A group of gun owners in New York and New Jersey is suing the NYPD division that reviews applications for firearm permits and licenses, arguing that the NYPD’s application requirements are “impossible to meet.”
The class-action lawsuit, filed in federal court last month, argues that a lengthy backlog in the licensing division “paralyzes” people who want to legally exercise their Second Amendment rights. The gun owners want the courts to appoint a federal monitor to oversee the gun licensing team.
“They [license division staff] have shown time and again that they will infringe on the rights of gun owners and this court has a duty to stop this infringement,” the suit states.
The NYPD declined to comment on pending litigation.
The plaintiffs include a former prosecutor, a National Rifle Association-certified firearms instructor, a gun store employee and a truck driver. All of them have successfully obtained gun licenses in other states but have struggled to complete the process in New York City.
After the U.S. Supreme Court overturned New York’s strict concealed carry laws last year, ruling that the Second Amendment is not a “second-class” right, many gun owners celebrated what they hoped would be a loosening of the state requirements to own and carry a gun. Instead, the state legislature quickly passed a package of laws that created even more requirements for legal gun ownership, prompting a flood of lawsuits.
Even as New York’s gun laws are litigated in court, gun permit and license applications have continued to flood in following the Supreme Court decision. The NYPD received more than 7,400 applications last year — 6,066 for handguns — compared to about 4,700 applications in 2021. The department did not provide data on how many of those applications has been approved.
The number of New York City applications was even higher during a surge at the height of the 2020 pandemic, when the license division received nearly 9,300 applications, according to NYPD data. Gun sales also surged nationwide in the early days of the pandemic, the political unrest surrounding the murder of George Floyd and the contentious 2020 election.
Gun violence also spiked in New York City and in many other places across the country during that time. The number of shootings and murders has dropped in the last year, while police took about 7,000 firearms off the streets and gun arrests hit a nearly 30-year high in 2022, according to the NYPD.
Stuart Meissner bought his first two guns during the pandemic, when he began to feel like he needed a way to defend himself. At the time, he was living in New Jersey, where he said it was easy to obtain residence licenses for his rifle and pistol.
When Meissner decided to move to New York City, he said, he applied for a license through the NYPD. That was in September 2021, according to his lawsuit, which was filed last month.
State law requires licensing officers to approve or deny applications within six months, unless they provide written notice for a “good cause” delay. But about a year-and-a-half after Meissner submitted his applications, only the one for his rifle had been approved.
“You really are in a black hole,” he said. “It’s basically a sit and wait to hear from NYPD.”
Meissner said he’s also been unable to register either his rifle or his pistol, as is required by state law, because the dealers who sold him his guns never gave him a number that he was supposed to include on the application. The store where he bought his guns told him that there was no electronic record of his purchase and that staff would need to go through years of paper records to find it — which they didn’t want to do.
When Meissner tried to explain this to the license division, he said the office sent him back his application with the empty space for the missing number highlighted in yellow. He said he had tried calling and left a message, but no one ever called him back.
“They just leave you out to pasture,” he said.
Meissner is an attorney who now works in private practice after spending years in the offices of the Manhattan district attorney and the state attorney general. If someone who knows the laws — and has even prosecuted people for illegal gun possession — can’t lawfully possess a firearm in New York City, he wonders who can.
“I have the wherewithal to hire attorneys and everything, but most people don’t,” Meissner said. “If I’m going through this with my background, I can’t imagine what everyone else is going through.”
Days after filing the lawsuit, Meissner said, he got an email from the NYPD informing him that the department was moving ahead with his pistol application. But he still hasn’t been able to register either of his guns.
Struggling to keep up with an influx of applications
Meissner’s lawyer, Peter Tilem, said the license division’s long wait times violate both state law and federal constitutional rights.
“Can you imagine that you moved to New York, for example, and you were denied the right to free speech for a period of 18 months or two years?” he said.
Gun owners have long complained about the NYPD license division’s slow turnaround times and low approval rates — even before the pandemic gun spike and the overhaul of New York’s gun laws. Meanwhile, the number of employees in the NYPD license division has remained flat. According to city budget documents, the office has 74 full-time employees — the same number as in 2013. The division’s operating budget has also decreased in the last decade, from $90,000 in 2013 to $67,199 this year.
Several gun owners who have recently applied for permits and licenses through the NYPD told Gothamist they’ve struggled to reach anyone in the office through phone calls and emails.
Michael Marten, a former lieutenant in the license division who now works as a consultant helping people to fill out their applications, said the office’s processing times were substantially set back by staff working from home during the pandemic. Marten said turnaround times have recently started to pick back up, but he added that staff have high caseloads that can be difficult to keep up with.
“A lot of times, if a mistake is made, the folder just gets put away, and it just takes an inordinate amount of time to get it back on track,” he said.