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Local Officials, State Seek to Smooth Gun-Seizure Process

5:11 PM, Apr 22, 2013   |    comments
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By Jessica Bakeman, Gannett Albany Bureau

ALBANY - County clerks, judges and sheriffs have begun working out the confusion in the process of suspending potentially dangerous individuals' pistol permits and confiscating their firearms after an Erie County man's weapons were erroneously seized earlier this month.

The state's new controversial gun-control law includes provisions requiring mental-health providers to report patients who might harm themselves or others. There has been uncertainty over the roles that local officials play in removing guns once the reports are made.

As a result, local officials and police mistakenly identified David Lewis, 35, of Amherst, as a dangerous, mentally ill individual, suspending his pistol permits and forcing him to surrender his seven guns earlier this month. His guns have since been returned, but he's suing the state.

After the incident, Gov. Andrew Cuomo formed a committee of local officials to smooth implementation of the Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act, signed into law Jan. 15. Members said the group has met once in person and held a telephone conference call, and communications have been productive, the sides said.

"Unfortunately, there have been some mistakes made around the state that have caused embarrassment, but I think now the process is going to be strengthened," said Rockland County Clerk Paul Piperato, who is on the committee.

Tensions grew between county clerks and State Police last week, when the groups lobbed blame on each other for the Erie County mistake.

State Police said counties, which issue permits, have a responsibility to positively identify a potentially dangerous individual after a report is made. The state County Clerks Association responded, arguing the clerks have no investigatory authority and act based on the State Police's notification of a report.

"The law clearly states that it is the responsibility of the State to conduct these investigations," Monroe County Clerk Cheryl Dinolfo said in a statement Wednesday. "The State passed this new law and they need to make sure they are identifying the right individuals before they request that the pistol permit be revoked or suspended."

Both groups have since said they will work together to make sure other legal gun owners are not targeted.

"This issue of identifying the proper individual of a ... report is being corrected by the committee so that further instances of this kind will not be repeated," the clerks association said in a statement Wednesday.

Darcy Wells, spokeswoman for the State Police, said in a statement Friday that troopers are working with local officials to make sure they have the information they need.

"Together we can administer the law in the most effective and efficient way possible to minimize any disruption for the public and burden on local government officials," she said, "and by doing so protect New Yorkers by keeping guns out of the hands of the dangerously mentally ill."

According to the law, physicians, psychologists, nurses and social workers must report patients they suspect are dangerous to county health officials through an online portal. Counties then forward some information from the reports to the State Police, who add the individuals to a statewide database and determine whether they hold pistol permits.

The police then notify counties that the individuals are dangerous and might own guns. County judges, or in some cases state Supreme Court justices, determine whether to suspend or revoke any gun licenses.

Finally, local law enforcement, such as a city police department or the sheriff's office, order the individuals to surrender any guns. If necessary, police will confiscate them.

During the committee's first meeting April 15, the groups decided that State Police would provide more information to counties about the individuals whose licenses should be revoked, officials said. Each notice will include the individuals' names, dates of birth, Social Security numbers and addresses. So far, not all notices have included that much information, increasing the likelihood a person might be misidentified.

"There was some ambiguity in those notification letters," said Alex Wilson, associate counsel for the state Sheriffs' Association. "So now those letters are going to be much more specific, much more detailed, and sheriffs might have a role in narrowing down exactly who is being targeted in the letter to makes sure that these cases of mistaken identity don't happen again."

While law enforcement and county clerks grapple with identifying potentially dangerous individuals, judges said there also are some issues to be worked out regarding their involvement.

For one, the law states local licensing officials "shall" suspend or revoke dangerous individuals' licenses, said Michael Coccoma, deputy chief administrative judge outside of New York City.

His legal counsel is working to determine whether judges have any discretion. It's unclear whether judges can refuse to suspend a license or determine more investigation is necessary. Also, judges aren't sure how quickly they must act, Coccoma said.

"It's certainly not something that you should put off for weeks and weeks," said Coccoma, who is on the governor's committee. "Is it in the nature of - drop everything and act upon it? That's a question that we've asked."

The questions surrounding the reporting process are the latest in a swarm of confusion and criticism that had followed the law's quick passage.

Gun owners have rallied in protest, denouncing the law as a violation of the Second Amendment. Two gun-rights groups have sued the state over the law, including the state Rifle & Pistol Association, which sought an injunction Tuesday to stop the law.

The medical community has said the law stigmatizes mental illness and puts mandatory reporters at risk of civil and criminal liability.

The 6,000-member union for State Police, which had previously been silent on the law, raised concerns in a statement April 15.

"We believe that actual enforcement of these new regulations will significantly increase the hazards of an already dangerous job," the state Troopers Benevolent Association said.

Cuomo has argued that the law will make New Yorkers safer, and he's criticized the federal government for failing to take stronger action on gun control.

The U.S. Senate on Wednesday defeated legislation that would have required more background checks on gun sales.

"I think what happened in Washington is a true tragedy. It was a failure of Democracy. It reinforced and highlighted how lucky we were in the state to do what we did when we passed sensible gun control, which will save lives," Cuomo said Friday on a public radio show in Albany.

The committee members said they have been able to speak freely and voice their opinions and concerns, steering the conversation about how to reform the reporting process.

"I think they realized that they had to get everybody to the table to work out issues that are outstanding," Piperato, from Rockland County, said of the governor's office. "A law was passed but none of the protocols or procedures were put in place to carry out the law."

JBAKEMAN@Gannett.com

Twitter.com/jessicabakeman

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