Firearms Policy Shifts Beneath Our Feet, Locally and Across the Nation

From Capitol Hill to Albany to the meeting room at Riverhead Town Hall, this proved a busy week for gun policy in America and in our backyards.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s strike-down of New York’s Concealed Carry law on Thursday is perhaps the action most likely to impact us here, overturning a law on the books in New York since 1911 that required licenses for any firearm small enough to be concealed, and requiring that permit-holders show “proper cause” for their need to defend themselves.

While the U.S. Congress continued to fine-tune a bipartisan gun safety bill, closer to home Riverhead residents turned out in force for a June 21 public hearing on where gun shops and firing ranges can be located in town, after widespread concern over a new gun shop proposed there by a company fronted by a man who had for half a decade published a blog espousing white supremacist ideology, according to reporting by RiverheadLocal.

Playing Politics with Bullets

East End Congressman Lee Zeldin, who is the front-runner for the Republican nomination to run for Governor of New York after a primary next Tuesday, has long been an opponent of New York’s concealed carry law, and had been working for years in Congress on a concealed carry-reciprocity bill that would allow people who hold concealed carry permits in other states to carry their firearms in New York, even if those permits have less stringent requirements.

“The Supreme Court’s decision marks a historic, proper, and necessary victory for law abiding citizens of New York, whose Second Amendment rights have been under constant attack,” said Mr. Zeldin in a statement Thursday. “It reaffirms their inherent right to safely and securely carry to protect themselves, their families and their loved ones, and the principle that this Constitutional right shall not be infringed.” 

Congressman Zeldin had signed onto the amicus brief in support of the New York State Rifle and Pistol Association case before the Supreme Court.

But current New York Governor Kathy Hochul, who earlier in June gave her full backing to a series of gun safety provisions adopted by the state and is the Democratic frontrunner in next Tuesday’s primary, was having none of it.

“:Does everyone understand what a concealed weapon means? That you have no forewarning that someone can hide a weapon on them and go into our subways, go into our grocery stores like stores up in Buffalo, New York, where I’m from, go into a school in Parkland or Uvalde,” she said in an address from Albany Thursday. “This could place millions of New Yorkers in harm’s way. And this is at a time when we’re still mourning the loss of lives, as I just mentioned. This decision, isn’t just reckless, it’s reprehensible. It’s not what New Yorkers want. We should have the right of determination of what we want to do in terms of our gun laws in our state.”

“I’m prepared to call the legislature back into session to deal with this,” she added. “We are not powerless in this situation. We’re not going to cede our rights that easily. Despite the best efforts of the politicized Supreme Court of the United States of America, we have the power of the pen.”

Northwell Health, which runs the Center for Gun Violence Prevention in New York, also weighed in on the weeks events.

“I applaud the Senate’s bipartisan agreement reached Tuesday on a compromise bill that I believe will help curb the rising tide of gun violence in this country,” said Northwell Health President Michael Dowling. “While the legislation does not go as far as we’d like, it’s the most significant improvement to our nation’s gun laws since the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act was approved in 1993.”

“Despite the good news on the legislative front, I’m troubled by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision today to strike down the common-sense limits that New York State places on carrying guns in public,” he added. “Undercutting efforts by states and cities to craft their own gun laws will only exacerbate the surge in shootings we’ve seen in recent years. I strongly agree with Governor Hochul that this was a reckless and reprehensible decision.  I look forward to the work that she and our legislative leaders are now undertaking to determine New York’s best, most effective response. Northwell Health stands ready to support these efforts in whatever ways are necessary.”

The site of the proposed shooting range on Elton Street in Riverhead.

Ball of Confusion in Riverhead

Meanwhile, in downtown Riverhead, the potential redevelopers of a former industrial property at 680 Elton Street, Niosi Firearms Development, have come under much recent scrutiny over their plans to open a shooting range and gun shop at that location. In recent weeks, several firearms were reported stolen from the property, which has not yet received approval to become a gun shop, and RiverheadLocal did some digging to find the principal in that company, Anthony Niosi, was the author for several years of a blog, spqr.today, that espoused white supremacist ideology and was fundraising for the legal defense of a member of The Proud Boys.

The Riverhead Town Code is currently silent on where gun shops and firing ranges can be located. The proposed local law up for public hearing June 21 ( which can be found at the end of this document) allowed firing ranges in four zoning districts — Commercial Residential Campus (which is the zoning of the Niosi property), Planned Industrial Park, Industrial C and Industrial B Zoning Use Districts. It would allow firearms sales in two other zoning districts — Business Center and Shopping Center.

“No one on this board created this resolution,” said Town Supervisor Yvette Aguiar as she introduced the public hearing.

“I’m not quite sure where this legislation came from,” added Councilman Ken Rothwell. “I don’t know that anyone on this board put this together. Overall, we should leave gun legislation up to the federal government. This is an emotional thing, and on a national level is the appropriate place to address it. I think this should come down to mental health.”

His comments regarding mental health were met with grumbling from the packed meeting room.

Deputy Town Attorney Erik Howard said the draft local law came about after a work session at which the town board decided that “in furtherance of preserving tourism, and the retail uses we want downtown, family-friendly walking traffic, we wanted to put something into our code to define what a firearm use was and regulate where exactly that would go.”

