Citizens Oppose, Support Draft Law Banning Guns from Town Property
By Liz Schevtchuk Armstrong
Philipstown residents trouped to the March 3 Town Hall meeting room with ardent opinions for — or against — a proposed law banning weapons from buildings and parks owned by the Philipstown government. Although the draft law would apply to many weapons, guns garnered the most attention. The hearing preceded the Town Board’s monthly meeting and drew about 40 attendees, watched impassively by two sheriff’s deputies from an alcove at the front of the room.
In opposing the law, Mike Gibbons said he spoke as a citizen who “according to the Second Amendment of the Constitution has the right to bear arms. This proposed legislation disrespects our rights. Putting it down on paper will not make the criminals stop from doing what they intend to do.” Another resident, Clare Cosslett, praised the board’s initiative. “I actually think this is wonderful. One less place where there will be firearms is a good thing as far as I am concerned.”
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. The definition of “weapon” includes not only “any firearm” but an “electronic dart gun” and various knives as well as a razor, slingshot, “cane sword, billy, blackjack, bludgeon, metal knuckles,” explosive devices, “lethal or debilitating chemical or gas,” and other weapons. The text states that the prohibition seeks “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 explains that “public building” means “any building, land or property owned, occupied or operated by the Town of Philipstown” and thus covers parks as well as the Town Hall and other structures.
Controversy arose after an incident at a Jan. 15 town-sponsored forum on fire protection services at which a man disparaged the Town Board, adding that he was “packing,” an apparent reference to a concealed handgun. Supervisor Richard Shea later said the comment had been explained away as an ill-conceived attempt at a jest. “The paranoia which ensued after one person supposedly made a foolish joke should not infringe on my rights,” Gibbons told the Town Board on March 3. The Second Amendment to the Constitution specifically mentions “arms,” or weapons, but not guns per se or the individual. Odd punctuation and all, it states: “A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”
Another opponent of the proposed law, Chris Golde, said that he had been granted a full-carry permit 44 years ago and did not find licensed gun-owners inside a building a threat. “I’m no more intimidated by someone who has a pistol permit than I am intimidated by the two officers standing in the front of the room. For all I know, one of them could have some issue in his life and pull out a gun and go crazy. Who knows?” Councilman John Van Tassel said he worries about a citizen who may have been issued a gun license years ago and acts mentally stable but loses his temper at a public meeting, with violent results. But if legitimate gun-owners have been prevented from bringing their weapons to the meeting, “we won’t be able to protect you if all hell breaks loose,” Golde countered.
Supervisor Shea said the law was drafted because “we do not have a policy” on barring guns and other deadly weapons from public buildings and parks. After discussions at the board level, “we felt we couldn’t imagine a circumstance where you would need a firearm in a town meeting. And we especially couldn’t imagine a circumstance where you would need a firearm in the Recreation Department around so many children,” he told the audience. “We’re not trying to take away people’s guns.”
“I hunt. I have no opposition to guns. I just don’t see any need for them to come to a public meeting,” Van Tassel added. He noted that local justice courts already ban weapons. “You can’t bring your gun into the court.”
Frank Caccetta and others objected that the ban would embroil Philipstown in a lawsuit and, as he put it, “spend my tax money on a case you’re probably going to lose.” A lawyer who has counseled the National Rifle Association claimed last month that the law would improperly conflict with New York State law. However, Town Attorney Doyle pointed to New York State legal doctrine allowing towns, like any property owner, to deny entry to anyone with firearms. According to the state attorney general, “the town can enact a law like this that regulates the use of its property,” Doyle said. Municipalities that do so “are doing it in their proprietary capacity of governing their property, just as a private landowner can invite people to their home but prohibit them from bringing a weapon into the house, although that person may be licensed. We’re not trying to license firearms. We’re not trying to prevent anyone from having a firearm off town property. It’s just regulating use of those lands” owned by the town.
The Town Board took no immediate action and one member, Councilwoman Barbara Scuccimarra, criticized the use of a new law to achieve the town goal. “I don’t think it’s a good idea,” she said. “I think policy is the way to go here. No one wants to see a gun at the Rec [Department]. No one wants to see a gun in a public meeting. But I can’t see banning these people who have gone through New York State’s rigorous steps to get a `carry'” permit and forcing them “to be penalized.” Like some audience members, she also wondered how the town could enforce the law. “I think that’s one of the problems we’re going to run into.”
An audience member who gave her first name as Carol and whose surname was inaudible backed the proposed law. “This is a room for discussion,” she said of the meeting hall. “The town Rec [Department] is a place for kids. Neither of those have any place for guns. It’s completely unnecessary.” She also scoffed at the argument that armed audience members could protect the public from a mad shooter. “I’ve no desire to be caught in a crossfire with people defending me from some loony.”
Photo by L.S. Armstrong