President Obama took steps last week that he believes will keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally disturbed. His executive orders infuriated many gun owners while heartening many others.
Here’s a truth behind the heated debate: What the president ordered to a large extent already exists in New York State by law.
“There is no doubt that the impact of Obama’s directives on this whole issue on gun reporting will have little impact in New York State because New York already does these things and more,” said Dr. Robert Spitzer, a political scientist and professor at SUNY Cortland, who has written books on gun control and presidential powers.
Voices on both sides of the gun control debate agree with that assessment, so far as New York goes.
Nonetheless, Obama’s focus on gun control as well as fears following mass shootings tied to terrorism in Paris and in San Bernardino, Calif., are fueling a run on gun purchases. And New York State’s gun laws, among the toughest in the nation, do not prevent most people from buying guns.
The New York SAFE Act requires universal background checks by gun sellers before a purchase is made and mandates doctors and mental health professionals to report when people they are treating are a threat to themselves or others. The 2013 law also increased penalties for those who fail to report lost or stolen guns to authorities within 24 hours.
The SAFE Act was Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and the State Legislature’s response to the massacre of 20 schoolchildren and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in 2012. The law increased New York’s standing as one of the strictest gun-law states in the country.
Obama’s actions, in some respects, mirror New York. His executive orders require gun manufacturers to report firearms that are shipped to gun sellers but fail to arrive. He wants to close gaps in existing federal gun laws and provide clarifications aimed at increasing the number of background checks when guns are being sold. He has also directed the Social Security Administration to make available mental health records as part of the data scrutinized in those checks.
New York’s background checks for obtaining guns exceed federal criteria, and gun shows in the state are carefully monitored, more so than in other states, Spitzer said.
“Even people who are not federally licensed gun dealers, if they want to sell a handgun to another person, they have to do it through a licensed dealer who conducts a background check on the buyer,” Spitzer said. “When someone with a pistol permit acquires another handgun, they have to place it on the handgun permit.”
Nationally, it is a different story, Spitzer said. And that is why Obama wants more checks. Approximately 40 percent of gun transactions involving private sales do not require background checks under federal law. That’s because the sale involves a private citizen, not a licensed dealer, Spitzer explained. The president wants to expand the definition of who needs a license to sell guns.
Demand for guns
The demand for handgun permits has increased by record numbers in Erie and Niagara counties, and local gun dealers are having difficulty keeping their shelves stocked.
Applications from Erie County residents seeking pistol permits in December more than tripled over the same period a year earlier. Last month, 470 handgun permit applications were filed in Erie County. That compares with 163 applications the previous December.
In Niagara County, it was the same story. Seventy residents sought permits in December 2014 compared with 230 this past December.
“Ever since Paris and San Bernardino, it has been unprecedented,” Erie County Clerk Christopher L. Jacobs said.
Long lines stretching out of the county’s Pistol Permit Office and into the lobby of Old Erie County Hall on Franklin Street have become a common sight. In fact, within the first hour of business last Thursday morning, more than 40 people arrived, either seeking pistol permits or looking to place an additional handgun on their permit.
With people sitting on chairs inside the office and in the lobby, it looked more like a busy doctor’s office with people waiting their turn.
“I think after the Paris attacks and San Bernardino, where there was going to be a holiday party, it scared people. It hit home, like ‘My gosh I’m going to a Christmas party next week,’ ” Jacobs said.
Will Fowler, who is in his 29th year as supervisor of the Pistol Permit Office, pointed to several 18-inch high stacks of folders containing pending permit applications piled on a couch in his office because of a lack of desk space. The applications will go before State Supreme Court Justice M. William Boller for approval or rejection, he said.
“The judge reads every one of them. It’s amazing the volume. It’s been a crazy time, but it’s what is going on in society,” Fowler said.
To keep up with the paperwork, the pistol permit offices in Erie and Niagara counties now close on Wednesdays to allow staff time to process paperwork uninterrupted. In recent months, each office has added an additional worker. There are now six in Erie and four in Niagara.
