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Long IslandCrime

Applications for handgun permits soar in Suffolk

Pistol permit applicants wait in line in Yaphank

Pistol permit applicants wait in line in Yaphank at Suffolk County Police Headquarters, which licenses gun owners. (Feb. 19, 2013) Credit: Johnny Milano

Suffolk County is witnessing an almost 30 percent spike of people seeking to own firearms, according to newly released police figures that mirror a trend across the state and nation.

Fears of imminent new gun-control laws, fueled by mass shootings, are driving the increase, experts and the applicants themselves say.

The number of new applications for pistol permits rose to 2,606 from 2,035 between 2011 and last year, Suffolk County Police Department officials said.

While the number of new applications for a license in Nassau stayed virtually level last year, it issued in January alone a record 1,140 permission slips, an additional step that must be completed before each restricted firearm purchase.

Owning a long gun, such as a shotgun and rifle, requires neither a license nor a permission slip.

The number of these slips -- called purchase documents -- issued by Suffolk in 2012 was 5,764. That's 14 percent higher than 2011's number of 5,043. The monthly totals in December 2012 and January 2013 -- 749 and 947, respectively -- were by far the highest in the 37-month period that Suffolk police were able to provide Newsday.

"Because of the high-profile shooting incidents and expectation among some people that the license laws may get more restrictive, there seems to be more people putting in for licenses," said Capt. William Read, commanding officer of Suffolk's Pistol Licensing Bureau, which had 33,379 licensees owning 96,783 regulated firearms, as of Feb. 8.


1,597 new licensees

Read oversees about two dozen personnel who are processing the glut of applicants, whom they subject to criminal, psychological and character-fitness checks before issuing the permits. In 2012, Suffolk approved 1,597 new licensees, a figure that because of the lag time between application and approval, includes some applicants from 2012 as well as some from 2011.

Sal Voccia, 70, is a lifelong member of the National Rifle Association and owner of a Ruger .357 and Colt .45. He went Tuesday to the bureau's office in Yaphank with his wife, Carol, to renew his permit, a process holders must repeat every five years.

"I'm always worried that they may stop it some day, especially with the new laws that are coming into effect," said Voccia, of Miller Place, a retired heavy equipment operator. "And it's nice to have it for home protection, with the world today, you never know."

In previous years, the number of new applicants in Suffolk had stayed fairly steady, rising and falling only slightly. For example, between 2009 and 2010, the number of applicants went up just 3 percent; the next year, from 2010 to 2011, the number actually dropped, by 4 percent.

Suffolk totals reflect permit applications processed by the Suffolk County Police Department. They do not include any applications processed by the Suffolk County Sheriff's Office, which handles the five East End towns.

In Nassau, the number stayed relatively constant between 2011 and last year: it dipped by 0.6 percent, to 962 from 968. The county police department's spokesman, Insp. Kenneth Lack, said the department has about 28,000 licensees but because of a computer software switch-over couldn't readily provide the number of pistols those licensees own.


More background checks

During the last two months, the number of firearm background checks that the FBI conducted for New York State -- 43,752 in January and 48,320 in December -- were the state's highest monthly totals since the FBI's system began, in November 1998. Firearms dealers run the checks before a sale.

The headlines of 2012 were dominated with news of one murderous shooting rampage after another: In July, 12 dead at an Aurora, Colo., theater showing the latest Batman movie; in August, six dead at an Oak Creek, Wis., Sikh temple; in December, 26 dead at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school -- including 20 children.

It's news about these and other shootings that stoke fear in some people of a more hostile political climate toward gun rights, experts say.

"I think a lot of people are afraid of the threat that Obama poses for their ability to defend themselves and their families," said John Lott, a Fox News contributor and author of "More Guns, Less Crime: Understanding Crime and Gun-Control Laws."

He notes that the number of FBI background checks, an indicator of gun purchases, jumped nationally: to 19 million in 2012, from about 16 million the year before. The 2012 number is the highest in recent memory.

"I'm not surprised to see that there's a huge spike," said Adam Winkler, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and an expert in the U.S. Constitution's Second Amendment.

Indeed, in the aftermath of the Newtown school shooting, President Barack Obama vowed to push for legislation limiting gun rights. Earlier this year, Obama unveiled his gun-control agenda, which includes universal background checks as well as bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.


NY gun-control law signed

Locally, New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo last month quickly signed the country's first state-level gun-control law passed following the Newtown shooting. The New York law, among other provisions, expands an assault-weapons ban, seeks to keep guns away from the mentally ill and boosts penalties for gun crimes.

But such crackdowns can have initially disappointing consequences for gun-control supporters, said Winkler, author of "Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America."

"This is one of the ironies of gun control, effectively, is that the laws tend to lead to more guns being purchased. Gun enthusiasts worry that new laws are going to be put in place that limit their access to guns so they go out and get the guns now before those new laws are enacted," he said.

And, he said, the benefits of some gun-control legislation might not be seen for decades as people buy more guns.

"Once they're purchased, they're in civilian hands, and there's nothing anyone can do about it," he said. "It's just one of the things that gun-control advocates must remember, is that they're playing the long game."

Fear of greater gun control rippled through the pistol-permit line Tuesday afternoon outside Room 101, the office of the Pistol Licensing Bureau at Suffolk police headquarters. A half dozen of them spoke of varying personal reasons for wanting to be licensed: hunting, self-protection, exercising their constitutional rights.


Worry about eroding rights

Eric Seifert, 60, of East Northport, carried a firearm lockbox as he renewed his permit and pondered the future of gun rights.

"Where do you draw the line? Where's that trajectory happening? That's what people are worried about. The Second Amendment rights," he said. "You erode it slowly, slowly, until there's nothing left."

Roy Persaud, 69, of Huntington, and his daughter Dr. Aretha Persaud-Mancusi, 40, a general practice physician based in Melville, made back-to-back appointments to become pistol licensees.

"As things become desperate, more people are on the unemployment line, more illegal people are coming in here, and if they don't have jobs, how will they get by? Then they will try desperate things. And who knows? The innocent might get harmed. So as a means of protecting myself and my wife, this is one of the means," Persaud said.

His daughter said she wants a pistol permit so she knows how to use, if necessary, the firearm that her husband, a Suffolk police detective, keeps in the house. And though she says she supports much of Cuomo's new law, the prospect of new restrictions factored into her decision as well.

"I'm sure stricter gun laws are going to come down the pike," she said.

Her ideal gun?

"Probably just something small for the home -- like a small pistol."

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