A local legislator is hoping to put a dent in local gun violence statistics by requiring all gun owners securely lock up their guns at home.
Rep. Ernest Flagler-Mitchell of the Monroe County Legislature is pushing a bill to require gun owners to lock up their guns at home. The bill would mandate that all gun owners securely lock up their guns, using a locking device or safe that requires a key or combination to be opened. Flagler-Mitchell hopes the extra steps can keep guns from being misused or stolen.
“The most important duty of the Monroe County Legislature is to protect the lives and health of the citizens of Monroe County,” states the bill. “Making it more difficult for violent criminals to get access to firearms should be a priority of this body.”
There are similar laws in most large cities across the state, including Rochester, and Albany recently enacted its own version in January. Although a statewide bill passed the Assembly, it stalled in the State Senate; however, advocates believe the growing momentum at the city and county level could boost the bill’s popularity and chances in future legislative sessions.
Advocates state safe storage bills could reduce injuries among youth and suicide rates. Dr. Ann Brayer of the Injury Free Coalition for Kids said she sees about 40 youth annually seeking treatment for gunshot wounds. And the Brady Campaign estimates about 48 children and teens are shot every day nationwide- seven of which die. The Center for Disease Control stated 33,636 people died from firearm injuries in 2013, accounting for about 17 percent of all injury deaths, which also include poisoning, falling and car accidents.
Flagler-Mitchell has been trying to push the bill at the county level since last year. He lost a cousin, Herbert Thomas, in a mid-September shooting where six were injured and another person died. However, the bill was placed on the back burner due to a lack of public input. Now, Flagler-Mitchell is going neighborhood to neighborhood, raising awareness, seeking support for and listening to criticism against the bill.
He said when he first began speaking to the community, there was less support. However, he blames most of this on the lack of knowledge about the bill and “propaganda from certain groups” who scare people into believing the government is trying to take their guns.
“When I first put it in, I was getting tore up,” he said, “They were wearing me out. But there’s been a lot more support especially when people hear it’s a common sense gun law that people are already doing. The biggest question I get is, ‘Why if I already secure my gun, do I have to have a law?’ Because there are people not securing their gun.”
“We’re not trying to take your guns,” he added. “But people are losing their lives out here. 60 percent of guns, when confiscated, are owned by registered gun owners, but only 15 percent are reported stolen. Many people lost their lives out here because some gun owners didn’t speak up.”
Gary Pudup, with New Yorkers Against Gun Violence said the organization supports Flagler-Mitchell’s bill and also a similar state bill.
“One of the reasons we support Ernest’s legislation is that the leading source of firearms that are used in these cases are guns lost or stolen,” he said. “In the past we thought it was the iron pipeline- people bringing them in from the south or Vermont where there’s very, very loose gun laws, but that’s not totally the case.”
But critics argue the bill would punish responsible gun owners.
“You can steal a whole safe,” said Paul Sorreno, an Irondequoit resident who said he’s staunchly against the bill. He pointed to the Boys & Girls Club shooting that took place in August last year, where thieves returned to a gun owners’ home to steal the safe when the first visit didn’t prove fruitful. “It’s just blaming gun owners for others’ issues. And nothing is going to change no matter how many rules you gives us because we’re not the ones breaking them- they are. They’re the ones breaking into our homes and stealing our guns. It’s not like we want them stolen.”
Some, like Margaret Newman of Perinton, also believe that acquiescing here would lead to further restrictions on gun ownership. She said she owns two handguns and doesn’t want them eventually taken away.
“What’s next?” she asked. “When the safes don’t work because they just steal those too, are we going to have to create a city gun locker, where I have to go and sign out my gun? It’s just ridiculous and not what our Founding Fathers wanted.”
She added, “This bill does nothing to actually stop them from stealing, it just punishes us if they do and if that’s not an example of just another feel-good gun law, I don’t know what is.”
Just 15 percent of stolen guns are reported, according to Flagler-Mitchell. He said he doesn’t believe it’s simply locals stealing the guns and then using them in crimes (although this is allegedly the process in the mass shooting at the Boys & Girls club) but that some are actually being sold on the black market. The guns go through many hands, making them even harder to trace.
“Why don’t they report it?,” asked Flagler-Mitchell. “Me, personally, I believe that it’s deeper than just the guns get stolen. Some people are stealing them and trading them in for drugs. It’s not the people in the neighborhood stealing them. That’s coming from somewhere else. It’s the black market out there as well.”
“They just don’t check on their guns all the time,” added Pudup on gun owners. “And what they might be afraid to say is that they suspect somebody in their family. If they suspect their son took it into the city to sell for drugs or whatever they’re not going to report it because they don’t want their kid to get in trouble or risk a judge revoking their pistol permit. However, it’s still irresponsible to the rest of the community and puts others in danger.”
Although reporting a gun doesn’t make it 100 percent easier to find, it gets authorities moving faster on tracing it before it goes too far, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence and also roots out bad owners.
“Reporting laws put law enforcement on notice of individuals who repeatedly: (1) fail to file reports yet claim that their guns were lost or stolen after they are recovered from a crime scene; or (2) report their guns lost or stolen, indicating that the person may be trafficking firearms,” according to their website.
However, like most similar laws enacted across the state, the bill doesn’t allow city officials to enter gun owners’ homes and check that they’re locking them up or the quality of the locking devices or safes they’re using. Instead, it assumes most owners are locking up their guns and only gets involved once these guns are proven not to be- whether they’re used in a crime and traced back to the owner or found in a public space.
To hold owners accountable, the first time someone violates the law, they are educated about proper storage. If it happens again, they will be fined $1,000 or spend up to 14 days in jail. If it happens a third time, they’re fined $5,000 or imprisoned up to a year.
The goal is to also make a dent in owners who may be aiding in trafficking and to demand more accountability.
“A gun in the wrong hands is a weapon of mass destruction,” said Flagler-Mitchell. “Probably 90 percent of owners are responsible gun owners.” And, he continued, we don’t want to punish responsible gun owners and since 90 percent of owners are already responsible, nothing will change for most gun owners under the new law.