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Politics, gun control efforts fuel rise in Erie County gun ownership

After mass shootings, election drama and gun control efforts, Erie County residents react – by arming themselves.

Roughly three times more residents applied to become handgun owners last year than a decade ago, according to Erie County Clerk's Office data. And those licensed to own handguns often bought more guns.

"It's politics and just crazy world events," said Hamburg firearms instructor and gun dealer Gary Bridges. "You can't prepare for crazy, and that's why I think a lot of people are getting pistol permits. They just want to protect themselves."

Erie County officials estimate that 10 percent of county residents own a registered handgun. Despite fluctuations over the years, there are more people applying to become handgun owners now than there were a decade ago.

The year before Barack Obama was elected president, 760 residents applied for a handgun permit. When Obama took office in 2008, permit applications rose 72 percent, according to county figures.

By the time Hillary Clinton was running against Donald Trump, with many believing she might win, the number of annual handgun permit applications reached a record high, with more than 3,800 county residents submitting applications.

That figure dropped sharply after Trump became president, but numbers for the first half of this year suggest that one-year decline in permit applications will not continue.

Meanwhile, the growth in the number of handguns people own has climbed more evenly, with permit holders registering 8,672 pistols last year. That compares with fewer than 3,000 annual handgun registrations a decade ago.

Alan Brown, supervisor of the Erie County Clerk's Pistol Permit Office, attributed the bulk of the increase in handgun registrations to hunters, enthusiasts and collectors who acquire more firearms as a hobby.

"For a lot of people, it's like shoes," he said.

To accommodate the more than 20,000 annual transactions at the Pistol Permit Office, County Clerk Michael P. Kearns has been making changes to streamline the process. They include opening satellite pistol permit offices, creating an express line, accepting credit card payments and encouraging appointments for new applicants.

"Now, because the waits are down, we can get people in and out pretty quickly," Kearns said.

Who owns guns

Gun owners in Erie County comprise a diverse group of women and men of all ages, buying for protection or sport, according to local firearms trainers.

Former East Aurora resident Aubrey McLaughlin completed his pistol permit application a few months after turning 21, the first year he could legally apply for one. He was approved for a permit in April. He was raised in a family in which both parents owned guns. McLaughlin recalled learning how to shoot and hunt with his dad.

The number of Erie County residents gaining their pistol permits and buying/registering handguns is on the rise. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Carrying a pistol permit helps him feel closer to his family, and provides an extra form of ID and proof of his ability to pass a detailed background check.

The same month McLaughlin was approved for his permit, Southtowns resident and retired teacher Jean Dulak was approved for hers. She represents one of an increasing number of female permit holders, say firearms trainers.

Dulak, 68, is married to a gun owner who encouraged her to apply for her own permit. It took her more than 40 years to get around to it. But she eventually went with friends to complete a mandatory firearm safety training program taught by handgun instructor James Emmick, gathered her character references and submitted to fingerprint testing.

After three frustrating attempts to get usable prints, and talking with Emmick and the staff at the Clerk's Office, Dulak was finally able to submit a completed application last summer after 2½ months of work. She was approved nine months later.

"It was like giving birth to a baby," she said.

Dulak cited several reasons for wanting to own a handgun, including her desire to spend time at the gun club with her husband in retirement and what she considered the escalating, political anti-gun rhetoric in recent years. But her primary reason was her desire for personal protection.

When police issued a Code Red alert regarding a hunt for four at-large suspects in Hamburg and Lackawanna on Tuesday, Dulak said she was glad to be at home and armed.

"Women are attacked more," she said. "They're more vulnerable."

Emmick, who provides firearm training to thousands of local residents through his Firearms Training of Western New York business, said many would be surprised at just how many women are gun owners. They typically comprise more than half of his students.

Bursts of interest

County data shows a correlation between gun permit applications and outside influences, such as the political landscape, headlines about mass shootings and backlash by gun control advocates.

The January 2011 supermarket shooting in Tucson that wounded then-U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and killed six others, including a 9-year-old girl and a federal judge, resulted in renewed calls for stronger gun control laws and a ban on high-capacity magazines.

During that same period locally, Tea Party activism ran high, Democrat Mark Poloncarz ascended to the County Executive's Office, and Republican Chris Jacobs had just been elected to replace Democrat Kathy Hochul in the County Clerk's Office.

Pistol permit applications rose by 37 percent that year.

The Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in late 2012, followed by the New York SAFE Act in January 2013, continued to propel double-digit growth in new applications. The increase resulted in extended waits of 1½ years or longer for permit approval. Police and clerk offices were overwhelmed.

"They'd never had a tidal wave like that," Bridges said. "It was all new to them."

After a three-year rush for permits by county residents and mounting frustration over pistol permit delays, applications in 2014 fell to their lowest level since 2010.

The run-up to the 2016 presidential election resulted in a new wave of record growth in pistol permit applications, bolstered by high-profile mass shootings in Paris, San Bernardino and Orlando's Pulse nightclub.

"It really freaked people out," said Emmick, referring to the widely held perception that Clinton, if elected, would push for tighter gun control measures. "The hype, the hysteria – if Hillary gets elected, you'll lose your gun rights."

But after Trump was elected, the number of permit applications plummeted 40 percent to pre-SAFE Act levels.

Gun manufacturers that had ramped up production in anticipation of a continuing groundswell of demand after the election found themselves overstocked, Bridges said. County handgun registrations flatlined last year, according to County Clerk's Office data. After Trump's election,  manufacturers began issuing a slew of discount prices on firearms and big rebates on ammunition, Bridges noted.

Handling demand

Kearns last week walked to the entrance of the downtown Pistol Permit Office in Old County Hall and proudly motioned toward the counter.

No line.

The office processed 75 percent more transactions last year than in 2012, prompting an office restructuring by Kearns to meet the demand.

"It's a much busier office today than it was 10 to 12 years ago, and it's much more complex," he said. "There's more additional checks and verifications along the way."

In prior years, backups at the clerk's office and with police agencies doing background checks and interviews led to permit delays averaging 18 months. And that was for applicants with clean records.

When the Pistol Permit Office was inundated with inquiries related to permit recertification in December and January, it was common for lines to extend out the door and into overflow seating across the hall. Now, there are hardly any lines at all.

The wait for permit approval now ranges from seven to nine months, Kearns said.

Local police agencies like the Erie County Sheriff's Office brought in more personnel to help shorten application processing, and Kearns has reshuffled clerk staff so people making minor permit changes can be quickly served at the counter, while those filing new applications can receive private, one-on-one guidance.

A new Pistol Permit Office satellite opened in Elma Town Hall in February, and a second satellite in the Cheektowaga Auto Bureau is preparing to open in mid-September. Both offices handle permit and gun registration changes, though new permit applications must still go through the downtown office.

"We can't control the whole process," Kearns said. "However, we're doing our best to communicate with outside police agencies to make the process as efficient as possible."

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