The wait for a permit in Erie County ranges from 10 to 12 months. In Niagara County, the wait is 12 to 14 months. Erie County issued 2,104 pistol permits last year, while Niagara County issued 920.
Niagara County Clerk Joseph A. Jastrzemski says that while residents tell him personal safety weighs heavily in applying for a handgun permit, the fear that the government will make it extremely difficult to possess firearms motivates them to obtain a permit.
“You know everybody is afraid of losing their rights. That’s truly the reason for the big uptick,” Jastrzemski said. “There’s a lot of talk about gun control, and people want to come in and exercise their Second Amendment rights. That’s the big reason. The second reason for seeking permits is their own protection because of what basically happened in San Bernardino. Our policy here is we’re going to expedite permits as quickly as possible under state laws, which are the toughest in the country.”
Applicants share reasons
Nancy Allen, who was among the dozens who arrived Thursday morning at Erie County Hall to file the paperwork for a pistol permit, said mass shootings and concern that Obama plans to take away the right to own a handgun prompted her to arm herself.
“I travel at night in the country, and I have a home-based business. You can’t trust anyone. And the government is so crooked. I tell all my friends to get a permit,” Allen said. “It’s not the good people doing the mass shootings. We’re just trying to protect ourselves.”
Dave Evans, who went to County Hall to add an extra handgun onto his permit, said restrictions championed by the governor and president have backfired.
“Obama and Cuomo are the greatest gun salesmen we have.”
Evans’ words were loud enough for others in line to hear him, and several turned to voice their approval and discuss politics.
Dave Emerling arrived with his wife, both seeking pistol permits.
“I always wanted to get a permit, but it was too much aggravation. Now with the way the world is, things have changed and I look over my shoulder,” Emerling said.
The Southtowns resident recalled how just days after the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, he had gone to a school recital for his grandchildren in Springville.
“There were armed guards at the doors to the school. I thought ‘this is a school,’ but I was glad to see them,” he said.
He said he hopes he never has to use a gun in self defense.
“I’m not a vigilante,” he said, “but I want to be prepared.”
Evans said he bought an additional handgun at a national retail outlet specializing in outdoor gear and was told by a sales clerk that guns had sold by the hundreds during the holiday season.
“I could see the shelves were empty,” Evans said.
Gun dealer’s insights
Dennis Deasy, owner of Niagara Gun Range in Wheatfield, confirmed that gun sales have increased and that it is difficult to maintain inventories. He repeated the observation of others that the motivation seems to be concerns about personal safety and fears that government may further restrict gun purchases.
“We are now hearing from customers that they were never big gun people, but they are feeling as though they won’t be able to feel as confident in relying on the police getting to them in time if they need the police,” Deasy said. “So a lot of people are going with the old saying that it is better to have and not need it, than to need it and not have it.”
Most retail gun dealers are buying from the same wholesalers, he pointed out.
“No matter where you are trying to make your purchases, you are going to be hard pressed to replace your inventory because the supply is almost nonexistent,” he said.
And many fear that the government, especially Obama, is trying to take away guns, Deasy said, even though the president’s executive orders are no more stringent than New York’s laws.
“We are the responsible ones who are feeling the brunt of this, and we have done nothing wrong,” he said. “But we are told you cannot buy a gun for no truly unbiased good reason. That ticks people off.”
Many of the people now buying weapons may never use them, added Deasy, who not only sells guns but provides gun education courses and recreational shooting at the range.
“There is always going to be some degree of panic-buying. People will rush in to buy a handgun, if they have a pistol permit. Some will by a home defense shotgun. You don’t need a permit for that, but you have to go through a background check,” Deasy said. “A lot of people buying the guns probably will never shoot them.”
Buffalo News Albany Bureau Chief Tom Precious contributed to this report.email: firstname.lastname@example.org