Ulster County Sheriff and concealed-carry proponent Paul VanBlarcum says he should have the authority to issue pistol permits. But anti-gun lawmakers in Albany could kill pending legislative action to grant him that power.
VanBlarcum made national headlines last year when, following a spate of mass shootings, he called on Ulster County residents with valid pistol permits and who felt confident in their shooting skills to begin carrying weapons. VanBlarcum and his supporters described the “call to arms” as a common-sense measure to enhance public safety and perhaps prevent random shooting attacks. Anti-gun groups called VanBlarcum’s statement irresponsible and a likely to encourage vigilantism.
Now, VanBlarcum is seeking to become one of nine local officials, and the only non-judge among them, with the power to grant pistol permits to Ulster County residents. VanBlarcum said that he has been seeking the authority since entering office eight years ago, but it must be granted by the state legislature and signed by the governor. Each year, he said, the bill passes in the Republican-controlled state Senate only to die in committee in the Democratic-majority Assembly. In the current legislative session, Assemblyman Kevin Cahill (D-Kingston) is once again sponsoring the bill in the Assembly. VanBlarcum said that he had when he discussed the issue with Cahill last year, the assemblyman expressed doubt that the bill would make it past the legislative body’s anti-gun caucus.
“Last time I spoke to Kevin he said he didn’t think it would pass because of New York City Democrats,” said VanBlarcum. “They’re worried that there might be a sheriff someday who will just start handing them out to anybody.” Cahill did not respond to a call seeking comment.
Currently, the sheriff’s office handles nearly all of the administrative duties connected with pistol permits. Applicants must fill out a lengthy form, submit sworn character references and be fingerprinted. Sheriff’s Office officials then carry out an extensive criminal and mental-health background check. The forms are then passed on the chief clerk of the county court who assigns the case to one of eight judges empowered to grant the permits. The judges must schedule an in-person hearing with the applicant before deciding whether to grant the permit. Judges may also place conditions on the permit; for example, someone who says they want a pistol for target shooting may receive a restricted permit that only allows them to carry the gun to and from a shooting range. Judges may also grant full concealed-carry privileges that allow gun owners to go armed anywhere where firearms are not explicitly prohibited by law. The judges also approve amendments to the permit for any additional guns the permit holder buys and can decide whether to revoke the permit based on an arrest or other complaint.
VanBlarcum said allowing him to conduct the in-person interviews would streamline the process, which can often take months.
“We do everything here in a matter of weeks, but it can sit on a judge’s desk for months,” said VanBlarcum. “Everything ends up [with the judges] when we could do it right here.”
VanBlarcum said the county’s pistol permit process had struggled to keep up with increasing demand. With seven months left in the year, VanBlarcum said, his office had already exceeded the 547 pistol permit applications received in all of 2015. Last year, in response to complaints about long delays for final approval, state lawmakers designated five additional local judges as permitting officers.
While most pistol permits are approved by judges in this state, there is precedent for police officials to take on the duty. In New York City, which has some of the nation’s most stringent gun laws, the NYPD handles both vetting and approval for the permits. On Long Island and in Westchester County, permits are approved by county public safety commissioners.
“It just makes sense for us to do the approvals,” said VanBlarcum. “We’re already doing everything here.”