Dispute over Gun-Permit Data Lands in Federal Court

Putnam County doesn’t seem unhappy about being sued

By Liz Schevtchuk Armstrong

After Putnam County on Sept. 19 lost an appeal in state court to keep gun-permit records secret, two anonymous gun-rights advocates and an affiliate of the National Rifle Association sued the county in federal court.

County officials didn’t seem to mind.

The action began Oct. 21, when two county residents identified as John Doe 1 and John Doe 2, joined by the New York State Pistol and Rifle Association, alleged that release of gun-permit data would violate the Constitution and asked the 2nd U.S. District Court in New York for an injunction.

Since then:

  • The John Does have won a preliminary injunction preventing Putnam County from releasing the data;
  • The state attorney general has refused to participate in the case, which involves gun-disclosure provisions of the NY SAFE Act;
  • Putnam County has said it will provide the gun records to The Journal News, which had brought the original court challenge;
  • The Journal News is no longer pursuing the records;
  • Putnam County has proposed that the federal court open a full-scale proceeding to determine whether disclosure is unconstitutional.

The John Does claim that release of gun-permit data violate their due process and Second Amendment rights “by subjecting permit holders to unwanted public attention and censure by those in the community who are hostile to gun owners,” according to a Nov. 30 memo by James Randazzo, an attorney for Putnam County.

The SAFE Act allows handgun owners to “opt out” of permit disclosures, keeping their names and addresses private, if they believe releasing the information would endanger their safety (as in the case of someone who is an active or retired police officer, under an order of protection, or a past or current  trial witness or juror) or if the gun owner has “reason to believe he or she may be subject to unwarranted harassment.”

One John Doe is a retired police officer, but neither of the men have asked for the exemption. Charles Cooper, a lawyer for the Does, stated in a Dec. 9 letter to the court that “they cannot in good faith” maintain they would face a greater likelihood of threats or harassment from disclosure than other gun owners and did not want to “risk criminal prosecution for filing a false application.”

Cooper also noted that, unless the federal court intervenes, “anyone can walk into the Putnam County clerk’s office and demand the handgun-permit records, and Putnam County is powerless to object or refuse to comply” because it would face penalties for contempt of court. He said that although they were being sued, county officials did not contest the plaintiffs’ arguments.

William Taylor, an assistant state attorney general, told the court in a Nov. 30 memo that, given their refusal to contest the allegations in the lawsuit, Putnam County officials seemingly want the federal court “to undo a state court decision not to their liking.” He added that “there appears to be no adversarial dispute” of any substance between the parties, no plaintiff with standing, and therefore no need for the state to get involved, or for federal review.

As of Feb. 1, the case was pending as the parties await further instructions from the court, Randazzo told The Current.

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