Essex County grapples with new gun law

ELIZABETHTOWN – The Essex County Board of Supervisors plans to take a stance on New York’s new gun law, but not before lawmakers take the time to review it and draft a detailed response.

Meanwhile, neighboring Franklin County legislators personally oppose the gun law but plan to hold public meetings on it before adopting a position.

These are two of only a few counties statewide that haven’t passed formal resolutions opposing the Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act.

At last week’s Essex County Ways and Means Committee meeting, supervisors voted down a resolution supported by the New York State Sheriffs Association that seeks “clarification and modification” of the new law.

Instead, Jay town Supervisor Randy Douglas, the board’s chairman, appointed a special committee to review the SAFE Act and draft a resolution outlining the county’s position. Chesterfield town Supervisor Gerald Morrow was appointed to lead the committee, which also includes Elizabethtown town Supervisor Margaret Bartley, North Hudson town Supervisor Ron Moore, county Attorney Dan Manning and county Manager Dan Palmer.

At Monday’s full board meeting, Morrow said the committee will meet at 11:30 a.m. next Monday to review the SAFE Act and recommend a resolution.

Morrow and Moore want the state to repeal the SAFE Act, not amend it. Morrow said he is an avid hunter and gun owner, and he believes the law turns innocent gun owners into criminals by classifying once-legal firearms as banned assault weapons.

Morrow said Douglas has promised to hold a special meeting March 18, during which supervisors plan to vote on a resolution.

“We will not let this linger,” Morrow said. “Some people had thought we’ll just let it linger on and kick it under the rug – that will not happen. Mr. Moore and myself will not allow that to happen, and I don’t think the rest of the supervisors will either. Whether they vote for or against it, we’re going to act on it on the 18th.”

Moore said the SAFE Act should be repealed, then replaced with legislation that’s fully vetted by the public. One of the chief complaints about the law is how quickly it was voted on and signed.

Moore echoed concerns expressed by Assembly Dan Stec, R-Queensbury, that the new law has emboldened anti-gun lawmakers to introduce even stricter measures, like one that would require a $1 million insurance policy as a condition to gun ownership.

“It’s beyond my comprehension that we’re at this stage,” Moore said. “I’m adamantly opposed to this bill, and we need to repeal it.”

Repealing the law would be tricky, however, since it passed the Assembly with a wide margin of support. Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver said this week that they won’t support “substantive changes” to the law, according to the Associated Press.

About a dozen gun owners sat quietly in the audience at Monday’s board meeting. Two of them – Win Belanger of Willsboro and Bruno Mazzotte of Moriah – addressed supervisors.

Belanger, who works for Stec, spoke as a citizen. He noted that he owns several guns. He said he also gave away an AK-47, now banned under the SAFE Act.

“The law is needed,” he said. “But not the present law, and not the way it was pushed through. … Passing a law that removes three bullets from my clip? Oh well. Passing a law that says that I have to give up a pistol – two pistols actually – because a gunsmith said they can’t change the clip in them that I’ve owned for 39 years, and I own concealed weapon permits in 33 states, and all of a sudden my weapon is no good. The 9-millimeter that I carried in the service, serving this country for 30 years, all of a sudden I’m the guilty guy.”

The state Legislature should debate gun control measures, Belanger said, and it should pass a law.

“Let it go to a committee, let them decide, and let them pass a good law,” he said, “not a law that gets passed in the middle of the night and pushed on us, or on our legislators, without ample discussion.”

Mazzotte, a retired corrections officer who owns a small gun shop, said law-abiding citizens are being stripped of their rights under the Second Amendment. He said current laws haven’t been enforced, and he questioned whether new, stricter laws will make a difference.

“They want to change the background check,” Mazzotte said. “They can’t enforce the one we have now. I don’t know why we want to do more.”

Douglas told the Enterprise that board members have mixed opinions when it comes to the SAFE Act. Some want a full repeal, while others support the law as written.

Douglas said he’s confident the board can find common ground and pass a resolution with unanimous support. He said he wants supervisors to focus on the costs of implementing the law.

“It seems like the workload is basically a lot on the county clerk at this point,” Douglas said. “There’s some things there we might want to oppose as a non-funded mandate for us to implement the law as it stands now.”

The SAFE Act is clearly a tough subject for Douglas, a Democrat who constantly searches for consensus on a mostly Republican board. He said something had to be done in the wake of mass shootings in Connecticut and Colorado, but he didn’t like the way New York’s law was rushed through the Legislature.

“Like I said: The cost factor on us, if it’s going to be that significant where we have to hire more staff, then that’s a problem,” Douglas said, “because we’re trying to do things now to cut staff and cut our budgets and those sorts of things. As of right now, I don’t like all the verbiage in the law, but it doesn’t mean that I don’t think that something needed to be done.”

Essex County Sheriff Richard Cutting will lead a presentation on the SAFE Act at the March 18 special meeting. Supervisors plan to schedule the meeting so that members of the public can attend.

In Franklin County, Sheriff Kevin Mulverhill has tentatively scheduled a public forum on the new gun law from 6 to 9 p.m. March 14 in the Malone Middle School auditorium, a large venue for a large expected turnout, Mulverhill told the Enterprise this morning. He and Legislator Tim Burpoe of Saranac Lake are working on scheduling a second forum in the southern end of the county.

Mulverhill said he supports a detailed statement on the law that the New York State Sheriffs Association issued after a meeting in late January.

“Definitely all the North Country sheriffs were there when this was discussed, and we all had input, and we all came up with this package for the governor.”