Local officials are taking a close look at a state law that will go into effect in late August with a goal to prevent individuals who show signs of being a threat to themselves or others from purchasing or possessing any kind of firearm. 

At last week’s meeting of the Public Safety Committee of the Yates County Legislature, District Attorney Todd Casella shared concerns about the newly enacted state Red Flag law, particularly; the risks law enforcement will face in trying to carry out court orders to seize firearms, the liability the county will face in possible lawsuits, and the logistical matter of storing seized weapons.

The essence of the law will permit family members, teachers, school administrators, and prosecutors to seek court orders to seize guns, according to information from Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s statement during the Feb. 25 signing of the law.

“It seems this is another law that’s not well thought out,” said Casella.

Yates County Sheriff Ron Spike concurred, saying the Sheriff’s Office weapons storage is “completely out of space,” and new areas for secured storage are being explored, including the third floor of the courthouse. 

“Weapons surrendered or seized pursuant to such an order may be held for at least two years unless transferred to another party, or until the order is expired or lifted,” Spike explains. He says the sheriff’s office is currently holding for safe keeping a quantity of firearms both long and hand guns for various reasons. 

“Whether by court order or not, we have provided this as a community service or as a courtesy while someone is awaiting a permit to be issued, etc... We are looking at our space and security options,” he explained in an email.

Spike later commented on the application of the new law. “Courts will not be able to issue an extreme risk order of protection until Aug. 24. Terms such as ‘fact-based evidence’ and ‘due process rights’ are very concerning given this new law’s language. Law enforcement may be called upon to serve such orders and accept surrender of firearms, or to seize such firearms if necessary. The law states that the court may direct such orders to the ‘appropriate law enforcement agency serving the jurisdiction of the respondent’s residence.’ In this county, that could be the State Police, the Sheriff, or Penn Yan Village Police. In this respect, the law is similar to Mental Hygiene Law 9.46, a provision from the SAFE Act which allows for the seizure of weapons from individuals assessed by a health professional to be a danger to themselves or others.”

State Sen. Tom O’Mara told legislators March 8, “I voted against it. Every one of our Republican colleagues voted against it. There’s not much more we can do. That’s what this new (Senate) majority is all about.”

Opposing views

Gun rights advocates are concerned about there being too many regulations on legal gun owners, said National Rifle Association spokesman Lars Dalseide. One of the biggest concerns he has about the new law is the background check requirement, which can take up to 30 days. A federal background check is only valid for 30 days, he said, then a person has to get another one.

“This batch of laws that have come out are providing unrealistic restrictions for law-abiding gun owners who own firearms for no other reason but self defense, target shooting, hunting or whatever it might be” he said. “... If you put people in this rotation where they have to wait 30 days in order to (buy a gun). Well, then, by the time it’s valid by New York laws, it’s no longer valid by federal law, so people are caught in this perpetual circle. It’s practically a ‘Who’s on first?’situation.”

On the other side of the argument is Giffords, a gun violence prevention organization founded by former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and Capt. Mark Kelly. The organization applauded the state legislature for passing the new gun laws because it believes the laws will help reduce gun violence across the state.

“Gun violence is a public safety threat that causes tragedies in communities across New York every single day,” said Nico Bocour, state legislative director at Giffords. “In recent years, leaders in New York have understood that the best way to address this epidemic is by passing stronger gun safety laws. This trailblazing legacy continues today as lawmakers show they are determined to continue protecting the lives of all New Yorkers.”

State Sen. Joseph Griffo (R-Rome) is also a strong supporter of the Second Amendment, but while he recognizes the need for gun control, he said infringing on the rights of law-abiding gun owners is not the way to do it. Griffo believes there should be ways to secure the schools to better protect students and teachers, but also ways to address cultural violence and the neglected mental health system.

“We should consider reopening psych centers and keeping them open as opposed to closing them down and leaving many people without access to valuable services,” Griffo said in a statement. “I voted against the SAFE Act because I didn’t believe that the legislation has made our state any safer and, likewise today, did not support many of the measures brought before the Senate because these proposals could negatively affect the constitutional rights of many law-abiding gun owners. I will continue to stand as a steadfast and staunch advocate for the Second Amendment on behalf of all lawful gun owners.”

With U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi by his side Feb. 25, Cuomo made good on his promise to sign the Red Flag Bill on gun control within the first 100 days of the new legislative session. 

The administration says the law is “a key component” of Cuomo’s “2019 Justice Agenda,” and makes New York’s gun laws the strongest in the nation. New York is the first in the United States to empower its teachers and school administrators to try to prevent school shootings by pursuing court intervention.

“The United States loses more people to gun deaths than most developed nations,” said Cuomo. “The first year of President Trump’s administration, we lost 40,000 people to gun deaths — the highest number in 50 years. New York led the way by passing the strongest gun safety laws in the nation, but more must be done to end this carnage. Today, New York is proud to pass the first-in-the-nation Red Flag Bill that empowers school teachers to do something when they believe something bad is going to happen. We are empowering teachers not by giving them guns like the President wants — but by arming and empowering them with the law, so when a teacher or family member sees there is a problem, they can go to a judge and get a court-ordered evaluation. The Red Flag Bill will save lives and doesn’t infringe on anybody’s rights and it is common sense.”

Prior to this, no law existed in New York to enable a court to issue an order to temporarily seize firearms from a person who was believed to pose a severe threat of harm to themselves or others, unless that person had also been accused of a crime or family offense. 

According to a press release from the executive office, the Red Flag law provides all necessary procedural safeguards to ensure that no firearm is removed without due process while ensuring that tragedies, like the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., are not repeated. “In this mass shooting, the shooter was reported by multiple sources to be disturbed and dangerous, yet was allowed to purchase and possess deadly firearms. In fact, more than half of all perpetrators of mass shootings exhibit warning signs before the shooting, according to a recent analysis. In these cases, an extreme risk protection order could have prevented countless, needless deaths,” said the governor’s statement.

Florida passed a red flag law as part of a gun-control package in the wake of the Parkland shooting. Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Vermont have adopted similar laws in that period. California, Connecticut, Indiana, Oregon and Washington already had similar laws. 

(Includes reporting from the Utica Observer-Dispatch)