Every day, Schoharie County Sheriff Tony Desmond seems to find a new stack of pistol permits piled on his desk.
Some are from permit holders switching from the county’s old paper license to the new laminated card now being issued. Many more are from new applicants — county residents that have decided to own a handgun.
Previously, there was a steady trickle of applications, Desmond said, maybe a dozen or so per week. But then Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act was signed into law in mid-January.
Now Desmond is finding his office inundated with pistol permit applications. His office received 34 applications during the first two weeks of January alone — a spike he blames on gun control legislation.
“We see people who come through for a permit and the reason they list on their application is ‘it’s my Second Amendment right,’” he said.
Between 2011 and 2012, Schoharie County saw a 36 percent increase in pistol permit applications, according to figures provided by the state police. And the small rural county wasn’t alone.
Figures show that all eight counties in the Capital Region had in increase in permit applications last year. Of these, only Rensselaer County was below a double-digit rise.
Overall, the eight-county area saw a 39 percent jump in pistol permit applications — from 1,519 in 2011 to 2,120 in 2012 — or more than double the increase statewide. Overall, New York saw a 14.2 percent increase in permit applications last year.
Some Capital Region counties showed dramatic spikes. Fulton County’s permit applications rose from 106 in 2011 to 231 last year — a 117.9 percent increase.
Schenectady County also saw an appreciable spike. The county processed 282 applications in 2012, reflecting a 74 percent increase over 2011.
“There’s definitely an increase,” said Schenectady County Sheriff Dominic Dagostino. “People probably have a genuine fear about not being able to own handguns and probably taking care of the advantage they have now.”
Longtime Fulton County Sheriff Tom Lorey wasn’t surprised by the jump, estimating the number of permit applications he’s seen since the passage of the state’s SAFE Act have been “tenfold” over what he saw last year. He said many county residents fear the government encroaching on the rights of gun owners, so they had better arm themselves while they still can.
“The overall feeling of folks in upstate New York is that the government is clamping down on guns,” he said. “People want to get their permits now before there are no permits.”
The glut of new permit applications has also caused the time-consuming process of vetting them to bog down in some counties. Pistol permits require the respective sheriff’s department to verify four written character references, take fingerprints of the applicant, then have both the state Department of Criminal Justice Services and state Office of Mental Health run background checks.
If all the checks are passed, the sheriff then needs to write a letter to the county court judge in support of the application, attaching with it the notarized references. Once the package is completed, the judge can then approve the application.
Sheriffs are starting to see processing times balloon.
For instance, Lorey said his office is now taking upward of six months to approve pistol permits in Fulton County, which has a population of roughly 55,000. Prior to last year’s spike, he said the average wait time was a little more than a month.
“We’ve seen a real increase in the work, especially since the passage of the SAFE Act,” he said. “People waiting for permits have to wait significantly longer.”
Schoharie County is no different, said Desmond. He’s even assigned an additional deputy to help process them one day each week.
“If I had someone else, I’d send them to do it every day of the week,” he said. “Being bogged down in this paperwork is taking time.”
Some believe the spike can also be attributed to the perception of violence around the country and a fear that law enforcement will not be able to protect citizens. Tom King, the president of the New York State Rifle & Pistol Association, believes more residents are seeking pistol permits so they can defend themselves.
“The numbers were rising prior to the SAFE Act,” he said. “A lot of that is due to people being concerned about the violence on the street and looking for ways to protect themselves.”
Still, King was quick to acknowledge the gun control legislation has helped push pistol permit applications to record levels. He said many people — especially those residing upstate — are worried Cuomo’s gun control law is only the start of the erosion of their constitutional right to bear arms.
“People are concerned that the SAFE Act is just the beginning,” he said. “Upstaters are very much concerned by that.”
Gun control advocates identified a different pair of culprits for the spike: The gun lobby and weapons manufacturers.
Leah Gunn Barrett, the executive director of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence, blamed organizations like the National Rifle Organization for drumming up unwarranted fear over gun control in an effort to spur consumers into a buying frenzy — one that includes handguns.
“The NRA is very clever,” she said. “They appeal to the base instincts people have — they try to appeal to very base emotions.”
Barrett the gun lobby, with financing from manufacturers, is stirring up controversy over the SAFE Act that distorts its true impact on gun ownership. She said the legislation shouldn’t do anything to hamper lawful people from owning guns such as pistols or hunting rifles.
“It’s paranoia and for no good reason,” she said. “And yet the NRA is so effective of scaring people.”
Other advocates suggest the spike in pistol permit applications poses a potentially grim future, regardless of the reason New Yorkers are seeking them. Simply put, more gun owners means more gun violence, said Josh Sugarmann, the executive director of the Violence Policy Center of Washington D.C.
Sugarmann cited a recent analysis by his organization, which ranked New York as having the fifth lowest rates of gun deaths in the United States. The study, relying on data from the federal Centers for Disease Control, found only 18.1 percent of New York households own a gun.
“The risk that is presented here is that those who do go out and bring the gun home for the first time do increase the risk to themselves and their family for gun injury,” he said.