ALBANY - Presidential politics appears to have played a role in more people seeking handgun permits in New York last year.
Gun owners' fear of a Hillary Clinton presidency may have helped spur a spike in pistol permits issued in the Empire State in 2016, increasing 34 percent from the 2012 presidential election year and rivaling numbers last seen when the SAFE Act passed four years ago.
A total of 29,910 handgun permits were issued outside New York City from January through October of last year, up from 27,547 in all of 2015 and 22,282 in 2012, according to State Police data obtained by the USA Today Network's Albany Bureau through a Freedom of Information request.
When the full year's data is available, 2016 may end up surpassing 2013.
That year, 33,030 pistol permits were approved outside the city -- a 48 percent increase from 2012 -- amid gun owners' backlash to the SAFE Act, a state gun-control law that enraged Second Amendment groups across New York.
"I get my information from the gun-shop people, the people that are selling handguns, and they have said that up until six months ago, the number of pistols they were selling was still going up," said Tom King, president of the state Rifle and Pistol Association. "But I don't doubt that they may be dropping right now because of the election of President Trump."
Increase in sales
It's not unusual for handgun permits to spike in presidential years, particularly when a candidate -- in this case, Clinton -- advocates for greater gun-control measures.
In New York, 2016 reversed two years of steady declines and marked an increase from the tail end of Obama's first term, when 18,877 were issued in 2011 and 22,298 in 2012.
Gun-store owners say they noticed an increase in sales last year, though President Trump's election has them bracing for slower sales.
"We saw that spike with the passing of the SAFE Act, and we see that spike every time there's an act of terror," said Jamie Arnold, owner of BoltWorks Tactical Firearms in Dryden, Tompkins County.
"Right now, there's talk in the industry that this is going to be the slowest summer in six years, but thankfully we haven't seen that so far."
Rebecca Fischer, executive director of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence, said she is not surprised that pistol permits spiked after the SAFE Act, which included a broader ban on assault weapons and requires pistol-permit holders to re-certify every five years.
Those who had New York pistol permits before mid-January 2013 must re-certify by the end of January 2018, according to the SAFE Act.
"There are probably responsible gun owners who are interested in obtaining permits as a result of the SAFE Act," she said. "But we have shown through the SAFE Act that we have reduced gun violence in New York since it passed."
In the Lower Hudson Valley, Rockland County largely mirrored the statewide trend.
The number of pistol permits issued in Rockland spiked in 2013 (738) and in the first 10 months of 2016 (764). In 2012, 2014 and 2015, there were about 550 issued each year.
Westchester and Putnam counties both saw the 2013 spike, with 1,118 and 368 permits issued, respectively, far outpacing 2012.
But the numbers from January through October 2016 haven't approached the 2013 figures, with 733 issued in Westchester and 123 in Putnam, according to the State Police data.
Lobbying at the Capitol
Gun-control remains a topic of discussion at the state Capitol.
On Tuesday, Democrats proposed a series of measures to bolster the SAFE Act, such as enabling police and family members to obtain a new type of protection order from the courts to restrict a dangerous person's access to guns and requiring safe storage of guns in homes.
They praised the benefits of the SAFE Act, saying the data doesn't reflect illegal gun purchases that may have been scuttled because of the tougher law.
"Some of the things the SAFE Act does cannot be measured," said Assemblyman Brian Kavanagh, D-Manhattan. "We cannot measure how many people are now choosing not to sell guns in parking lots to strangers, as was permitted before the SAFE Act."
The SAFE Act remains a point of contention in rural areas across the state, where anti-SAFE Act signs remain a common sight along roadways and in front of homes and farms.
Some Republicans in Albany have pushed a bill that would limit the SAFE Act to New York City, where 81 percent of charges were lodged under that law from 2013 through 2015.
Efforts by Republicans for a full repeal have failed, as have lawsuits to stop the law.
When it comes to pistol-permit applications, King said he expects New York to hit a "saturation point," but he doesn't know if the state has gotten there yet.
"It's hard to say," King said. "The number of pistol permits that are applied for and the number of firearms sold are often dependent on the political climate at the time."
Jimmy Nolan of Yonkers spoke at the gun-control advocates' news conference in Albany on Tuesday, addressing the shooting death of his brother.
Mike Nolan, who was a baseball prospect for the Oakland Athletics, was killed in 2015.
Jimmy Nolan said he is working with Yonkers police to bolster its gun-buy-back program, hoping to get weapons off the street.
"This is serious. Life is precious, and there are better options out there," he said.
He added, "If I can get one person to rethink shooting somebody or save one person’s life, that’s all that matters."
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