By Liz Schevtchuk Armstrong
Unveiled Thursday night, a draft Philipstown law to ban weapons, including handguns, from town-owned properties drew immediate objections from a National Rifle Association-linked attorney that it would violate New York State law. At the Town Board’s Feb. 3 regular monthly meeting, Supervisor Richard Shea presented the draft of the proposed town law and set a hearing date of March 3 to obtain public input on it. Less than 24 hours later, Robert P. Firriolo, a partner with the large multinational law firm Duane Morris L.L.P., wrote Shea that “such an ordinance is pre-empted by state law, at least as respects firearms, and would be invalid if enacted.”
Drafted by Town Attorney Edward W. Doyle, the proposed town law would “prohibit the possession, transport, carrying, or open display of any weapon in certain public buildings of the Town of Philipstown” by anyone, except for law enforcement officers. It defines “weapon” as “any firearm, electronic dart gun, gravity knife, switchblade knife, cane sword, billy, blackjack, bludgeon, metal knuckles, chuka stick, sand bag, shirken, sandclub, slingshot, dagger, dangerous knife, dirk, razor, stiletto, imitation pistol, explosive device or substance, lethal or debilitating chemical or gas, or any other dangerous or deadly instrument or weapon.” Those found guilty of violating the law could be fined up to $500, imprisoned for up to 15 days, or both.
The text explains that the law is intended “to assure the proper protection, health, safety, and welfare of persons lawfully in the public buildings of the Town of Philipstown and in order to insure the performance of essential governmental functions by town employees without threat or intimidation.” It defines the term “public building” as “any building, land or property owned, occupied or operated by the Town of Philipstown,” thus covering parks and other outdoor areas as well as interiors of the Town Hall and other structures.
Firriolo asserted that the town lacks authority to enact such a ban. In a Feb. 4 letter sent to Shea and forwarded to Philipstown.info, he noted that he had been involved in court case in which the Appellate Division of the state court system on Dec. 28 “invalidated a Nassau County handgun control law” because such regulation falls under state purview. “The decision’s `field pre-emption’ holding sweeps broadly and stands for the proposition that all local laws regulating handguns are pre-empted by New York State law,” he declared. According to his biography on the Duane Morris website, Firriolo “is a referral counsel of the National Rifle Association of America.”
During an interview with Philipstown.info in late January, Shea explained his desire to enact such legislation. On Thursday night, he discussed the matter further. “In light of current events we feel like we need to have a policy,” he said that night. Once the measure becomes law, the town government will post signs informing residents of the prohibition, he added, Likewise, he said, with the assistance of the Putnam County Sheriff’s Department, Philipstown will provide training for members of the Town Board and other town panels “on what to do in certain situations. We do need guidance.”
Audience member Lee Erickson, president of Citizens of Philipstown.org, told the board that “it’s only law-abiding citizens who tend to follow these rules. Bad guys are not going to.” Erickson then asked whether the town would use metal detectors to screen attendees at public meetings. “We don’t intend to do that right now,” Shea answered. “I’d rather not ratchet it up that far yet. We’re confident the citizens of this town are going to keep a level head, for now.”
Responding to another question during the public comment period of the meeting, Shea said the town had not had a recent occasion “where firearms were used” on town property but did have “an incident at a town meeting where someone claimed to be packing” or carrying a handgun. He said the incident had subsequently been explained away: “It turned out that was just someone making a bad joke at a bad time.” The incident, at a Jan. 15 town forum on fire-protection services, came a week after a gunman in Arizona killed a Congressional aide and federal judge, along with four members of the public, at a meeting held by Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., who was severely wounded. The proposed law “is not in direct response to that” event in Arizona, Shea said. “It’s a response to conversations I’ve had with the Putnam County Sheriff. And they think that it’s a good idea.”