Ulster County Sheriff Paul Van Blarcum’s call last week for licensed pistol permit holders to begin carrying their weapons in the name of public safety has opened a public debate on “concealed carry” and the system used to vet and license handgun owners.
Nationally, laws on who may carry a handgun and where they may carry it vary widely. In six states, gun owners can legally carry a concealed handgun without a permit. On the other end of the spectrum, some jurisdictions like New York City and Chicago put up administrative hurdles that make it virtually impossible for civilians to legally buy and carry a handgun. (Restrictions on rifles and shotguns are far looser, generally requiring only that the purchaser prove they are of age and pass a background check through an FBI database).
Most states rely on some form of licensing for the concealed carrying of handguns. New York is one of nine states and the District of Columbia where pistol permits are granted on a “may issue” rather than a “shall issue” basis. The distinction means that applicants must demonstrate some need for a handgun; local officials, typically judges or sheriffs, have wide latitude in deciding who can receive a pistol permit and what conditions are placed upon it.
In Ulster County, Sheriff’s Chief Civil Officer John McGovern is in charge of processing permit applications and conducting background checks. Currently, McGovern said, there are about 10,000 to 12,000 “active” permit holders. On average, the county processes between 500 and 600 new pistol permit applications annually. The number he said, has been climbing rapidly, especially after the 2013 NY SAFE act which introduced a number of new gun control measures and led some gun owners to fear that even tougher restrictions were on the way.
“Every year there are more and more permits out there and more and more people applying,” said McGovern. “The SAFE Act definitely threw a little gasoline on that fire.”
The demand for pistol permits following passage of the new gun law, championed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in the wake of 2012’s Sandy Hook massacre, led county lawmakers to expand the list of judges authorized to issue pistol permits from three to eight.
The process of obtaining a pistol permit begins at the Ulster County Law Enforcement Center where applicants can pay $5 for a thick stack of required documents. Applicants must fill out two copies of the forms, one for filing with the states and one for the county. On it, they are asked to state their reasons for obtaining a handgun. They are asked, under penalty of perjury, about all previous arrests, mental health commitments, military service and other issues. The application package also requires notarized statements from four area residents who must fill out a detailed questionnaire testifying to the applicant’s good character. They must also supply proof that they completed a four-hour gun safety course. Once the application is submitted, the would-be permit holder is asked to provide fingerprints, which are checked against a database. McGovern said that the background check for pistol permits is more extensive than the one used to vet teachers and other licensed professionals is New York State and will turn up information from records which are normally sealed. The total cost for an applicant, including fingerprinting fees, can approach $150.
“The application process itself is quite daunting,” said McGovern. “A lot of people stop right there.”
The application and the background check’s results are then forwarded to the chief court clerk of Ulster County, who assigns the case to one of the eight judges. The judge will then hold a hearing where the permit applicant may be questioned about their motivations for seeking the permit, their ability to handle a firearm and any information obtained from the background check. The judge has the final say on the permit and any restrictions on the permit. Applicants must demonstrate some justification for obtaining a handgun and judges may set limits in line with the stated purpose. For example, shop owner who wants a handgun to defend his business may be granted a permit — with the caveat the weapon may only be carried on the shop’s premises. The judge may also grant the applicant a permit with no restrictions, meaning they are free to carry the weapon anywhere where guns are permitted. (A permit does not allow the holder to carry a gun on school property, in federal buildings and other places where firearms are prohibited.) Because of a quirk in the law which bars non-permit holders from firing or even touching a handgun until the permit is issued, many new licensees may have little or no experience at the shooting range. To address this, McGovern said, one judge insisted that a permit applicant solemnly promise to go to a shooting range and fire 200 rounds immediately upon purchasing a handgun.
“The judges take that review and evaluation process very seriously,” said McGovern.
Once issued, the pistol permit is valid until revoked by a judge. McGovern said pistol permits are routinely monitored by the same judges who issue them. McGovern said while state law makes no such provision, “local custom” in Ulster County requires any permit holder arrested for any crime to turn in their permit and their handguns until the case is adjudicated. Judges may then decide whether to reinstate the permit or revoke it. Family members or concerned citizens can also ask a judge to suspend or revoke a pistol permit if they believe the holder is a danger to themselves or others. When an order of protection is issued against a permit holder, police will go to their home to take custody of the weapons (the prohibition applies to both pistols and long guns). Permit holders must also seek an amendment to their license for each additional handgun they purchase.
“The judge reserves the right to revoke that permit at any time for any reason,” said McGovern. “There’s a continual monitoring of those permits.”
A provision in the SAFE Act called for pistol permits to be renewed every five years. State police were charged with setting up the renewal system and pilot projects were begun in three New York counties. But three years after the law’s passage, McGovern said, local officials had received no directives from the state and the provision has gone un-enforced.