But they don’t support the gun control legislation that provides their vindication
By Kevin E. Foley
Putnam County officials stood arm-in-arm in support of the county clerk’s refusal of a Journal News freedom-of-information request (FOIL) for gun ownership data, which at the time was clearly public information. They are also unified in their feelings of vindication after the state legislature and Gov. Andrew Cuomo created a new law on gun ownership, whose provisions include an opt-out section wherein individuals filing for all gun ownership permits can apply to have their personal information shielded from public view.
The new law, considered by many the strictest state gun control initiative in the country, also freezes any access to the current registration information for 120 days while state officials develop new registration forms that will require all gun owners to reapply for five-year renewable permits. This makes moot any immediate consequence of Dennis Sant’s defiant rejection of the FOIL request, a move supported by County Executive MaryEllen Odell; District Attorney Adam Levy; and Sheriff Donald B. Smith, elected officials all.
State Sen. Greg Ball was also a full-throated advocate for Sant’s stand and an acerbic critic of The Journal News for posting the gun permit information online after it was elicited from Rockland and Westchester, where officials readily provided the information as the-then relevant law required.
Ball also takes credit for demanding the legislature put the new proviso into the new law, which seeks, among other things, to ban the availability of a wide array of assault rifles and put limits on the ammunition loads of other weapons.
Adding to the aura of a brief battle fought and won, The Journal News, a Gannett-chain daily print and online newspaper, announced its decision to take down the interactive map it had posted with the names and addresses of registered gun owners. In a statement released on a Friday afternoon (Jan. 18) — a traditional time for government and business to release negative news — The Journal News Publisher Janet Hasson said the information had been up long enough for anyone interested to see it.
Whatever victory the county officials can lay claim to, it has the quality of a first-act development with a second act yet to come, the new state law having declared an intermission.
Although the Putnam County clerk refused to provide any information, the new law does not provide complete across-the-board protection from public scrutiny for gun owners, but it is broad in defining who is eligible to ask for it. Active and retired law enforcement members, people who served on juries, individuals under orders of protection, witnesses to crimes, and spouses, domestic partners and household members of any of the above are all eligible to opt-out. And then, in more potentially catchall criteria, applicants can assert their safety may be endangered or that they will be subject to harassment if their information is disclosed.
Given the stated attitude in Putnam County, it is hard to imagine any applicant having a problem shielding information for whatever reason upon request.
Good-government groups and media organizations have already begun to ask the state legislature to reconsider this section as overly broad and possibly setting a bad precedent for other forms of information that allow for scrutiny of government activity and performance through FOIL. The New York Times, The Albany Times-Union and The Journal News, among others, have asked for amended language, although they have tellingly not called directly for returning to complete openness of the files.
Contributing to a sense of more to come,Hasson declaredher paper “will continue to report aggressively on gun ownership. We will continue to pursue our request for data from Putnam County,” suggesting a replay of the short-circuited standoff may be yet to come, albeit many months from now.
While each new large-scale gun tragedy brings renewed calls for increased gun ownership restrictions, those same incidents have given rise to more controls on the dissemination of gun ownership data. The national trend among states is against making gun ownership records public, with only a dozen states currently making it entirely public. The New York state government has certainly moved that way in its eagerness to react to the Newtown, Conn., murders in other ways. Seen in that light, the Putnam officials’ stance, notwithstanding it was an obvious ignoring of state law at the time, was more consistent with the mainstream than some might appreciate.
Opposition to the thrust of the new state law
Nevertheless, in the aftermath of Newtown, the issue of guns and violence is certainly a far larger matter in state and national forums. The president and others raised it at Monday’s (Jan. 21) inaugural ceremony — but not in Putnam County. While protecting the personal information of gun owners caused alarm and an outspoken resolve to resist state law among all county officials, no such fulsome reaction occurred immediately after the Newtown shootings, a relative short drive from Carmel.
The sheriff at the time was the only county public official to act on a response to Newtown. He assembled a group of law enforcement representatives and educators to discuss security concerns and possible new police responses. While no new programs emerged from that first meeting and Smith declined when asked to discuss gun restrictions, he did use the event to underscore that such an incident could happen in Putnam County.
Sen. Ball, a Republican, has spent his considerable public-relations energy trumpeting his role in getting the information-limitation in the bill, but he voted against the legislation rather than support gun restrictions. Sen. Terry Gipson and Assemblywoman Sandy Galef, both Democrats, who unlike Ball represent Philipstown in Albany, both voted in favor of the bill.
Odell also claimed vindication on the issue but limited her praise of Cuomo and the legislature only to that provision. When she first announced her support for refusing to provide the gun ownership data, Odell took pains to say the issue had nothing to do with the Newtown deaths.
In April 2011, Odell (then a candidate for county executive) and Ball were leaders of a demonstration against the idea of Philipstown restricting bringing guns to public meetings. “This proposal in Philipstown is nothing less than government infringing upon the freedoms of law-abiding citizens. We’re tired of such attempts from the state government, and we absolutely will not stand for it at the local level,” she said at the time.