Some of the most difficult-to-enforce provisions from the New York SAFE Act will soon come online. On this week’s edition of the Campbell Conversations, Grant Reeher talks with Oswego County Sheriff Reuel Todd, who recently joined a constitutional challenge to the law filed by the New York State Rifle and Pistol Association. Find out why the county’s top cop thinks the law misses its target, and why the controversies surrounding it are not going away any time soon.
Grant Reeher (GR): Welcome to the Campbell Conversations. My guest is Oswego County Sheriff Reuel Todd. He recently joined a lawsuit filed by the New York State Rifle and Pistol Association challenging the New York Safe Act. Sheriff Todd has held the Office since 1999. Sheriff Todd, welcome to the program.
Sheriff Todd (ST): Thank you very much for having me.
GR: Well, let’s start with the lawsuit I just mentioned. Can you briefly give me the gist of the Constitutionality Claim that is being made there?
ST: The Constitution as the way we understand it, and as the way I have always been led to believe, gives us the right to bear arms - the ordinary citizen. I’m not talking just law enforcement, but the ordinary citizen having not been convicted of a crime or for a reason of mental illness; have an ability to possess and keep a firearm.
And, we are challenging this because at this point in time there are many of those firearms that we believe the constitution gives us the right to have, have been taken away from us. Both right now as we are living, but some that they are going to confiscate from our families if we should pass. Again, like any heirloom, any item that you have that is property of yours you would like to be able to pass it along to family members or an estate or where ever it might be.
GR: You branched into a couple of things there that I would like to come back to in just a second. Let me stick with the case here for a second. What is its current status? Where are we now on it?
ST: Well, like in any other lawsuit, we’re in a limbo status of filing paperwork, the Amicus Briefs. A lot of this stuff does not require courtroom appearances for testimony. It is more of paperwork filed by attorneys and that’s where we are at. At some point in time, it will go either to an Appellate Court Judge and we will decide what the next step is from there on in.
GR: What do you think are the parts of the Safe Act that are the best parts? What makes the most sense and what’s the most reasonable to you?
ST: The background checks, obviously, are a real good item in there. Certainly, there is no objection from anyone in law enforcement to doing everything that we possibly can. We devoted our lifetime (most of us) to keeping people safe. And if someone doesn’t or shouldn’t own a long gun or a hand gun due to the criminal aspect, whether it be the mental health aspect, we are more than willing to look into that, to be part of that. We are not objecting to the cost of doing that even. We are certainly more than willing to try to protect people as best we can.
GR: I’m Grant Reeher and I’m speaking with Oswego County Sheriff Reuel Todd. We are talking about the New York Safe Act. One of the criticisms that I’ve heard frequently about this law is that it is not well matched to the main problems of gun violence in New York State. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that. Do you see this as one of its fundamental flaws?
ST: It certainly is. I mean, the majority of the crimes that are committed with hand guns, long gun weapons are illegal weapons. The weapons that we are talking about here are legally-owned, registered weapons. Nobody has a problem with it. I think New York City said it was like in a 90 – 95 % percentile of the shootings in a hand gun--same way in Syracuse--are illegal weapons.
What we are wrestling with here is there is nothing in the Safe Act that covers illegal weapons. It’s always coming back on the innocent person, the law-abiding person. We don’t have any objections to the fact of the locked gun part if it is available to kids or to other people in your household. We have no objection to this.
The ten rounds--it used to be seven--they have increased it to ten rounds. Why should a criminal have the availability of fourteen, thirty-six, fifty round clips and the people that want to protect their own self or their home from invasions which we have had more and more home invasions and a lot of it obviously is the drug trade and that type of stuff; but why should the innocent people always be out gunned or out-manned by the non-law abiding sector of our society?
GR: And the law obviously brings up big issues regarding enforcement and compliance. Some Sheriffs have said (not you, but some) that they are not going to enforce parts of the law such as releasing the names of pistol permit holders who have not opted out already. What’s your view on that particular approach?
ST: Well, again, the issue then becomes if we release the names and addresses and what pistols and what weaponry I have at my house and you have at your house would when someone wants a, I refer to it as a Thursday, Friday, Sunday papers full of ads to go shopping, when you do your weekend shopping. If someone has initiative and wants an AK-47 or an AR-15 or a Tec-9 pistol – are they going to go to someone’s house where they don’t know if there is one? So they go through the shopping list that I call it and say, “Uh, let’s see. Who in our neighborhood has one of these weapons that I can have or get a good price for if I steal?”
I’m against putting a shopping list out there to, as I say, the bad element in our society that shouldn’t be out there. I mean why would you? You wouldn’t put out a shopping list that says your wife has a 2 carat diamond ring. Because in today’s society and the way the economy is, there is someone who may want to take a chance. It’s so easy now to tell that there is so much on Facebook and Twitter or all these different accounts as to when you’re home or when you’re not home or where you’re working or all that other stuff. Why would we create a shopping list for weapons for the bad element of our society?
