State Legislation Means Nothing If Not Enforced

Does the state Legislature actually have any control over the workings of the New York State Police?

We’re starting to wonder.

Nearly seven years ago, a provision in the SAFE Act mandated that the State Police build a database from information submitted by gun owners. That information was to be secure and shared with local police departments, who often use the information to prepare themselves for situations in which a gun may be present. The database has never been completed, which means local police departments who want to access the information have to call the New York State Police during regular business hours to see if a person has a firearm legally registered. Of course, we all know that crime isn’t limited to the regular 40-hour office work week.

The information is also housed in the offices of county clerks, but some clerks have said they don’t feel comfortable releasing the information to law enforcement because gun owners filed the appopriate forms to keep their information sealed.

So, earlier this week, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed legislation pushed by Democrats in the state Legislature to make the clerks give the information to law enforcement if it is requested. The legislation passed both houses of the state Legislature, largely along party lines. The information would have to be turned over on request; no judicial subpoena, court warrant or Freedom of Information Act application would be necessary. The fact that the gun owner has filed the appropriate public information opt-out form doesn’t matter.

We can understand local police agencies’ desire for information gleaned from the gun permits. It can be helpful to know if there is a registered firearm in a home, though we note police officers have to be prepared for the possibility of a firearm on every call to which they respond because many of those who possess guns do so illegally and wouldn’t be part of the state’s database, if one existed. We also understand clerks’ wariness. The forms freeing gun owners from public disclosure of their information are clear, and the law was written to keep county clerks away from the controversy by making the information available only via a secure database. It’s not the clerks’ fault that the database was never completed.

Assemblyman Michael Montesano, R-Glens Head, said the state’s legislation isn’t actually needed because the real issue should be able to be solved administratively between the State Police and local police departments.

We agree.

Montesano said he asks every year as part of the legislature’s budget deliberations about line items in the State Police budget and never gets a clear answer. If a longstanding member of the state Legislature can’t get a clear answer about how the State Police is spending state money, and we know from this week’s legislation that the legislature’s mandate to the State Police to perform certain tasks comes with no expectation of actual action, it begs the question — what control does the state Legislature have over the State Police?

Because of the legislature’s inability to follow through on the SAFE Act database, the legislature has not passed legislation that could actually make the problem faced by local police departments worse.

The state Legislature’s action is far from a clarification of the SAFE Act. The SAFE Act was written for the information to be passed from the State Police to local police agencies via a secure database, not from county clerks to local police agencies. Rather than clarifying the law, the legislation opens up a host of unforeseen issues that the legislation doesn’t do anything to address. The law signed by Cuomo this week has no procedure for turning over records and doesn’t define the format in which the records would be turned over. That means information would still have to be manipulated by local police departments to have any use because local police agencies will simply have a big file of information that may or may not fit into their existing information systems. That’s a best-case scenario if the information is available electronically. If the gun license information is given on paper, how will police use it quickly? Someone at already overworked police departments would have to digitize the records for them to have any use unless the expectation is that police officers would search through a lengthy pile of paper to find the name and address they need.

Cuomo and state legislators didn’t actually accomplish anything with their SAFE Act “clarification.” All they did is make clear that their laws and bluster mean nothing, because they won’t make state agencies follow through on their direction.