Annie Get Your Gun License Just Try

The squat municipal office that stood before me with its forbidding brick walls was One Police Plaza, home of New York's Finest--the New York City Police Dept. I entered and waited 30 minutes in a dimly lit hall, then handed over a sheaf of papers and $244 in money orders. A clerk fingerprinted me and said not to call: They'd contact me. It was the beginning of a months-long journey I hoped would admit me to an exclusive group: New York City residents with police-issued pistol permits.

According to the National Rifle Assn., about 75,000 of Gotham's 8.5 million residents are legally licensed handgun owners; an estimated 750,000 owners are unlicensed. Just 3,000 new pistol applications are filed annually at One Police Plaza, and the NYPD must act on them within six months.

The requirements didn't prevent tragedy at the Empire State Building on Feb. 23, when a foreigner bearing a semi-automatic pistol shot seven people, killing one, and then shot himself. The murderer had bought the gun by using a Florida hotel address as his own, thus appearing to be a resident.

WHY BOTHER? Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Police Commissioner Howard Safir used the tragedy to praise the effectiveness of the city's tough gun laws. New York is one of the hardest places to get a handgun legally. As one who's trying to obey the law, I see why many hardly bother.

My own attempt began last year, when I decided to pursue target shooting. T&T Gunnery & Range Inc. in suburban Floral Park, N.Y., near my home, referred me for help in getting my permit to License Services and its founder, Larry Goodson. Based in Rosedale, N.Y., Goodson, a licensed pistol holder for over 20 years, claims he helped more than 300 clients get permits last year. He charges $395 to help fill out the paperwork, which can be tricky.

For example, one of 28 questions on the application asks if you've ever held a government-issued license or permit. "You'd be surprised how many forget that their driver's license falls under that category," Goodson said. Answer incorrectly--even if it's a simple clerical mistake--and the application is automatically thrown out because you've made a false statement. The only recourse is to file another application--and pay the nonrefundable $170 license fee and $74 fingerprinting fee again.

Another stumbling block is the interview at One Police Plaza. In addition to a 20-page booklet outlining the administrative responsibilities of permit holders, applicants get a small four-page pamphlet that lists the five city laws regarding use of "deadly physical force." Everyone, including "target permit" applicants, who may not keep a loaded gun at home, must know these laws perfectly. If a police officer feels an interviewee doesn't have a proper grasp of all the laws and responsibilities, the application is rejected on the spot.

GRIPE. Since submitting the paperwork in October, I have visited pistol-related areas on the Internet to compare my experience with that of others. One New York applicant griped that she couldn't get a target permit without joining a police-approved gun club. Now, three months of her one-year membership have expired, and she's still awaiting her permit. I prepared for a long wait.

But in November, to my surprise, I was notified about scheduling a meeting. The 10-minute interview with a case officer went smoothly. That was in January, and I was told to expect a decision by early March. Once again they said: "Don't call us."

I couldn't if I wanted to, because I don't know who to call: On Jan. 22, Henry M. Krantz, deputy inspector of pistol permits, and the officers under his command were suspended from duty. The NYPD's Internal Affairs has charged them with giving "preferential treatment to individuals or entities"--approving permits (some in just one day) for friends of a local gun dealer. Internal Affairs now operates the division, claiming the pistol permit process is running as efficiently as ever. That's what bothers me. I'm nearing the end of the six-month waiting period, and I still haven't heard from anyone down at One Police Plaza.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.