GR: So, let me make sure that I understand you. Then you’re saying then that you are not going to release that or are you saying that?
ST: I’m not saying that at all because I don’t control it. That is the county clerk’s job. I just do the background checks; the county clerk does a registry here. There are some areas where the Sheriff does it; there are some areas a clerk. Now, there is and a clerks association has come out against it. And again, my understanding of the law is if you don’t have that list you don’t have to prepare one. So, I mean, there are a lot of issues. If someone foils, under the foil Law, if that issue is not readily available you don’t have to produce it. There is no county that I know of in the State that has such a list and I don’t believe that right now while we are waiting for the lawsuit there are going to be any lists prepared any place in the State. But again, I cannot speak for the clerks.
GR: In case you have just joined us, you are listening to the Campbell Conversations and my guest is Oswego Country Sheriff Reuel Todd. We were talking about enforcement before and there is a lot of discretion in law enforcement. It starts with what happens on the street. The decisions of cops and deputies, as far as what they are going to arrest people for or what they might not pursue on up to where an entire department decides it’s going to place its efforts here as opposed to here.
So, how do you think that is going to play out in terms of this law – are there certain areas that the law covers that are going to get (shall we say) less active attention by law enforcement personnel?
ST: I would say that that would probably be correct just as it is in every other law that there is on the books. When you go to the V&T Law, the vehicle and traffic law; if you see somebody that is going 95 mile an hour down 481 is probably going to get much more attention than the guy that has the taillight out.
At say midnight, the guy that is swerving all over the highway or the guy that might be doing 70. The guy swerving all over the place is going to get more attention. Are there certain aspects, and again, you used the word discretion. And you’re right. When we pull somebody over for a V&T, we have the discretion to write them a ticket or give them a warning. And, I think the law, if the law didn’t mean for us to use discretion it wouldn’t have allowed it. It would have said that every time you pull somebody over you write a ticket. And every time you arrest somebody. We have the discretion sometimes on larceny whether to charge them with burglary or larceny.
There are all aspects to those law that have been put out there by the State and Federal government that allows us, like you said, the discretion and to make our own. Are we going to look and see what we feel is most important right now in a certain situation as to what we have to do? Certainly! That is law enforcement. There are so many town, village, city, county, state and federal laws out there that we don’t have time to really enforce and go out and research every single one of them and enforce them all.
GR: And I was curious about the Gun Owner, the citizen aspect of this. What parts of the law would you anticipate are going to get the highest levels on non-compliance from otherwise law-abiding citizens?
ST: The registry of the guns themselves. Right now, the State and Federal government have no idea how many AR-15’s are out there because they were not registered before. And if you are going to have it taken from you or your estate, would you register it?
I think that is one of the big things that a lot of you sportsmen want to be able to abide by the law. They don’t want to be a law breaker; they have never done that in their whole life. But you’re forcing some of these people to become a law breaker. And, I don’t have an AK-47, I don’t have an AR-15, I just never had any interest in it so it can’t be said that I’m doing this because for that reason
I might have one pistol that I think would be (as they tell me) confiscated; now, I just don’t understand the rationale of confiscating. This is the United States and our Constitution says we are a free country and this is one of the big issues - that they have the right to confiscate any part of your house, your car, and your possessions if you haven’t broken the law.
GR: In case you have just joined us, you’re listening to the Campbell Conversations and my guest is Oswego County Sheriff Reuel Todd. You mentioned something at the outset about the number of pistol permit applications going through the roof and I wanted to come back to that because there is another related issue for the success of this law which is the ability of the localities and the State in processing all the paperwork that it is going to generate and then doing the record keeping that it requires. And, presumably doing something with those records. Do you think that the existing structure is up to the task that the law has at hand?
ST: Well, I have had to dedicate one of the clerks in my office to almost doing nothing but pistol permit backgrounds because it has increased so much. We had, a while ago, an application from an 86 year old lady who never had one in her 86 years but now this year she deemed that she needed a pistol permit because the constitution allowed her to and she is going to get one. And you know, its rate from the time now to become old enough to get a pistol permit that they are making out the applications, there is four references that we have to do the background checks and make sure that their records are clean and whether they have answered questions correctly and everything else is just down at the clerk’s office. I know how much that has increased, I mean they have stacks of them down there and from there on they have to go to the judge. So you’re talking three offices right here in Oswego County that have had their workload increased by five times. You can’t tell me that is not a cost effort to the county.
GR: Well, this may be getting a bit into the weeds of the law but one of the things that struck me as I read through it that I thought would be a real challenge is the provision that gun dealers and presumable somewhere in the state has to keep track of all this, their ability to deal with doing background checks for each purchase of ammunition which to my understanding is that is going to come into effect on January 1, 2014. So if I understand that correctly, something going down to the local Dick’s or the Gander Mountain and getting the box of 50 .22 long rifle cartridges, that’s going to be a background check in addition to buying a gun. Is that correct, and how is that going to work logistically?
