Sheriffs break down new SAFE Act Law

MAYVILLE – Some parts work. Some need clarification.

That’s how Chautauqua County Sheriff Joe Gerace officially summed up New York state’s new gun-control law. Gerace and 51 other sheriffs throughout the state met in Albany last week for the semi-annual Sheriff’s Association meeting.

Hours of discussion, the sheriff said, centered on the Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act, recently signed into law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and heavily backed by the state Legislature.

“We spent a lot of time discussing this law,” Gerace told the OBSERVER on Monday. “We’re talking about hours and hours of discussion.”

Gerace said after three days of work sessions, which included other business and presentations, the Sheriff’s Association developed a four-page response to the SAFE Act. The response was sent in a letter to Cuomo.

“We spent a great deal of time on the law and developed a position,” Gerace said. “We did like some of the aspects of the law, and we did have some serious concerns on other parts.”

Cattaraugus County Sheriff Timothy Whitcomb said it was important for the entire association as a whole to develop the recommendations. As sheriff for five years, Whitcomb said he has not seen such unanimous support in his tenure.

“I think there is strength in numbers,” he said. “You had sheriffs from all across the state coming together and sending that message (to Cuomo). I think it speaks very profoundly, and I think it’s a very strong message.”

WHAT WORKS FOR SHERIFFS

Gerace said the Sheriff’s Association supports restrictions on freedom of information requests regarding pistol permit holders. Under the new law, handgun owners will have the option of withholding their personal information from a public database.

But Gerace said all permit holders should be exempt from FOIL requests. “It needs to be uniform for everyone,” he said.

The association also is backing harsher penalties for the killing of first responders. In the wake of the shooting deaths of two West Webster firefighters, the SAFE Act makes the killing of a first responder (police, fire or emergency medical services) a first-degree murder charge.

“There needed to be harsher penalties for those who kill firemen and police,” Gerace said.

Also being supported by the Sheriff’s Association:

Requiring background checks for private sales of guns, except between immediate family. The expansion of background checks, the association said, will do a better job of limiting the sale of guns to unqualified individuals. However, Gerace pointed out that enforcing this aspect of the law will be difficult.

Comprehensive review of mental health records before firearm permits are granted. Gerace said he feels more funding is needed for mental health care.

WHAT SHERIFFS WANT CLARIFIED

The Sheriff’s Association is concerned regarding the definition of an assault weapon, which it feels is too broad. Gerace said the law prevents the possession of many weapons that are legitimately used for hunting, target shooting and self defense.

Reductions in the amount of bullets in a magazine also is being met with hesitation by sheriffs. Gerace said limiting the number of bullets will not reduce crime in the state, and will prevent “law-abiding citizens from purchasing firearms.”

The same concerns are being raised with a requirement under the SAFE Act that requires the recertification of pistol permits and registration of assault weapons. The registrations will be handled by the State Police.

The Chautauqua County Sheriff’s Office has been inundated with permit requests since the law was enacted. A part-time employee recently was hired to assist with the applications.

And as for the SAFE Act’s passage itself, the Sheriff’s Association questioned how much it will curb gun violence.

“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 any significant effect in reducing gun violence,” the sheriffs said in their letter to the governor.