Between gun group activism, movement in state legislatures around the country, and litigation in various courts at every level across the land, gun licensing regimes have been under more scrutiny in the last few years than at any time in the nation’s history. A recent self-defense shooting out of New York City shows why those debates have been so hard fought and what’s at stake.
At around 2 a.m. Wednesday morning, a 65-year-old Queens man identified as Charles Foehner was accosted outside his home by 32-year-old Cody Gonzalez. The 32-year-old allegedly threatened Foehner with a pointed object, later determined to be a pen, and attempted to rob him for cigarettes and money. In response, Foehner allegedly drew a revolver and shot Gonzalez multiple times after Gonzalez lunged at him with the object. Gonzalez succumbed to his wounds at the scene.
In surveillance footage of the incident obtained and released by the New York Post, Foehner can be seen with his gun drawn in one hand while backing away from the hooded Gonzalez, who appears to be feinting lunging movements from side to side with an object in his right hand. Then, the video shows Gonzalez charging at Foehner before the two men leave the camera’s view, at which point, Foehner reportedly pulled the trigger.
According to police, Foehner called 911 to report the incident immediately after the shooting and stayed on scene to cooperate with responding officers. The Queens District Attorney’s Office has not yet made a legal determination as to whether the shooting was lawful self-defense. Foehner was, however, initially arrested and charged with second-degree criminal possession of a weapon and criminal possession of a firearm. That’s because he did not have a permit to possess or carry the revolver used in the shooting, both of which would be required in New York City. Those charges were later significantly increased to 25 counts of criminal possession of a weapon by the DA’s Office after a search warrant served at Foehner’s residence uncovered more than two dozen firearms, six of which Foehner had valid licenses for.
Under New York’s restrictive gun possession laws, each count of unlawful possession is considered a violent felony offense, each with its own mandatory minimum sentence. As such, Foehner could be facing decades in prison. New York City is also one of the few jurisdictions in the country that requires gun owners to obtain a unique license for each individual firearm for the purposes of both purchasing and possessing said firearms. New York City also requires an additional permit for gun owners wishing to carry a firearm publicly.
The entire incident and Foehner’s subsequent charges demonstrate how a simple distinction of political geography can make the difference between an almost cut-and-dried self-defense case and a scenario in which a defender risks spending the rest of his life behind bars due to onerous gun licensing laws.
The formal determination of whether Foehner’s shooting was an act of justifiable self-defense is for the Queens District Attorney to decide—or possibly a jury of his peers if it gets that far. But most people who view the released surveillance footage would likely not take much convincing to conclude that the much older Foehner, cornered in an alley by a hooded mugger wielding a pointed object, was reasonably in fear of facing imminent death or serious physical injury. Even certain family members of the would-be robber have come out and said they do not blame Foehner for his actions.
Foehner had no prior criminal history, according to police. That is also evident because of the fact that he was able to obtain those six valid long gun licenses through New York City’s strict process for doing so. A process that includes an extensive background check, character references, fingerprinting, hundreds of dollars in non-refundable fees, and more. The entire process must be repeated every three years for each firearm a person owns while living in the city.
Considering he reportedly purchased the revolver used in the shooting “in the 1990s,” it’s also plausible that Foehner, at one point, had a valid license for some of his firearms but let them lapse. Or, he might have simply made the ill-fated choice to avoid going through the hassle and substantial expense of regularly licensing and registering his more than two dozen firearms.
As for his decision to carry a firearm without a license, this too is understandable given that until last June, New York City unconstitutionally made it functionally impossible for anyone not wealthy and well-connected to obtain a valid carry permit. And thanks to new state legislation, it has continued that tradition with a replacement system featuring its own constitutionally-suspect and costly hurdles for lawful citizens who want to carry.
According to Foehner, he decision to carry his revolver was not one of ill-intent, but rather one that is quite familar to the tens of millions of Americans who choose to exercise their right to carry a firearm for self-defense.
“Last night I was carrying a firearm because of the way that the city has been in the last three years. I read the crime stats and I see so much crime,” Foehner told the police, according to the New York Post.
Only three states require a valid continuous license to own a firearm, though another eight do require one to purchase certain firearms. Therefore, in 47 states, Foehner would not have faced charges for his firearm collection. In the 27 states that no longer require carry permits, he would not have faced so much as a civil fine for having his revolver on him before he was attacked. But because he was in New York City—which has gun licensing laws so arduous that they routinely take 18 months to 2 years to comply with and have been enjoined in court at least three times in the last year—he faces the legal fight of his life in the months ahead.
And it is that distinction, and the stakes involved when the rubber hits the road, that currently explains the heated push by gun-rights activists against onerous licensing laws.