Long Island police report a surge in handgun applications this year, reflecting a nationwide trend.
Applications have risen 80% in Nassau County compared with all of 2019, and they’ve increased by 143% in Suffolk's five largest western towns, according to the counties’ police departments.
The move among some Long Islanders toward owning handguns began around March, when the coronavirus pandemic was peaking on the Island, and continued after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis sparked protests, according to experts.
"Because they were sheltered at home, they were concerned with protecting their premises, protecting their families," said Milton Grunwald, a Garden City attorney who helps clients obtain gun permits in both counties. He added that "there were many marches that were taking place, many demonstrations, that accounted for people wanting to have protection in their house."
In 2019, Nassau police processed 2,246 permit applications. By Oct. 31 this year, the number was 4,046. The figures for Suffolk were 2,338 applications last year and 5,690 as of Dec. 1, police said. Gun applications on the East End are also up, though less dramatically, and are handled by the Suffolk Sheriff’s Office.
In Suffolk's five East End towns, gun applications climbed from 296 last year to 414 so far this year as of Nov. 30, according to the sheriff.
Nationally, surveys have shown an increase in firearms sales and new gun registration. In one indicator, the FBI reported background checks for U.S. gun sales had reached an all-time high of 28 million already by this fall, compared with previous full years, peaking monthly in March at the start of the pandemic and again in June after the Floyd killing.
The May 25 killing of Floyd, a Black man who died after a white police officer held his knee on his neck, sparked demonstrations on Long Island and around the nation. While largely peaceful and multiracial, instances of violence occurred, including clashes between protesters and police in New York City. Protests on Long Island generated no reports of similar violence.
Suffolk Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart said the increase in gun applications reflects public perceptions that do not conform with the reality of the county’s record-low crime.
“It’s difficult to argue against perceptions that are going on, but the reality is that we certainly have driven down crime."Suffolk Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart
"We’re seeing the same numbers nationwide. Suffolk County’s not immune to those same concerns, whether it be COVID and sort of the stress and anxiety that comes along with that," Hart said. "And then, of course, the civil unrest that we’ve seen throughout the nation.
"It’s difficult to argue against perceptions that are going on," Hart continued. "But the reality is that we certainly have driven down crime, continue to drive down crime."
According to police data through September, overall crime in Suffolk had dropped 2.6% compared with the same period last year, with a drop of 11.8% in violent crime since 2019.
Similarly, this year in Nassau, major crimes have dropped by 7.3% from January to Oct. 31 compared with the same period last year, with reports for all crimes dropping by 18.9%.
Asked why gun permit applications have risen in Nassau, the police department said in a written statement that "the exact cause is unknown" but could include "an individual's right and desire to own a firearm, home protection, target practice, sport, recreation and gun clubs."
Waiting in line at the Suffolk Police headquarters in Yaphank to file a new permit application, Gilbert Visbal, 67, of Middle Island, said he had not been victimized by crime but was concerned about unrest he had seen on television.
"Want to be able to take care of ourselves if something happens," Visbal said. "A hammer or a baseball bat ain't going to be able to do it. I’m not giving up anything I have for anybody."
“ There’s been a level of unrest, and people get nervous about their security if police can’t get there in time.”Frank Melloni, owner of Renaissance Firearms Instruction
Frank Melloni, owner of Renaissance Firearms Instruction, a company that trains gun owners in proper techniques at the Nassau County Rifle and Pistol Range in Uniondale, said that many new gun owners feel that police protection may not be adequate for them.
"There’s been a level of unrest, and people get nervous about their security if police can’t get there in time," Melloni said.
Grunwald said, however, that the fears expressed by gun permit applicants may not always be justified.
"I personally have not seen instances or heard reports where either clients or friends of mine have been burglarized or someone has tried to invade their homes," he said. "I’m sure it happens. But I’m not sure that it’s a fear that has been actually realized by the events that we’ve seen out here."
“It really doesn’t carry water to say I’m going to go out and get a gun because of looting and protesting when those things are not happening on Long Island in a way that would impede the safety of other people."Jackie Burbridge, co-founder of Long Island United to Transform Policing & Community Safety
Those concerned with this new growth in handgun applications say public fears aren’t justified by the facts about crime.
"It really doesn’t carry water to say I’m going to go out and get a gun because of looting and protesting when those things are not happening on Long Island in a way that would impede the safety of other people," said Jackie Burbridge, a co-founder of Long Island United to Transform Policing & Community Safety, a nonprofit organization.
"All of the demonstrations about racial equality and racial equity have not led to widespread violence in Nassau or Suffolk counties. So to say you need a gun in order to protect yourself against that doesn’t make sense to me."
In New York State, a handgun license can encompass both pistols (in which one or more bullets are contained inside the gun), or a revolver (which can fire bullets from a revolving cylinder).
Police say the vast majority of applicants receive a "sportsman" license that allows use of a handgun or pistol for home protection, target shooting at firing ranges and lawful hunting. They estimate that about 10% of applicants receive a license to keep a gun on the premises of a business prone to robbery or to carry a gun while working for a state-licensed security company.
Applicants undergo background checks. Those with felony convictions are likely to be rejected, as are individuals with histories of domestic violence, mental illness or multiple traffic violations in a five-year period.
Nassau approved 1,643 handgun applications of the 2,246 it received in 2019.
Suffolk approved 1,935 out of 2,338.
Most handgun applications are approved. Last year in Nassau, of the total 2,246 applications, 1,643 were approved. In Suffolk last year, 1,935 handgun applications were approved out of a total 2,338. Hunting rifles and shotguns are overseen separately by government regulations.
"Your typical new gun owner of 2020 is really your every American," Melloni said. "Shooting sports and gun ownership know absolutely no boundaries across age, or race, or gender or creed."
While many worry about confrontations with criminals, some new applicants have other reasons for carrying a handgun. Carl Baxter, 56, lives in Centereach, but says he needs a handgun when he’s staying at a second home in upstate Delaware County.
"I’m in the middle of the woods, nowhere, and I have bears," Baxter said as he waited to file an application outside the Suffolk County police permit office. "They come on my deck. They get into my barbecue. And God forbid they get into the house, at least I can protect myself in the middle of the night. That’s the only reason why I need it."