LOCKPORT – Since New York State enacted its new gun control law in January, Niagara County has received so many applications for new pistol permits that county workers can’t handle them all.
The county has received more pistol permit requests already this year than it approved in all of 2010, Deputy County Clerk Wendy J. Roberson said.
The trend has been building for the last few years.
But the demand has been especially accelerating during the past several months – since President Obama’s re-election last fall, then the passage of the SAFE Act in New York, county staff said.
The SAFE Act is the gun control law that was rushed through the State Legislature on an emergency basis, with no opportunity for public comment.
“It really began to pick up right before the presidential election and has continued,” Roberson said, of the gun permit paperwork.
In her 17 years in office, Roberson said, this episode has become “the thing that has triggered the most concern and the most anger.”
An even bigger pile of paperwork has been created by the SAFE Act’s option that allows permit holders to withhold their personal information from those who might try to seek such information through Freedom of Information Law requests.
Right now, Niagara County is merely alphabetizing the latter forms, in case anyone ever files a FOIL request, Roberson said. The county currently has neither the capacity nor the manpower to do anything else with them, she said.
No one has counted those “opt-out” forms, nor does anyone intend to do so, Roberson said.
Deputy County Legislature Clerk Roxanne Morgan was given the job of putting them in alphabetical order.
The stack of forms – some four feet long, altogether – is laid on its side on County Clerk Wayne F. Jagow’s desk.
For County Legislator John Syracuse, who has become known as a prominent defender of gun rights, the results come as no surprise.
“By bringing to light the apparent trampling of one of people’s constitutional rights, the Second Amendment, people are exercising those rights,” said Syracuse, R-Newfane, who has sponsored several resolutions over the past few years opposing efforts in Albany to expand gun control.
The County Clerk’s Office has shifted two extra workers into the pistol permit office, but they can’t keep up with the increased demand, Roberson said.
In 2010, the county approved 504 pistol permits.
In 2011, that number grew to 631.
In 2012, the county gave out 997 pistol permits.
And, from Jan. 1 through last Tuesday, the county had already issued 418 – not counting the three stacks of applications, each a foot high, that the workers haven’t gotten to yet.
As of last week, Niagara County had 28,730 active pistol permits, according to permit clerk Patti Jo Sturak.
But, “that includes deceased people,” Sturak said.
Until recently, permit holders weren’t doing a very good job updating the county about changes of address, new weapons they’ve acquired, or other alterations.
“Now they’re coming out of the woodwork,” Sturak said.
Roberson said when the FOIL opt-out forms were announced, the county’s phones were swamped with people seeking information.
“Wayne and I decided we would return the calls so our pistol permit people didn’t have to do it. I lost my voice. I could not talk,” Roberson said. “The first weekend, we put a ream of paper [500 sheets] in the fax machine on Friday night. When we came in Monday morning, the paper was gone and the forms were scattered all over the cabinet.”
And then there were the in-person visitors.
“People would just come in and sit down and talk,” Roberson said. “They wanted somebody to listen to them, even though they knew we couldn’t do anything about it.”
Resolutions against the SAFE Act, including one passed by the Niagara County Legislature, seemingly are leading to plans to pass revisions to the law in Albany, Syracuse noted.
“It seems as though a groundswell of Second Amendment individuals is having an impact,” Syracuse said.
The filing of opt-out forms is allowed until May 15, the SAFE Act stipulated.
By opting out, a pistol permit holder is assured that if someone makes a Freedom of Information Law request for names and addresses of permit holders, his or her name and other information will be withheld.
Roberson said no one has made such a FOIL request in Niagara County so far.
The issue arose when a newspaper in New York City’s northern suburbs, the Journal News, obtained pistol permit information from Westchester and Rockland counties through FOIL in December and published the information online, pegged to an interactive map.
Public outrage followed. The Putnam County clerk refused a similar FOIL request from the Journal News. The temporary opt-out provisions of the SAFE Act ensued.
Roberson said opt-out forms may be emailed, faxed or presented in person.
She said some people are so worried about disclosure of their personal information that they’re filing all three ways, which doesn’t make her staff’s job any easier.
“Many people don’t want their names and addresses disclosed, and don’t want to be at risk of having their houses broken into for theft of weapons,” Roberson said.
Legislators said that an opt-out shouldn’t even be necessary.
“We shouldn’t have to opt out of anyone seeking our private, confidential information,” Syracuse said. “To make this public is an offense against their privacy rights.”
Assistant County Attorney John Sansone told a County Legislature committee in late January he thought the county would be within its rights to reject any pistol permit-related FOIL requests.
In early February, an appeals court in New York City ruled the New York Police Department didn’t have to give pistol permit information to the New York Times.
But at the Niagara County Clerk’s Office, the opt-out forms keep coming in – and a practical question has arisen.
“Where are we going to put all those opt-out forms?” Syracuse asked.
“It’s another example of the law of unintended consequences.”