debate that went into both of the minor bills was given far more attention and debate than the recently hastily enacted NY SAFE ACT.
As Sheriff’s we will work the Governor to address some of the problems that arose due to the enactment of this law, such as:
Assault weapon ban and definition of assault weapons. < span> We believe that the new definition is too broad, and prevents the possession of many weapons that are legitimately used for hunting, target shooting and self-defense. Classifying firearms as assault weapons because of one arbitrary feature effectively deprives people the right to possess firearms which have never before been designated as assault weapons. We, as Sheriff’s are convinced that only law abiding gun owners will be affected by these new provisions, while criminals will still have and use whatever weapons they want.
Inspection of schools by State agencies. The new law transfers to State agencies the responsibility to review school safety plans. We expect that funding will be transferred to these Stat e agencies to implement safety proposals. Sheriffs and local police provide this service in all parts of the State, including here in Seneca County, and can perform these duties efficiently. As the chief law enforcement officer of the county, Sheriffs are in the best position to know the security needs of schools in their own counties, and the State should help to fund these existing efforts by Sheriffs and local police departments to keep our schools safe. Because Sheriffs and local police are already deeply involved with school safety plans, have developed emergency response plans and are familiar with structural layouts of schools in their counties, they should be included along with State counterparts in an effort to review school safety plans.
Reduction of ammunition capacity. The new law enacts reductions in the maximum capacity of gun magazine. As Sheriffs, we believe based on our years of law enforcement experience that this will not reduce gun violence. The new law will unfairly limit the ability of law abiding citizens to purchase firearms in New York. It bears repeating that it is our belief that the reduction of magazine capacity will not make New Yorkers or our communities safer.
Five year recertification of pistol permit status and registration of existing assault weapons. The new law delegates the State Police the duty to solicit and receive updated personal information of permit holders every five years in order to maintain these permits. Further, the law requir e s existing firearms now classified as assault weapons to register these with the State Police within one year. The recertification and registration conflict with Sheriffs’ duties regarding issuance of pistol permits. All records should be maintained at the local, and not the State level. This information should be accessible to those who are responsible for initial investigation of permit applications. Pistol permit information should be maintained in one file at the local level, and forwarded, to a state-wide database for law enforcement use only. It bears repeating that is our belief as Sheriffs’ that pistol permit and any registration information required by the law should be confidential and protected from FOIL.
Sale of ammunition. The new law imposes several new provisions regarding how, and from whom, ammunition can be lawfully purchased. The law should be clarified about the use of the internet as a vehicle for these sales, out-of-state sales to New York residents and other issues. Businesses have said that they do not understand the new provision and are concerned that they will have to cease operations.
Law enforcement exemptions must be clarified. The new law has many provisions that might apply to law enforcement officers and there has been much confusion about whether existing law enforcement exemptions continue to apply. We understand that Governor and Legislature have already agreed to review and modify these provisions where necessary, and the Sherif f s’ want to be a part of the discussion to make the changes effective. Additionally, the exemptions should apply to retired police and peace officers and to others in the employ of the Sheriff and other police agencies who perform security at public facilities and events.
As Seneca County Sheriff, I urge the Governor and Legislature to revisit this hastily crafted law and set chairs at the table for all sides in hope that we can offer meaningful insight to make New York safer while respecting our Constitution.