Gary Craig/Democrat and Chronicle staff writer
Add another match to the volatile fuels feeding the ongoing gun-rights debate in New York.
Gun-rights supporters and some allies in the state Legislature contend that the state wants neighbors to snitch against gun-owning neighbors and turn in individuals suspected of having illegal firearms under the New York Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act, or NY SAFE Act.
As evidence, they're wielding a recent email from the state Division of Criminal Justice Services to police chiefs about a toll-free tipline "to encourage residents to report illegal firearm possession." Tipsters can get $500, the email states.
Assemblyman Bill Nojay, R-Pittsford, Monroe County, accused the Cuomo administration of bolstering the program to increase compliance with the gun law, saying that many gun owners aren't planning to register their weapons with the state.
"What do you do about that? You go to the old formula of regimes with unpopular programs and you develop a snitch or informant network," Nojay said in an interview Thursday on WGDJ-AM (1300).
Sen. James Seward, R-Milford, Otsego County, said he has concerns that the initiative will lead communities to turn against themselves.
"To pit neighbor against neighbor and to have a financial reward and turning in a neighbor for something, I think is just bad," Seward said. "I hope that the administration will consider not moving forward with this."
State officials don't deny that the email is authentic, nor do they dispute the existence of the tipline. The problem, they contend, is that the tipline was created in February 2012 and the email was a reminder to police chiefs about its existence.
"This program has been in place for more than a year and is aimed only at getting illegal crime guns off the streets: a goal that every New Yorker can agree with," said DCJS spokeswoman Janine Kava.
A February 2012 news release from the Governor's Office promoted a new anti-violence plan, including a tipline.
"Individuals in communities with persistently high rates of gun violence will now have access to a dedicated hotline to report illegal guns," the news release stated. "The Governor announced today the launching of a toll-free number 1-855-GUNS-NYS (486-7697) that will provide follow-up on caller information regarding the location of an illegal gun. Rewards will be determined based on the value of the lead."
Also, a June 2012 newsletter from DCJS highlights the $500 reward and uses almost identical language in parts from the email recently distributed.
The newly fashioned initiative does include a texting option. Gun-rights supporters maintain that the timing of the recent email - coupled with its announcement of an accompanying "comprehensive campaign" with public service announcements - suspiciously aligns with the SAFE Act.
The SAFE Act, which includes an assault weapons ban and a restriction on magazine rounds, has been roundly decried by gun-rights supporters. Nearly two of three New Yorkers backed the initiative in a recent poll, but much of that support was centered in downstate New York.
Budd Schroeder is so passionate about his right to own guns, he is the chair of SCOPE. It is a group aimed at protecting gun ownership and Second Amendment rights. Schroder was not happy when he found out about the statewide toll-free gun tipline for people to report illegal guns.
"I got it over the internet, I think it was yesterday, that explained it was going to be the bounty hunter's delight. That what an opportunity for abuse. That if somebody doesn't like his neighbor, all he has to do is call the hotline and they'll have a policeman knocking at his door," says Schroeder.
Governor Cuomo's office told WGRZ that the tipline is a crime-fighting tool targeting urban neighborhoods and it is independent from the SAFE Act.
"What about the fact that the hotline was established in 2012, before the SAFE Act came into play?" asked Kelly Dudzik.
"I think that proves it doesn't work," said Schroeder.
For Pastor Kinzer Pointer, gun safety hits close to home. Four members of his immediate family have been victims of gun violence.
"I don't think it's about gun control so much as it is about gun safety. I have an uncle who is on my mantelpiece because a drug induced member of the family shot him who shouldn't have had a gun and the gun was illegal," he says.
Pointer supports the tipline, which offers payouts of up to five-hundred dollars for information leading to illegal guns and he feels the SAFE Act is necessary to keep guns out of the hands of those who get them illegally.
"I think if you can incentivize the removal of illegal guns from our streets, that's a good idea. I hear the clamor about rights being violated, well, I think that we have in this country more rights than any place else on earth and while they're constitutionally guaranteed, none of them are absolute," says Pointer.
But, Schroder sees it differently.
"Repeal the law. That's the only compromise that makes any sense. The law will do absolutely nothing to prevent gun violence," he says.
Like many crime tiplines, the dollar amount that is advertised, in this case five-hundred dollars, is the maximum you can get and, of course, not every call to the tipline results in a big payout or a payout at all.