Biaggi bill closes gun data loophole for police

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Gov. Andrew Cuomo has signed a bill into law aimed to make law enforcement and first responders safer when responding to emergency calls.

The bill — introduced by state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi — is designed to enhance existing gun control laws, including one Cuomo once hailed as the toughest legislation on guns in the nation. While it might be tough, a Pelham-based grassroots group informed the senator something was missing.

“What was happening is that Pelham’s police officers were not able to get access to any of the gun ownership data that the county of Westchester had,” Biaggi said.

The 2013 Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act, sponsored by Biaggi’s predecessor Jeffrey Klein, was the legislature’s response to mass shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, and the Rochester suburb of Webster in late 2012.

That bill raced through both the Assembly and senate in the opening days of the 2013 legislative session. Cuomo signed the bill into law less than an hour after the final vote.

The SAFE Act created a statewide database of licensed gun owners, maintained by the New York State Police. While the database gave statewide law enforcement a quick way to check someone’s firearm permits, the law also provided gun owners the option to request their information be exempt from public disclosure.

It was good for state police, but not for local law enforcement who didn’t have access to that information. Biaggi and Assemblywoman Amy Paulin introduced legislation adding local police to SAFE, giving them access to the entire database.

Paulin, a Westchester Democrat, has favored several gun control bills in the past, like one prohibiting “straw” purchases of guns and ammunition — buying for someone else who isn’t legally allowed to own either.

Under the original SAFE Act, local police responding to a late evening call couldn’t quickly look to see if someone at the location they were going to possessed gun permits. That information was available only during business hours, and only one name could be searched at a time.

Not having immediate access left officers and paramedics responding to 911 calls vulnerable, Biaggi said, because they didn’t know whether someone involved could potentially be armed. First responders show up not knowing if they could be staring down the barrel of a gun at any moment.

“Ensuring they know what kind of scenario they’re entering when responding to a call is of upmost importance to their safety,” Biaggi said.

Not knowing is especially dangerous for officers responding to domestic violence calls. Tempers are running high and violence often has already occurred. Even more dangerous, the senator added, is that there could be firearms within someone’s reach, and neither the police nor the paramedics would even know.

The change also is important, Biaggi said, because another major part of the SAFE Act — creation of a database to track purchase of ammunition in real time — never happened. Current background checking systems don’t have the infrastructure in place to include ammo purchases, and the state has grappled with the best way to combine the two information streams.

Senate majority leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins publicly criticized Cuomo last month for failing to fund a solution, leaving a major part of the 2013 legislation simply an idea instead of a law enforcement tool.

“Money has not been put toward doing this or building it out or prioritizing it,” Biaggi said. “Because of that, we are in a situation where local law enforcement has been left out of the equation.”

As for the law enforcement community, Biaggi said she’s heard little feedback — positive or negative — about the bill. And not much has been said overall.

“The NYPD supports legislation aimed at reducing gun violence and keeping our officers safe,” New York Police Department spokeswoman Sgt. Mary Frances O’Donnell told The Riverdale Press in a statement.

Biaggi said she focused so closely on criminal justice reform during her campaign. But as the granddaughter of a police officer who was seriously injured in the line of duty 10 times, the senator says she knows how important the lives and safety of law enforcement officers are.

“I think this is the right thing to do,” Biaggi said. “Whether or not I hear from any particular law enforcement official or agency doesn’t matter to me. “What matters to me is that officers are safe and we’re doing the right thing at the state level.”

 

CORRECTION: Assemblywoman Amy Paulin is a Democrat based out of Westchester County. A story in the Sept. 12 edition identified her base from a different geographic location.