Pro-gun county 'sanctuary' proposal stalls again

Otsego County Rep. Daniel Wilber speaks during an online meeting of the county board’s Public Safety and Legal Affairs Committee. The screenshot was taken from a Facebook Live broadcast of the meeting.

 A proposal to make Otsego County a “sanctuary” against laws that regulate guns got shelved again Thursday, Dec. 10.

The Public Safety and Legal Affairs Committee of Otsego County’s Board of Representatives heard legal opinions, personal opinions and legislative concerns about a proposal that stemmed from a petition by a group seeking sanctuary from state guns laws they argue are unconstitutional.

The meeting was held via Zoom because of the coronavirus pandemic and can be viewed on the county’s Facebook page.

Rep. Rick Brockway, R-Laurens, Otego, presented that petition to the full Board of Representatives in October, and the motion has sat in committee since then. The petition had more than 3,200 signatures and came from a group with more than 6,000 members, Brockway said.

However, after hearing a legal opinion from County Attorney Ellen Coccoma, Wilber sought further guidance from District Attorney John Muehl and Sheriff Richard Devlin Jr.

Devlin, after a contentious argument over staffing with the committee Thursday, told Wilber he had seen an email and had a brief conversation with Muehl, but was late for another meeting. He said he hadn’t had much time to think about the issue and resented being given 24 hours to respond when the committee had been looking at the issue for months.

Coccoma said the petition was probably too broad, since it seemed to seek sanctuaries from all laws regulating guns, including some criminal statutes. She said the county legislature has no power to decide if state or federal law is constitutional or not and must support the enforcement of the law as written. But it is really the district attorney and sheriff who enforce the law and the county’s control of those officials is limited by design.

In addition, Coccoma said if the petition is a response to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s SAFE ACT, which was enacted in 2013, the courts have already weighed in on it. New York’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, ruled a small part of the act unconstitutional, but allowed a broad part of the law to stand. The United States Supreme Court declined to get involved in the case, effectively agreeing the provisions did not violate the Second Amendment, she said.

Wilber said he does not usually like resolutions of opinion, but would allow one if the committee or group wanted to push it. Several representatives pointed out the county board has already passed a resolution against the SAFE ACT.

Wilber also said he is a hunter, a proud, legal gun owner and a supporter of the Second Amendment and all other U.S. Amendments to the Constitution. However, he said, he was leery of violating his oath of office by suggesting county residents do not have to follow the laws.

Rep. Andrew Stammel, D-town of Oneonta, who is a lawyer, said constitutional law is complicated, but “what is clear is that not every regulation of speech would violate the First Amendment and not every regulation of gun ownership violates the Second Amendment.

“We on the county board are not in the position to determine what is constitutional and what’s not,” he continued. “We have an obligation to uphold the law. Then the courts in the state of New York and the federal courts determine what is constitutional and what is not constitutional.”

Brockway said he was not involved in writing the petition, but he would relay the conversation to the group and see if they wanted to revise their proposals.

Wilber said he would give everyone some time to give their opinions and revisions and would not bring the matter up until at least February. He added “if I am still here,” and then indicated he meant as PSLA chair. Board reorganization will be done in January.

Rep. Andrew Marietta, D-town of Otsego, said he thought the issue could wait until the pandemic was over and county residents could comment in person at a hearing about the idea.

“I know I have heard from dozens of my constituents about this,” he said, and on that point, the representatives all seemed to agree.

Greg Klein, staff writer, can be reached at gklein@thedailystar.com or 607-441-7218.

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