Shooting Straight with Sheriff Richard Giardino

by
posted on February 27, 2023
Sheriff Richard Giardino
Photos: Mitch Wojnarowicz

Something was clearly bothering Sheriff Richard Giardino, of Fulton County, New York. 

I had driven to his office in Johnstown, and we’d barely begun talking when he leaned his elbows on his desk, his eyes grew serious and he said, “In law enforcement, we run into reality all the time. We see what really works. We see what doesn’t. And what our governor just did is wrong. Let me give you two examples.” 

Sheriff Richard GiardinoThe sheriff began by telling me about something that recently happened to one of his deputy sheriffs. Fulton County Sheriff Deputy Ethan Thomas came across a suspicious gold-colored sedan facing southbound in a northbound lane. The car was off the shoulder of a road in a rural area of a rural county. The deputy pulled over and called in the license plate. He didn’t see anyone in the car. Thomas checked the vehicle. He saw a hatchet and a baseball bat on the front seat. A man then came walking around the car saying the vehicle was his.

The man’s “actions were just off,” said the deputy, who also said he smelled alcohol. After a brief conversation, the deputy radioed for backup, as he didn’t believe the man’s story. A dispatcher then asked Deputy Thomas if he was “secure” for information—meaning, was he out of earshot of the suspect? The dispatcher wanted to tell the deputy that the man was wanted on a felony drug warrant out of Texas.

Moments later, the deputy and the man wanted in Texas were wrestling as the man attempted to escape and then fought the officer. This wanted man outweighed the deputy by about 30 pounds. As they wrestled, they fell into a ditch. The deputy got his handcuffs on one of the man’s hands, but couldn’t get the other. Then, as he was tiring, he heard a voice. Another driver had pulled over his blue sports utility vehicle. It was Donald “DJ” Holdridge, an Army veteran who had done two tours of duty in Iraq. He had both his hands up in the air.

“Hey, sir,” said Holdridge, “my name’s DJ, do you need my help?”

“Yes, please; yes, please,” said Deputy Thomas.

Soon, with Holdridge’s help, they  were able to get the handcuffs on the wanted man.

Holdridge was later presented with the Sheriff’s Commendation for his heroism by Sheriff Giardino. “A lot of people talk about backing the blue, but Mr. Holdridge actually stepped in and put himself at risk to help us,” said Sheriff Giardino.

But there is more to this story and, as we spoke in his office, Sheriff Giardino wanted to make sure it was understood that it took 19 minutes for a responding officer to get to the scene as backup. Nineteen minutes! 

“One lesson people need to learn from incidents like this is we can’t be everywhere all the time,” said Sheriff Giardino. “This isn’t just important for police officers who need backup. Good citizens have—and need—the right to carry concealed so they can defend themselves or others until help arrives. If you’re not safe, than all of your other rights are meaningless.”

Sheriff Giardino then mentioned another recent case in which an HIV-positive individual actually bit one of his deputies, but this culprit was released within hours thanks to recent “reforms” to the state’s bail system. 

“This is the type of stuff we deal with every day. So, how do I keep my officers and the public safe when our governor is pushing so many bad policies on us?” asked Sheriff Giardino.

The sheriff then had to pause the interview as he took a call from a deputy who was responding to an attempted suicide. As he discussed the resources the state and county had to help this individual, I thought about all we ask the police to do. And, I had to admit that, though I grew up in a law-enforcement family, Sheriff Giardino wasn’t what I expected. From his many interviews with Fox News and other outlets, I expected to meet a Second Amendment-supporting politician behind a sheriff’s badge.

Sheriff Richard GiardinoNow, that would have been fine. After New York’s “may-issue” licensing system was ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in the NRA-backed case New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen (2022), New York Gov. Kathy Hochul (D), and a majority in the state’s legislature, opted to try to contort a historical exception—that guns can be banned in “sensitive places,” such as in courtrooms—into an all-encompassing prohibition on firearms in virtually any public place they want. Given this very political affront to a ruling from the high court, I thought that a New York county sheriff who some might say is grandstanding, albeit for what is right, might be just what we need at this time.

This, however, isn’t who I found Sheriff Giardino to be. As an elected official, Sheriff Giardino doesn’t mind being in front of the cameras. But I also found him to be a serious and humble official. He listens. He thinks of the people first. He next thinks of his deputies and the other employees he manages. Finally, he responds based on his long experience. And he does have a lot of legal experience. 

Sheriff Giardino graduated in 1984 from Albany Law School. While in college and law school, he served as a part-time police officer. After law school, he was hired as an assistant district attorney in Nassau County, N.Y. In 1986, he returned to Fulton County as an assistant district attorney and, in 1991, he was elected to be the second-youngest district attorney in the state. In 1996, he was appointed by New York’s governor to be a county court judge. In this role, he was a local licensing official for concealed-carry permits in what was then a “may-issue” state, but he behaved as if he was in a “shall-issue” state. He served 18 years as a judge. In that time, he tried over 200 cases, including over 40 murder or attempted-murder cases.

Of course, as with anyone we interview, Sheriff Giardino’s opinions are his own. I point this out because, as he is a county sheriff in a state run by a governor who sees the Second Amendment as a problem, Giardino does find himself in some uncomfortable legal positions. He has to abide by the state laws, but he also raised his right hand and swore to uphold the U.S. Constitution, and lately—again, thanks to officials such as Gov. Hochul—those two things have come into conflict. This conundrum puts him—as well as many other law-enforcement officials and citizens who simply want to exercise their rights in various states and jurisdictions around the country—in some legally problematic situations.

