By Haley Viccaro
ALBANY, NY-- County clerks around New York said they are struggling with thousands of pistol permit opt-out forms flooding their offices and with no money from the state for the additional work.
A provision in New York's new gun-control law provides state residents with the option to fill out a form that would keep their pistol permit records exempt from Freedom of Information requests. State Police released the forms on Feb. 15, and permit holders have until May 15 to complete the forms or risk having their information available to the public.
Monroe County has received 11,000 forms. Westchester County has received 9,000, and Broome County has gotten in 4,000. Clerks report long lines of people submitting the forms.
"It started a little slow the first week with a couple of hundred a day, and now we get about 700 to 800 at the most per day," said Westchester County Clerk Tim Idoni. "People realize that the deadline is approaching soon to get these forms in."
Westchester County has received opt-out forms from more than half of the 16,800 people who have active pistol permits, Idoni said. The provision was included in a state gun-control law in January after the Journal News, a Gannett Co. Inc. publication, released an interactive map last December of pistol permit holders in Westchester and Rockland counties.
The gun-control law expands an assault-weapons ban, requires registration of guns every five years and limits the number of bullets in a magazine to seven.
Gun-permit information that is held by counties will be kept private until May 15, when the opt-out forms take effect. Those who still want to complete a form can do so after that date, according to the law, but they wouldn't be assured that their information would be kept private in the meantime.
County clerks said the forms have their offices working overtime and pulling staff from different divisions to help organize the information. Some counties said they have started sending the forms to county judges for approval to stay ahead of the process.
"Right now we are absolutely overwhelmed, we have lines out the door, and our staff are stressed to the max," Monroe County Clerk Cheryl Dinolfo said. "We are treading water and doing what needs to be done to get through the day."
Dinolfo said about 1,000 of the county's forms came from new pistol-permit applicants because the law has also spurred a surge in people seeking guns. Monroe County has about 45,000 pistol-permit holders.
For most counties, the opt-out forms are approved or denied by county judges. Then they are sent back to the county clerk's offices where the pistol permit holders' status is updated and logged as private.
The opt-out form allows for a number of reasons why a gun owner can seek to have their information kept private. The options include if an applicant is a law enforcement official, victim of domestic violence, had served on a grand jury and fear for their safety or are concerned about harassment.
Clerks said the law is not clear as to who needs to give final approval of the forms.
"The law is very unclear and never told those who do the work how this process should be completed," Cortland County Clerk Elizabeth Larkin said. "County by county they are trying to figure out how to comply with the law with no resources and no written regulations."
Cortland has 7,000 pistol-permit holders and more than 1,000 submitted an opt-out form. Additionally, Larkin said her office has had three times the number of people applying for pistol permits this year with lines often out the door.
State officials have said the new gun law shouldn't add costs to local governments. State Police Superintendent Joseph D'Amico testified at a hearing in February that the process would be borne mostly by the state.
"We don't expect any counties to incur costs here," D'Amico said. "That, I think, was an intention of the governor when the bill was passed."
"We have not done any overtime but it has been extremely difficult and my staff has gone without lunches and without breaks," Larkin said. "We may have to pull funds from contingency for supplies once it gets closer to the deadline."
Chenango County received about 700 opt-out forms, and the County Clerk Mary Weidman said the county judges might decide to accept the forms without reviewing them.
"We have triple the number of people coming in now because the deadline is approaching and they are concerned that they will lose their right to have guns, which is certainly not the case," Weidman said.
Ulster County Clerk Nina Postupack said the biggest concern among residents is that once the forms are filed, they want confirmation that their information would be sealed starting May 15. More than 2,400 people submitted opt-out forms in Ulster and about 20,000 residents have pistol permits.
Putnam County Deputy Clerk Michael Bartolotti said he is sending the forms to the county judges daily, and all have been approved so far.
"There have been some folks that have been concerned if they were rejected," Bartolotti said. "We relayed to them to fill out the form honestly and put in any legitimate concerns they have. We are hoping there aren't any issues with the judge rejecting them."
Rockland County received a few opt-out forms from the county judge that were not approved. County Clerk Paul Piperato said the forms lacked information or failed to provide a legitimate concern for sealing their records. He plans to send the forms back to the individuals to update their information and resubmit.
"I think there are so many unanswered questions going forward," Piperato said. "Maybe there should have been a little bit of a grace period for systems to be put in place before the law was instituted."
Sen. Thomas O'Mara, R-Big Flats, Chemung County, said the law should be changed to simply keep all gun information private, avoiding the need for the work by counties. O'Mara is among gun-rights supporters who want a full repeal of the law.
"The opt-out should be done away with all together. There shouldn't be any disclosure of this information," O'Mara said.
Some good-government groups have disagreed and supported the Journal News' attempt in December to get the pistol-permit data from Putnam County, which refused to release the information. After the gun-law passed, the Journal News took down the permit map.
"We oppose efforts to undermine the integrity of the state's Freedom of Information Law and fear the slippery slope of carving out exceptions as an attempt to undermine the public interest," the groups said in a statement Jan. 8.
Some counties have their sheriff's departments handling the pistol permit forms. The Broome County Sheriff's Department said they don't have a computer system and log individuals' records using index cards.
Identification Officer Brian Curtis said his three-member staff plans to locate each pistol permit holder's index card and stamp it if their opt-out requests are approved. They received about 4,000 forms out of 23,000 residents in the county with pistol permits.
"There is no way we are going to beat the deadline with the amount of people putting in new permits and buying guns," Curtis said. "We average about a two-hour wait to get into our office."
County clerks said they are bracing for the registration of assault weapons, which is set to begin April 15 when the state police will make the forms available online.
"It is an unfunded mandate and it was dumped on us," Larkin said. "It should have never happened on the state level with no thought of the consequences to local county offices."