By Joseph Spector
Albany Bureau Chief
ALBANY Some upstate officials are balking at provisions of New York's gun-control law, saying the regulations are unclear and burdensome.
Erie County Sheriff Timothy Howard, for example, said this month that he won't enforce the controversial SAFE Act because he disagrees with it. He is one of five sheriffs to sign onto a lawsuit seeking to have the law overturned.
"If you know this is wrong, you can't enforce it," Howard told WGRZ in Buffalo, a Gannett television station.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo championed the gun-control law passed in January as the toughest in the nation after the school shootings in Sandy Hook, Conn., last December.
But the Democratic governor has faced increased criticism over the law from gun-rights groups and county leaders upstate, particularly elected sheriffs and county clerks who are mainly Republicans.
Some officials said they are not sure that parts of the law are enforceable, and others said the record-keeping requirements is too onerous to comply.
Putnam County Sheriff Donald Smith was one of the sheriffs to sign onto to the legal brief in support of the lawsuit. He said he will enforce the law, but he also has the right to speak out against it. He said the law, which expands an assault-weapons ban and limits the number of bullets in a magazine to seven, will make citizens less safe.
"When we perceive a law is not well designed and will not promote the public good, then I strongly believe we have a duty to do what we can within the legal processes to oppose and change the law and to help craft a better one," Smith said.
Counties have been inundated with forms to allow gun owners to opt out from having their information made public, and some said it could be months or more before all the forms are processed. Some clerks said they have no plans to ever release any of the gun owners' information.
As part of the law, the state imposed a May 15 deadline in which those who didn't fill out an opt-out form could have their information released.
"I'm not enforcing parts of it at this time," said Broome County Sheriff David Harder about portions of the law. "As far as releasing information to the news media, we are not doing that."
The opt-out provision was enacted after the Journal News, a Gannett-owned newspaper, last December published a detailed map of pistol-permit holders in Westchester and Rockland counties.
Monroe County Clerk Cheryl DiNolfo said the county has received 17,000 opt-out forms. Each one has to be approved by a judge and then matched against the pistol-permit records.
She said with a limited staff, she doesn't foresee a time when the list of those who didn't opt out could be made public. She said a specific database would need to be created.
"We just do not have the capability to do that," DiNolfo said.
Rensselaer County Frank Merola said, "As far as I'm concerned, my records are sealed." He said he has more than 2,000 opt-out forms that would need to be matched with the paper records of those who have pistol permits. In Broome County, pistol-permit information is on index cards.
When asked about Merola's position, Cuomo said on Monday that, "I don't believe that's the law. That's not for a county clerk to do on a blanket basis. That's not my reading of the law."
Robert Freeman, executive director of the state Committee on Open Government, disputed that the recording of the opt-out forms is an extraordinary task.
"I'm not suggesting that full implementation will be easy, but I do not believe it is insurmountable," Freeman said.
At a rally at the Capitol on Tuesday, gun-rights groups urged supporters to not comply with the gun law.
Assemblyman Bill Nojay, R-Pittsford, Monroe County, said he expects there will be widespread non-compliance with the SAFE Act. By next April, gun owners will have to register their weapons with the state to be included in a new State Police database. That database won't be made public.
Nojay will be a featured speaker at a gun rally at the Capitol on June 11, along with Jeanine Pirro, a television host and former Westchester County district attorney.
"I don't know of a single county clerk or sheriff or mental health office north of Westchester County that is going to comply with the SAFE Act," Nojay said.
Cortland County Clerk Elizabeth Larkin, who heads the state's clerks association, said she is part of a group with law-enforcement officials who have been meeting with Cuomo's staff to address concerns about the law.
"We've had several (meetings) and a lot of phone conferences trying to figure out how best to abide by the law and implement it," Larkin said.
The meetings come after Chemung County Sheriff Christopher Moss said that Cuomo told him earlier this spring at the Capitol that sheriffs shouldn't criticize the law that they are required to enforce.
Moss said he has a right as an elected official to offer his opinion.
Livingston County Sheriff John York said: "We don't have to agree with it; We do have an obligation to enforce it."
Talks about changes to the law, which was hastily passed just hours after the bill was printed, continue. On Thursday, the Democratic-led Assembly passed a bill to allow retired police officers to be exempt from an assault weapons ban. The change hasn't been passed in the Senate.
On Thursday, Columbia County District Attorney Paul Czajka said he would not prosecute a Dutchess County man who was arrested earlier this month for having a licensed pistol in his vehicle that had nine bullets. The new law allows for a maximum of seven bullets in a magazine.
Monroe County Sheriff Patrick O'Flynn said he's hopeful the state and police can find common ground.
"We will enforce the laws on the books," he said. "It's just the confusion in this law. We're trying to work with the state to make sure everybody is on the same page."