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As New York gun owners rush to get permits, local officials caution: Hold your fire

Syracuse.com logo Syracuse.com 7/5/2022 Douglass Dowty, syracuse.com

Syracuse, NY – The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision recently to strike down New York’s century-old concealed carry gun law will likely allow tens of thousands more Central New Yorkers to carry a gun in public if they wish.

But that’s not going to happen overnight. And the state has already moved quickly to pass sweeping restrictions on where the guns can be taken.

Central New York officials, who run gun licensing bureaus, say there’s no way to process hundreds of applications that have already started to come in. And local judges, who ultimately approve gun permits, were being told last week by their bosses to wait as the state legislature met to discuss what’s next.

“We’re in a holding pattern,” state courts spokesman Lucian Chalfen said. “Nothing has changed operationally.”

The state police, who oversee the state’s gun licensing process that’s handled on the local level largely by counties, said after the ruling that, for now, “the application process to obtain a license or permit to carry a firearm in New York State is unchanged.”

The Supreme Court’s ruling only applies to the permit process. It does not give a citizen the right to bear arms without a permit or grant permission to ignore the restrictions of existing permits. Someone who carries a loaded handgun in public without any permit still faces a felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

Onondaga County District Attorney William Fitzpatrick said there’s no change to enforcement of existing gun laws: Someone carrying a gun without a license can still be arrested and charged. He plans to prosecute people who disobey those laws.

While not a crime, violating the terms of a restricted license can also get someone into trouble with the licensing authorities.

“They have to follow what their pistol permit currently says,” said Syracuse-based lawyer Dennis Nave, who has represented clients in the permit process.

Gun licenses in New York state – called pistol permits – allow people to own and possess firearms that are not considered shotguns or rifles. There are two primary types of licenses. The first kind, called a restricted (or sportsman) license, only allows someone to possess the gun at home and at certain other specific locations, such as their job or a shooting range. The second kind, called unrestricted, allows a person to carry the concealed gun anywhere allowed by law.

Existing restricted license-holders likely have the inside track — once the state implements the high court’s ruling – to get unrestricted concealed carry permits. After all, they’re looking to upgrade existing licenses, not start from scratch. Current unrestricted license-holders already have the privileges granted by the court decision.

People who are trying to get a gun license for the first time face another hurdle: Some counties have long waits to even get in the door. In Onondaga County, for example, the first open slot to apply for a new gun license is in May 2023. That’s a manpower issue that predates the court decision, a spokesman said.

The Supreme Court allowed New York state to keep many restrictions to gun ownership: a background check, character references, an interview with law enforcement and gun safety training, for example. Those restrictions will remain in place for people seeking to become a gun owner for the first time. And the state has added new restrictions, including a ban on licenses for people convicted in the past five years for a trio of misdemeanors: driving while intoxicated, menacing and third-degree assault.

All convicted felons are banned from owning guns under federal law.

It’s unclear whether existing gun-owners looking to upgrade their licenses will be subjected to additional scrutiny under the new law.

Despite the challenges, there’s little question the floodgates will eventually open: Central New York has tens of thousands of legal gun owners who stand to gain new concealed carry rights if they upgrade their permit.

In Onondaga County alone, there are roughly 50,000 active pistol permits, said sheriff’s spokesperson Sgt. Jon Seeber said. He couldn’t say how many of those people had restricted licenses eligible for upgrade or have unrestricted permits.

In essence, the court decision will allow virtually anyone with a restricted license to upgrade to an unrestricted license, according to lawyers and local officials. That’s because the requirements between the two remain the same, with one exception: an unrestricted license required proof that someone had a special reason, called “proper cause,” to carry a concealed weapon.

It’s that “proper cause” requirement that was struck down by the Supreme Court. Under a historical reading of the Second Amendment, a person’s proper cause for wanting a gun is always self-defense, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in the majority opinion.

Oswego and Madison counties were able to say how many restricted license-holders might be in line for an upgrade. Cayuga and Onondaga counties said that number was not readily available for their counties.

Of the 14,000 gun licenses in Oswego County, roughly 6,000 were for restricted permits, according to Oswego County Clerk Terry Wilbur. He expects many of those 6,000 people to now seek an upgrade to a full concealed carry license now that no “proper cause” is required.

So far, about 350 to 400 people have asked for an upgrade since the court ruling on June 23, Wilbur said. His office quickly implemented a process for those people to submit requests for unrestricted licenses.

But Oswego County judges have not yet acted on those requests, Wilbur said.

In Madison County, 6,466 licenses are for restricted permits, out of a total of 8,919 permits, according to county spokeswoman Samantha Field. About 25 to 30 gun owners have sought upgrades to their permits since the court ruling.

Sheriff’s offices in Onondaga, Cayuga and Madison counties are still trying to come up with procedures to manage the increased number of permit upgrades, spokespeople said.

In Madison County, the sheriff, county clerk and judge who approves licenses are planning to meet to discuss the next steps forward, the county spokeswoman said.

In Onondaga County, about 50 people had requested to upgrade existing licenses to unrestricted in the week after the court decision, Seeber said. He urged patience as the sheriff’s office and judges work out a process for reviewing these applications.

Cayuga County Sheriff Brian Schneck urged patience as well.

“We certainly want to follow the law,” he said. “We have to just make sure we have the right procedure in place.”

The online reservation system for Onondaga County residents to be interviewed for new licenses stretches into May 2023. That wait time has been a problem for months and will likely only get worse with the renewed interest in gun ownership after the court ruling.

Cayuga County has a wait time of about six months, though Schneck said he has recently shifted a second full-time employee over to help speed up the licensing process.

Madison County has a wait time of a few weeks to a month, the spokeswoman said.

Oswego County has no wait time to turn in a new application, once the citizen has filled out the necessary paperwork, obtained references and gotten fingerprinted, Wilbur said.

State law enforcement and judges last week were awaiting the outcome of an emergency state legislature session called by Gov. Kathy Hochul to respond to the court ruling.

The state legislature on Friday approved restrictions that would bar concealed guns from any private property unless the owner puts up signs saying that guns are welcome. The new measures also making violating the law a felony, punishable by state prison time.

In addition, the legislature passed bans on carrying guns in many public places, such as government buildings, healthcare facilities, places of worship, libraries, public playgrounds and parks, daycares, summer camps, addiction and mental health centers, shelters, public transit, bars, theaters, stadiums, museums, polling places and casinos.

State lawmakers say such restrictions are allowed because the court ruling only barred the government from demanding that citizens provide an individual reason for needing a gun. The decision specifically allows certain areas to remain gun-free, including schools, courthouses and other sensitive places.

The state can’t go too far, though, the court warned: Banning guns in the entire island of Manhattan would be overreach, the majority opinion read.

It remains to be seen exactly how the new restrictions play out for gun owners. But Nave, the lawyer, warned that a large number of gun-free zones would make carrying a gun extremely difficult. The state’s restrictions will probably be challenged, but that will take years to work its way through the courts.

“This might backfire on people … because now you have your concealed carry, but you can’t do anything with it,” Nave said.

Staff writer Douglass Dowty can be reached at ddowty@syracuse.com or (315) 470-6070.

©2022 Advance Local Media LLC. Visit syracuse.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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