Health care professionals in Rockland and Westchester counties have named about 350 individuals as potentially dangerous -- and worth investigating -- to determine whether they possess gun permits that should be revoked under Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's landmark gun reform legislation, county officials said.
Few if any permits have been revoked in the two counties since the mental health provisions of the new gun law took effect on March 16, officials said.
The dearth of revocations stems in part from uncertainty on the part of judges, who in some cases are unclear how to go about revoking a permit, said David Bookstaver, a spokesman for the county court system.
Ultimately, gun permits are approved by county judges, in New York, and can be revoked by county judges. Cuomo has empaneled a task force to draft procedures for revocations under the new law -- there is a judge on the panel -- but the group has yet to report findings, Bookstaver said.
"There are issues that still need to be resolved to implement this new law," Bookstaver said.
According to Janine Kava, a spokeswoman for the State Division of Criminal Justice, the procedures for revocation of a gun license have not changed fundamentally under the new law. Kava said that the court that issues a gun license can still revoke the license at any time, if there is evidence an individual is dangerous.
"If they become aware that someone is mentally ill," Kava said in an email response to a question from Newsday, "then they have the ability to revoke/suspend someone's license. We are working with local officials across the state to ensure that they have the information they need."
INDENTIFYING THOSE 'LIKELY' TO HARM
Under the law, which Cuomo rammed through the Legislature in January -- a month after the tragic school shootings in Newtown, Conn. -- physicians, psychologists, social workers and registered nurses in New York must report to county mental health departments the names of patients "likely to engage in conduct that would result in serious harm to self or others."
Westchester County's Department of Community Mental Health has so far received 247 such referrals, said Donna Greene, a spokesman for County Executive Rob Astorino.
Rockland County's Mental Health Department has received about 100 referrals, said County Executive C. Scott Vanderhoef's spokesman, Ron Levine.
At a meeting of the Westchester Board of Legislators on May 7, Mental Health Commissioner Grant Mitchell said some of the referrals he has seen might be duplicates, occurring when more than one health professional sees signs of instability in the same individual.
Mitchell said he expects an increase in referrals in the future, because those received so far have come mostly from hospital emergency rooms and mental health clinics. Private practitioners have yet to begin reporting in earnest, Mitchell said.
He said his staff is still figuring out how best to process the referrals, which they were receiving at a clip of around 100 a month, he said.
Greene dwelt on the notion that the state has mandated the reporting system without funding it, a favorite theme of Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino. Astorino is a Republican and Cuomo, a Democrat.
"This is an unfunded mandate to us, even if it is an important initiative," Greene said. "We hadn't budgeted for it. So we are now figuring out a way to fund this, as it takes personnel to do it right."
Local mental health professionals say they are obeying the law, despite worries that the reports they file may not be strictly confidential. Also, they worry that the system may dissuade individuals in need from seeking treatment.
Polly Kerrigan, senior vice president of the nonprofit Family Services of Westchester, said that the reporting requirements will tend to produce inconsistent results.
"There's a randomness about who ends up on the list," Kerrigan said. "It's very much left to the discretion of the provider as to whether or not to report. One provider might be extremely cautious. Another might look at it differently."
The overwhelming majority of mentally ill people don't own firearms and aren't dangerous to themselves or others, said Sonia Wagner, executive vice president of the Mental Health Association of Rockland County.
Determining when behavior might necessitate a report to the state can be tricky, Wagner said, especially in light of counselors' respect for patient confidentiality.
"Having suicidal thoughts is quite common. Somebody simply having those thoughts would not necessarily trigger such a report," Wagner said. "We're very much interested in people's privacy, which is why I emphasize the high bar that would need to be crossed for such a report."
Even when a mental health care provider files a referral, it's not entirely clear how county and state officials should handle it.
After they receive referrals, county officials vet them and send the names to the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, Mitchell told lawmakers. The county has set aside very few referrals -- declining to pass them along to the state -- usually because the person filing the report doesn't qualify as a mental health provider, Mitchell said.
The division then moves the referrals to the State Police, who determine which individuals have gun permits, Kava said. If an individual has a gun permit, the State Police notify the county judge who issued the permit that a clinician has referred the person's name to the state.
The county judge then has discretion regarding whether to revoke the permit. While no official system has been established to process revocations, Booksaver predicted that most judges will eventually schedule hearings that allow permit holders to answer statements about them.
In Westchester County, only four pistol permits have been revoked since the law was enacted, said County Clerk Tim Idoni, who keeps records on gun permits. Idoni said he doesn't believe any of the revocations were related to the New York Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act.
Idoni emphasized he isn't critical of the legislation. He acknowledged, however, that the legislation was adopted rapidly, in the emotional days after the Newtown shooting.
The group Cuomo put together to establish a procedure for revocations needed to figure out a way to protect people's rights, while also making sure guns were kept out of the hands of those who might commit atrocities like the one in Connecticut, Idoni said.
"The bill was passed quickly and a lot of things need to be ironed out," said Idoni. "I am truly hopeful the task force comes through with streamlining the process and the protection of the innocent."