ST: Well again, it’s going to fall under the Brady Bill part of it where when you went down there to buy a gun you had to get a coupon and now you’re going to have to produce identification. You’re going to have to do the check if you’ve been arrested or in mental health for (like you say) buying a box of .22’s. Have you seen the cost increase and what a box of .22’s used to cost as compared to what it cost now? It has gone up about tenfold. And you can’t get them. I mean people are stock piling ammunition right now just because they are afraid that there are rumors out there that the government is buying it all up you know. I’ll be honest with you even before this because of Afghanistan we were having trouble getting ammunition
We get it on state bid price, the government paid a good price for it because they always do. And to supply our soldiers, absolutely, they should have first choice. We were backlogged two years just getting ammunition and it is just as bad now. When we pulled back from Afghanistan and Iraq, it’s just as hard to get ammunition. Why? Because people are hoarding it. So, what have we gained?
Now you are going to have this huge amount of ammunition in people’s houses that they have to fire if they have a break in and again, who’s going to end up with it? It’s going to be the bad element of our society. Not the people who would maybe go out and buy a hundred rounds of .22 to go out shooting at a tin can like they used to or go out to a range, skeet shooters, all those stuff. The problem it is creating is all for the legitimate people that have a legitimate right to it. That’s not interfering at all, I don’t think, with the criminal element up until over the last 20 years. Gun homicide ratings have gone down 49% in 20 years. That didn’t happen you know 49% after the Safe Gun Act. It happened less than nineteen years before this. It has gone down 49%. Why are we penalizing the honest gun owners?
GR: You brought this up before, in your story about the inability to find ammunition now, there’s another instance of it. But it is the question of an unanticipated or an unintended consequence of this. It does seem like one of these things that has happened on the ground in New York State since this has come into effect. There’s a buying frenzy, first for the guns themselves as I understand based on what you’ve said and now the ammunition. So, as a law enforcement officer this does not worry you. What we have done in part, at least in the short-term, raised the number of guns that people have.
ST: It absolutely has, and again the issue now becomes you could go out of state and buy this ammunition that you can’t buy here. So now the people and the gun stores that pay taxes and do business here in New York State and there are certain gun companies that have refused to do business with New York State because of the new regulations.
You could go out, say, to Ohio and if you’re out there instead of buying locally you’re buying in Ohio and bringing it back. There is nothing that prohibits us from doing that. So, who are we hurting? We are hurting our local economy, hurting our people that, again, just want to abide by the law. None of these people that I know of liked to instinctively go out and just break the law because this is a new law. I think they would all be willing to work with the government if there were some changes that need to be made and if those changes were made I think you could do away with crime 90 % or better of the opposition.
GR: What’s your sense of the long term prospects of this law, assuming for the moment that it does not get overturned? That it is not found to be unconstitutional. Do you think in the long term people are just going to get used to it or do you think it is going to be the sticking point for gun owners for years and years and years.
ST: I think it is going to be the sticking point until it is changed somewhere. I thought that probably for the first six months that it was brought out it would start to die away. It is getting stronger, I am getting more requests now to go and speak to people and to organizations. I see more and more signs and I did in the first six months, they are all over the State from North of the Hudson, right on up here. North of New York City there are signs breaking out companies, different signs and one of the ones I see up North is “Had enough yet people?” Again, I think getting regulated more now as a free country than they are in a lot of countries that are not as per se free as we are.
GR: Let me get to the three questions at the end. First, what is the title of the chapter of life you’re currently living?
ST: The title, I’d have to say I guess to be about the Twilight of my life. It’s funny, a guy says to me the other day complaining about getting old and the guy looks to me, “Don’t worry about it, it doesn’t last long”. (Laughs)
And I say; well, now you know if you think about it, you’re probably right. I have a few more years I think I would like to be Sheriff and then I’d probably retire. It’s been a great career, it’s been a great life and I would have to say that after forty-some years in law enforcement I am finally in my twilight. It’s not quite dark yet but it is getting there.
GR: Second, what’s your worst trait?
ST: I have (Probably) I speak my mind more than where I could sometimes keep quiet and not get involved in something. I do tend to speak my mind and stick up for the underdog; I always root for the underdog, other than the Red Sox and Yankees. The rest of the time I am pretty much with the underdog.
GR: And finally, what professional or creative achievement in your life so far has surprised you the most?
ST: Being able to be, again, not just elected once but the four times that I have been elected Sheriff in my professional career. The promotions that I went through almost every office in the department. It’s a career that I set out to be and it is just to me, it’s been everything I wanted it to be. And to be able to do that, there is very few people I think that could step back and say if I have to live my life again I would do it all over again and I would in a heartbeat.