SAFE Act still controversial a year later

AR-15 (photo by Robert Freiberger)

AR-15 (photo by Robert Freiberger)

One year after state lawmakers, urged on by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, passed one of the nation’s most restrictive gun laws, impacts from the NY SAFE Act continue to reverberate through the state’s courts, legislature, law enforcement and shooting sports community.

The New York Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act of 2013 got through on the heels of a groundswell of support for new limits on firearms in the wake of the Newtown, Conn. school shooting. With lighting speed and little public debate, lawmakers passed a host of provisions, including limits on the sale of military-style rifles and high-capacity magazines and background checks for ammunition sales, long sought by gun control advocates. Other elements of the NY SAFE Act, including a requirement that mental health professionals report to law enforcement anyone they believe may pose a threat to public safety and stiffer penalties for gun crimes, were added to win support from conservative lawmakers. The finished product was held up by supporters as a model for a new era of gun control that would help prevent mass shootings and reduce the daily toll of gun violence.

But one year after the law’s passage and with some provisions, including mandatory registration of “grandfathered” assault rifles still pending, the law is facing challenges in the courts and, in Ulster County, resistance. A newly galvanized community of gun owners has demonstrated their distaste for the law with everything from a statewide “Shot Heard ’Round New York” event to a quiet refusal to comply with the assault rifle registration requirement.


“This law took honest citizens and turned them into felons,” said one New York gun owner, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “Now I’ve got 16 felonies sitting in my bedroom.”

For the state’s gun owners, the nightmare scenario of police raid teams going door to door grabbing newly illegal firearms has failed to materialize. In the year since it took effect, there have been 1,291 arrests for violation of the law statewide, according to figures from the state Department of Criminal Justice Services. Some 1,041 of those took place in New York City where pre-NY SAFE local gun laws are significantly more restrictive than state statutes. According to the state, 1,155 of the NY SAFE Act arrests consisted of people busted for violating long-established gun laws, like possession of a sawed-off shotgun or unlicensed handgun, that were upgraded from misdemeanors to felonies. Just 48 people have been charged with possessing newly illegal high-capacity magazines; another 26 faced a new felony charge for possessing a firearm on school grounds. In Ulster County, there were just two arrests for SAFE Act violations. In both cases, the arrests were for criminal possession of a firearm. There have been no local arrests for possession of high capacity magazines or sale of banned firearms.


Sheriff advises discretion

The relatively low number of arrests outside of New York City could reflect a reluctance on the part of local law enforcement to strictly enforce elements of the law. The New York State Sheriff’s Association has gone on the record opposing parts of the law, including the bans on “assault weapons” and high-capacity magazines. (The group does support the stiffer penalties for gun crimes and mental health reporting requirements contained in the law). Ulster County Sheriff Paul Van Blarcum said he had advised deputies to use discretion when it came to making arrests of otherwise law-abiding citizens for NY SAFE Act violations.

“The law is the law and we have to enforce it, but we encourage our people to use discretion and common sense,” said Van Blarcum. “You don’t have to write a ticket every time you pull someone over for speeding.”

The more immediate impact, at least locally, stems from gun owners’ fear that the NY SAFE Act is just the first step towards far more restrictive gun laws. In the days and weeks after the law passed, but before the ban on new sales of assault weapons went into effect, customers flooded gun shops buying up AR-15s, combat shotguns and other weapons that would soon be on the banned list. A year later, the focus has shifted to ammunition sales. With a ban on Internet sales already in effect, gun owners are buying ammo faster than manufacturers can produce it or shops can stock it. Common calibers like .22 long rifle and .380 have become nearly impossible to find. At the Gander Mountain store in Hudson Valley Plaza, every Saturday has become Black Friday with customers lining up early to get tickets that can be redeemed for newly delivered ammunition once the doors open.