This is why I began my questions with a little sarcasm.

Sheriff Richard Giardino with Frank Miniter

A1F: As you’re a county sheriff in New York, surely Gov. Hochul, or someone from her team, must have reached out to you as they wrote the Orwellian-named “Concealed Carry Improvement Act.”
Sheriff Giardino: I was waiting for the call, but no, it didn’t come. The truth is, they wrote the Concealed Carry Improvement Act without any input. They didn’t just decline to reach out to me when they wrote that bad law, they also neglected to reach out to other sheriffs, to city police chiefs, to judges, to probation officers, to mental-health professionals and so on. They didn’t do any studies. They didn’t bring in the partners who could tell them how to actually make the system better. They just pushed through the most-egregious infringements on concealed carry they could fit into an expanded “sensitive-places” exception. The state should not be calling just about everywhere a “sensitive area” to prevent citizens from exercising this right, but that is what they’re doing.

concealed carry posterA1F: New Jersey recently followed New York by basically banning concealed carry in virtually every public place a person might go. This shows this is a national issue, as this unconstitutional policy, if it is allowed to spread, could affect more and more citizens. For this reason, do you see the legal fight currently under way here in New York as critical?
Sheriff Giardino: It sure is. I am confident that the courts will strike down portions of this law, but, if we don’t diligently defend our constitutional rights, bad laws like these could continue to spread. This is why we need the NRA now more than ever and it is why I am an NRA member.

This Concealed Carry Improvement Act also requires that people who want concealed-carry permits give licensing officials access to their social-media accounts, so that officials can see what they’ve been saying. In my opinion, that’s a First Amendment violation.

And people here in Fulton County are concerned. Before the law went into effect, I had a public meeting to tell residents how this new law could impact them, and over 750 people showed up. Also, in the month prior to this law going into effect, we had over 500 people apply for handgun permits. We typically get about that many in a year in this county.

A1F: Do you even have the resources to administer all the requirements in this new gun-
control law?
Sheriff Giardino: No. How could we possibly check peoples’ social-media accounts? Even if we had the manpower, it would be so subjective. Outside of a person making a clear threat, which is already illegal, how could a state or county employee judge what might disqualify someone from practicing a constitutionally protected right? Politics would be involved. Bad jokes could be used as excuses to prohibit good people from possessing firearms.

All this law does is target law-abiding citizens, not the criminals. Gov. Hochul says more guns equal more deaths and violence; no, good citizens need their Second Amendment freedom so they can protect themselves from the violent criminals any society has. In all my years as a judge, I rarely saw a case in which a person with a pistol permit committed a crime—it basically doesn’t happen.

A1F: You are the lawyer and former judge, not me, but doesn’t the “compelled speech doctrine” prevent the government from forcing an individual or group to support certain expression? Isn’t requiring private businesses to hang signs to tell people they can carry an example of compelled speech?
Sheriff Giardino: Clearly, yes. That’s another First Amendment infringement from Gov. Hochul.

Here in Fulton County, we did try to help local businesses deal with this unconstitutional infringement. We made signs—and we do give them out for free—for business owners to hang, if they so choose, that tell patrons they can carry on the premises. I’ve gotten some criticism for this, but part of my job is to try to help residents deal with what comes out of Albany.

Sheriff Richard Giardino, Investigator/Deputy Jerrica Smith
Fulton County Sheriff Richard Giardino is shown here with Investigator/Deputy Jerrica Smith and local business owner Adrien Zambella.

A1F: Might this law also potentially entrap otherwise law-abiding citizens? After all, if, say, a citizen with a New York carry permit mistakenly carries concealed in a store that doesn’t have such a sign, then that person could end up with a felony conviction that would then take away their Second Amendment rights for life. 
Sheriff Giardino: That’s exactly right. Citizens have been carrying in these places for years with no problems, but suddenly, last September, this became illegal. After reading Bruen, I don’t suspect that those infringements will stand when and if this does reach the Supreme Court. But then, it takes years and a lot of money to fight these unconstitutional infringements in court.

A1F: Will you enforce New York’s new concealed-carry restrictions?
Sheriff Giardino: I raised my right hand to uphold the constitution. Now the governor of New York wants me to break that oath. Law-enforcement have been placed in an untenable position of enforcing laws that we might believe are unconstitutional. As a former judge and district attorney, I still have my law license. My legal experience tells me that many provisions of this new gun-control law are unconstitutional. So, given all of that, I see the law here in a state of flux and we have a tremendous amount of discretion as to what we enforce. So we’re going to use our discretion. We’re not going to just arrest someone who carries concealed into a barbershop he has been going to his entire life. We’ll inform the person what the law now says and then we’ll focus our resources on actual criminals.

A1F: Have you—or the morale of your deputies—been impacted by the so-called “defund-the-police” movement?
Sheriff Giardino: One thing that has bothered me is there is a subculture of people in this country who blame police; some have shot bottle rockets at us; some have thrown frozen water bottles at us; some call us racist; some call us murderers; but then, when they’re in trouble, these same people call 911 and our dispatchers don’t ask them their politics, their race or their religion, they just ask “what’s your emergency,” and they send help. In my experience, the anti-law-enforcement activists are just a small, loud minority. We’ll do the right thing regardless; maybe one day, they’ll understand the thin blue line.

American freedom has never been easy to keep. There are always some who see our individual rights as inconvenient for their goals. Some of these people would like to silence those who stand up for the U.S. Constitution.

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