Sheriff Says Proposed Gun Law Not Practical

Chautauqua County Sheriff Joe Gerace thinks a newly proposed handgun bill from State Sen. Kevin Parker, D-Brooklyn, will not provide enough benefits considering how social media checks on those applying for a handgun permit in New York will affect residents’ privacy and cause larger workloads to be required by investigators statewide.

The new bill submitted by Parker on Nov. 14 details a proposal for law enforcement to change state gun laws to require more checks on those applying to carry a pistol or revolver. If the bill is passed, authorities would be allowed to search social media and internet usage for any red flags, similar to those that have preceded some mass shootings.

Permit applicants would have to consent to provide investigators with Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat passwords, so that agencies in charge of background checks, like the Chautauqua County Sheriff’s Office, could check the past three years’ worth of social media content, both public and private. A year’s worth of internet search results from Google, Yahoo and Bing would also be required for investigators to skim through in search of red flags.

Content investigators would have to be on the lookout for includes defamatory content (such as racial slurs, discriminatory behavior or biased language against those of different genders, sexual orientations, religion, age and disability), threats against the health and safety of others, talks or acts of terrorism and other issues deemed necessary by the New York State Police.

Investigators would decide whether the content should prohibit applicants from getting a handgun permit from local courts. The bill is currently being discussed in committee, and no vote is yet scheduled.

“It’s not practical in any way,” Gerace said about the bill. “It’s not reasonable. I see this as a major infringement on people’s privacy and their rights.”

The sheriff described the proposed social media and internet searches as an “astronomical” privacy concern. He said the worry that this bill would infringe on gun owners’ rights to privacy is No. 1.

“There is no way that investigating agencies could do this kind of thing without additional manpower,” Gerace said. “It would be tremendously costly and ineffective.”

He said if this bill was followed as written, multiple new investigators would likely have to be hired to handle the volume of content that would be mandated to be searched. He also said there currently isn’t enough resources to accommodate these additions to background checks. The Sheriff’s Office handles approximately 900 to 1,200 new permits every year, and there are more than 30,000 permit holders in the county alone.

Gerace is concerned with the intent of the bill, as is State Assemblyman Andy Goodell, R-Jamestown. The assemblyman mentioned that the bill could be a means to limiting law-abiding citizens from having guns by taking broadly defined “biased language” as described in the bill out of context and the basis for why residents would not be allowed to attain a permit.

“Like many laws, there’s a gem of a good idea in there,” Goodell said. “This bill would take your First Amendment rights that are lawful under any interpretation of the law and use it to block your Second Amendment rights.”

He added that credible threats made on social media are already addressed by law enforcement, as citizens are allowed to report threats that can then be investigated to the full extent of the law. Oftentimes, Goodell mentioned, threats are hoaxes and can be weeded out through pre-existing practices in law enforcement.

In addition, Gerace also wondered why different web-based platforms would not be included in searches according to the bill. He also wondered why the bill was specifically written to address handgun permits and not rifles, explosives or attacks originating from other means.

Gerace defended what he views as already extensive background checks that include mental health checks among other measures. He added that the majority of gun owners are law-abiding and that a cost-benefit analysis would not yield enough positives compared to how much the bill would drain police resources and infringe on the privacy of others.

“We’re in a new age with new technology, and we need new rules,” Parker said after the bill was introduced.

State Sen. Cathy Young, R-Olean, also expressed her opposition to the bill. She said that it represents an invasion of privacy at best, and a violation of the First and Second Amendment rights at worst.

“It is a frightening scenario,” Young said. “Imagine private, law-abiding citizens treated as criminal suspects by having to turn over their online passwords, so law enforcement can scrutinize their social media postings and search engine history, simply because they applied for a firearm permit.

“While violent crimes such as the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting are devastating and concern all of us, we need to address the root cause of the problem, which, in most cases, is untreated mental illness. It is truly one of the most critical issues facing our society today. We are reminded of its consequences each time a horrific act of violence is committed against innocent people.”

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