In New York, Gun Owners Balk At New Handgun Database

Feb 1, 2018

Wednesday marked the official deadline for more than 370,000 handgun owners in the state of New York to register those guns with state police. New York is trying to use that information to build a comprehensive record of gun owners — something only one other state has done. The database that California started in 2007 has gotten mixed reviews.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, has said he wants to make sure that people who can't legally own guns – those with criminal convictions, serious mental health issues, or active restraining orders — aren't somehow falling through the cracks and holding onto their firearms.

Anyone who took out a handgun license in New York before 2013 — the year the state passed a landmark gun control law — had to contact state police by Jan. 31 or risk criminal charges. That's caused a real backlash, particularly among rural gun owners, who don't entirely trust their state's intentions.

A commonsense plan?

The Albany Gun Show is a winter fixture in upstate New York. On the show's opening day in mid-January, Tom King, president of the NRA-affiliated New York State Rifle and Pistol Association, posted up beyond all the folding tables stacked with rifles and holsters.

King said he spent hours and hours answering a question that seemed to be on everyone's mind. "People are saying, 'Do I have to register or don't I have to register?' So yeah," King said. "There is a lot of confusion."

The confusion, he said, is about why the state of New York wants information for its new handgun database. It's actually been on the books since 2013.

In the months after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, several states adopted tougher gun control measures. New York passed a law known as the SAFE Act, which banned most assault weapons. Gov. Andrew Cuomo said he wanted to go even further.

"We'll have for the first time a statewide handgun database that will allow the state, allow local officials to check periodically," Cuomo said. The plan lawmakers approved calls for detailed information on hundreds of thousands of legally licensed handgun owners and their weapons – down to make, model and serial numbers. Some of that information was already available on gun permit applications filed at county clerk's offices across the state, but it was often outdated or incomplete.

State police will build a database they can check against criminal records, alerts filed by mental health professionals, and restraining orders. Only law enforcement can see the information, not the public.

Cuomo described it as a system based on commonsense. "You don't want criminals and people who are mentally ill to have guns," he said. Once the law passed, state police began collecting information from every person who applied for a new handgun permit.

"You can't make them criminals."

The SAFE Act has been popular in urban areas, according to polling data. But some rural gun owners have resisted from the beginning. As the first big handgun registration deadline approached this winter, for people who got their guns prior to 2013, the pushback grew more intense.

Talk radio host Bill Robinson has lashed out at the state on "The Second Amendment Radio Show," which he hosts for a small station near Rochester. "The government shouldn't have master lists of us gun owners and the specific guns we have," Robinson said on a recent episode. "They don't need it!"

New York State Rifle and Pistol Association president Tom King says the penalties associated with handgun re-certification are too steep. Failure to register is a felony.

A lot of gun owners are angry. While they can agree that so-called "bad guys" shouldn't have access to weapons, some fear that New York is trying to turn them into those bad guys. It goes back to the penalties associated with this registration process. The SAFE Act says failure to register handguns is a felony offense — and gun permits are automatically revoked.

"You just can't do that to people that live in your state, that are lawful gun owners," Tom King said. "You can't make them, overnight, criminals."

King is most worried about those who had handguns before the 2013 law went into effect, but all handgun owners will have to check back in every five years.

No response from 81,000 gun owners

As of the deadline, more than 81,000 people – or 20 percent of affected handgun owners in New York – haven't responded to the state's request. But New York State Police spokesman Beau Duffy argues that concern about this gun database has been overblown. He said felony charges are off the table for now. "We're not going to take criminal enforcement action, particularly with those people who were unaware of this re-certification process," Duffy said.

The next big question is how this registry is going to be used and who's going to follow up with gun owners. Laura Cutilletta, legal director for the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, believes it could be a game-changer for police.

"This kind of tool seems like something law enforcement would really welcome and would make a priority if they can," Cutilletta said. "Because to know who is determined to be dangerous already and has a gun — I mean, what better information could you give law enforcement than something like that?"

But Cutilletta doesn't think these systems will start popping up nationwide. They're too expensive, she said. New York set aside $28 million for its database, and California tucked away $24 million.

Instead, Cutilletta said, she and other gun control advocates are pushing for new kinds of restraining orders – called "extreme risk protection orders." They allow families and police to take their concerns to court and request permission from a judge to take guns away from people who could potentially do harm.

California, Washington and Oregon have already passed legislation allowing these protection orders. New York's lawmakers are considering a similar bill this year.

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

By the end of the month, thousands of people in New York will have to have their firearms registered with the state or risk criminal charges. New York is building a comprehensive record of gun owners, one of the first in the country. The plan is to make sure people who are legally prohibited from owning guns don't have them. North Country Public Radio's Lauren Rosenthal reports the program is causing a backlash.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Please enjoy your time here at the Albany Gun Show, and be safe.

LAUREN ROSENTHAL, BYLINE: Beyond all the folding tables stacked with rifles, Tom King, president of New York's NRA affiliate, spent his day answering a question that's been on everyone's mind.

TOM KING: People are saying, well, do I have to register, or don't I have to register? So yeah, there is a lot of confusion.

ROSENTHAL: Confusion, he says, about New York's new handgun database and what it's for. It's been law since 2013. Just after the Sandy Hook school shooting, a lot of states passed tougher gun control measures. New York banned most assault weapons, but Governor Andrew Cuomo said he wanted to go even further.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANDREW CUOMO: We'll have for the first time a statewide handgun database that will allow the state, allow local officials to check periodically.

ROSENTHAL: Police will scan hundreds of thousands of legally licensed handgun owners against criminal records, mental health files and restraining orders. Cuomo thinks it could prevent tragedy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CUOMO: You don't want criminals and people who are mentally ill to have access to guns.

ROSENTHAL: That message made sense to a lot of people, especially in urban areas where New York's gun control law is popular. But facing the first big registration deadline, some rural gun owners are pushing back.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "THE 2ND AMENDMENT SHOW")

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Now a radio show dedicated to the genius of the declaration of divine right...

ROSENTHAL: Bill Robinson is a talk radio host outside Rochester.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "THE 2ND AMENDMENT SHOW")

BILL ROBINSON: The government shouldn't have master lists of us gun owners and the specific guns we have. They don't need it.

ROSENTHAL: A lot of gun owners are angry. They agree that bad guys shouldn't have guns, but they think New York is trying to turn them into those bad guys because if they don't register on time, it's a felony, and their gun permits are gone. Here's Tom King again.

KING: You just can't do that to people that live in your state that are lawful gun owners. You can't make them overnight criminals.

ROSENTHAL: The people King's worried about are those who had handguns before the 2013 law went into effect. They're the ones who have to re-register. As of the deadline, more than 80,000 people, or 20 percent of affected handgun owners in New York, still haven't responded to the state's request. But state police spokesman Beau Duffy says all the concern about this gun database is overblown.

BEAU DUFFY: We're not going to take criminal enforcement action, particularly with those people who were unaware of the recertification process.

ROSENTHAL: So no felony charges, Duffy says, at least not yet. The next big question is how this registry is going to be used and who's going to follow up with gun owners. Laura Cutilletta, legal director for the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, expects police will try to make it a priority.

LAURA CUTILLETTA: Because to know who is determined to be dangerous already and has a gun - I mean, what better information could you give law enforcement than something like that?

ROSENTHAL: But Cutilletta doesn't think these systems will start popping up nationwide. They're too expensive. New York's could cost $28 million. Instead, Cutilletta says she and other gun control advocates are looking at new kinds of restraining orders and petitions, other ways to get guns away from people who might do harm. For NPR News, I'm Lauren Rosenthal in northern New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.