“That was funny language,” said resident John McAuliff of the board members’ caveats. “I didn’t know that legislation could come down from the sky and drop down on your agenda.”

“If you think we can say that this should only be guided by federal legislation, when at the federal level they’re not even raising the age to own the modern equivalent of a machine gun, we need to be concerned about what we can do with our own community,” he added.

Joseph Oliver, an EMS volunteer who has been involved with gun safety and mass casualty drills, said he’d been planning to open a gun shop at another location on Main Street, which he said he would be unable to do if this legislation passed.

“I’m licensed. Never once would I consider pulling my gun out,” he said. “Nothing is perfect. These terrible monsters that commit these crimes need to be dealt with.”

Ryan Horn from Sag Harbor, who holds licenses as a firearms dealer and gunsmith, though he doesn’t have a gun shop, set the tone for the week ahead.

“The Supreme Court is soon to dramatically liberalize gun laws in New York State,” he said. “Then you’re going to feel like the hillbilly county clerks who wouldn’t issue same sex marriage permits. That kind of licensing is coming to the urban areas near them. If two lunatics didn’t shoot up a school and a shopping center recently, this wouldn’t even be before you.”

Many of the speakers said they didn’t understand why the proposal did not allow gun shops and firing ranges in any overlapping zoning districts, or why it would continue to be allowed in the zoning district where the Niosi gun shop is proposed.

The intent of the Commercial Residential Campus district is to provide locations for professional services like accountants, lawyers, real estate and travel services and housing alternatives, said Kathy McGraw from Northville, reading from the code.

“It certainly doesn’t sound to me like a firing range is the intent of the district,” she added.

John Moran, who serves on the board of the Mill Pond Commons condominium complex across Elton Street from the proposed facility, said 70 percent of the 200-plus residents there were opposed to the firearms facility there.

“There are 27 bus stops between East Main Street and where Elton ends. This is where our children and grandchildren play,” he said. “I can’t imagine, in all of Riverhead, there isn’t a more rural location where we can accommodate this gentleman.”

Marilyn Banks-Winter, an advocate for celebrating African American history and culture in Riverhead, said she would like to see the town minimize the number of areas where firearms facilities can be put.

“We just had, here in Riverhead, two scares at Riverhead High school and I believe Riverhead Middle School as well,” she said. “We don’t need it here in Riverhead, and Elton Avenue is not the place…. Every day, in cities across America, lives are cut short by gunfire. Young people, innocent bystanders or law enforcement officers are killed due to gun violence. It takes an immense toll on our communities.”

“Often crimes are committed by a dangerous person who cannot legally purchase a firearm,” she added. “Bad apple gun dealers are the source of nearly all guns used in in crimes. Mr. Niosi is a bad apple gun dealer. He’s against a lot of you. Some of you are Hispanic, Jewish, Black.”

“Mr. Niosi is not the subject of this public hearing,” said Mr. Howard, the Deputy Town Attorney, shutting down her commentary

Eastern Long Island NAACP President Larry Street took up where she left off.

“Why are we so afraid to deal with our moral compass? Guns should not even be in Riverhead, period,” he added, drawing applause from the crowd. “There are probably Proud Boys that live here and this makes it even easier to go to downtown Riverhead and buy a gun…. We have white boys being radicalized on social media…”

Mr. Howard attempted to stop him from continuing.

“Excuse me, I’m not finished,” said Mr. Street, raising his voice.

“You lower your voice, sir. You lower your voice,” said Ms. Agiuar, wagging her finger at Mr. Street. “You’re not in charge of this meeting.”

“You’re not addressing the root of the problem,” said Mr. Street. “Why are we so afraid, as human beings, of getting to the root of the problem?”

Councilman Tim Hubbard told him to save his comments for general public comment at the end of the meeting.

“I would like to congratulate Mr. Rothwell on his elegant speech,” said Charles Sclafani, a former law enforcement officer and U.S. Marine piped in via Zoom from Wading River. “I find it extremely offensive what the last two speakers have said. Mr. Rothwell is 100 percent correct. There are underground shooting ranges attached to gun shops, and state law pertaining to the noise that can come out of them, and complete air filtration.”

Former Town Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith said she didn’t understand why the town board and not the the zoning board would be given the authority to grant special permits to potential gun businesses that could not meet the setback requirements for buffers from neighboring properties.

Ms. Aguiar, who won the supervisor seat against Ms. Jens-Smith three years ago, attempted to shut down the former supervisor’s questions, saying her comments also weren’t pertinent to the public hearing.

“You have an agenda. Bring it back at the end of the meeting,” she told Ms. Jens-Smith, after which she said in a stage whisper aside to someone in the crowd, “it takes a lot of patience, especially when you’re dealing with former politicians.”

The board left the public hearing open for written comment through July 1.

“We wanted to put something into our code to define what a firearm use was and regulate where exactly that would go,” said Mr. Howard. “This is just what we came up with as a first shot at it… um, a first attempt.”

Beth Young

Beth Young has been covering the East End since the 1990s. In her spare time, she runs around the block, tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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