In January 2013, as the nation still mourned the Sandy Hook massacre, New York State enacted one of the nation’s strictest gun control laws. But three and a half years later, state records obtained after a lengthy court battle show that a key provision of the New York Safe Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act — mandatory registration of assault weapons — has been roundly ignored by gun owners in Ulster County and across the state.
The NY SAFE Act defines assault weapons as any rifle, pistol or shotgun that uses a detachable magazine and has one of a laundry list of “military features,” including flash suppressors, folding stocks, bayonet lugs and heat shields. The law banned new sales of assault weapons in the state and required current owners to register the firearms with state police.
In 2014, attorney and policy analyst Paloma Capanna filed suit on behalf of Rochester-based radio host Bill Robinson seeking data on NY SAFE Act compliance: specifically, how many assault weapons had actually been registered in the state.
Cuomo administration officials first ignored, then denied Robinson’s Freedom of Information Act request. But, on June 22, following two years of litigation, state police released the information based on a court decision which found that while the law forbade the disclosure of the actual registration forms, nothing precluded the release of aggregate data.
That data shows massive noncompliance with the assault weapon registration requirement. Based on an estimate from the National Shooting Sports Federation, about 1 million firearms in New York State meet the law’s assault-weapon criteria, but just 44,000 have been registered. That’s a compliance rate of about 4 percent. Capanna said that the high rate of noncompliance with the law could only be interpreted as a large-scale civil disobedience, given the high level of interest and concern about the law on the part of gun owners.
“It’s not that they aren’t aware of the law,” said Capanna. “The lack of registration is a massive act of civil disobedience by gun owners statewide.”
Opposition to the SAFE Act has been widespread across upstate New York, where 52 of the state’s 62 counties, including Ulster, have passed resolutions opposing the law. Upstate police agencies have also demonstrated a marked lack of enthusiasm for enforcing the ban on assault weapons and large-capacity magazines. According to statistics compiled by the state Department of Criminal Justice Services, there have been just 11 arrests for failure to register an otherwise-legal assault weapon since the SAFE Act took effect in March 2013 and 62 for possession of a large capacity magazine. In Ulster County, where 463 assault weapons have been registered, there have been just three arrests for possession of large-capacity magazines and none for failure to register an assault weapon. Ulster County Sheriff Paul VanBlarcum has been a vocal critic of the law; he said he believed large numbers of Ulster County gun owners had chosen to ignore the registration requirement.
“We’re a rural county with a lot of gun enthusiasts,” said VanBlarcum. “So  sounds like a very low number.”
VanBlarcum said he had advised deputies to use their discretion when it came to making arrests for SAFE Act violations like unregistered assault weapons and he had no plans to undertake proactive enforcement measures.
“We are not actively out looking to enforce any aspect of the SAFE Act,” said VanBlarcum.
Capanna said the registration debacle pointed to bigger issues with the SAFE Act: while federal firearms laws and the bureaucracy that enforces them date back a century, New York was effectively trying to create an entirely new regulatory framework from scratch. Capanna pointed to a SAFE Act requirement for background checks on ammunition sales as an example of regulatory overreach. The mandate has gone unenforced because the federal database used to screen gun buyers cannot be legally used for any other purpose. The state, meanwhile, has failed to come up with its own database to track ammunition sales.
Capanna added that the state police, who are charged with enforcing the registration requirements, are a police agency, not a regulatory agency with experience interpreting and enforcing complex rules governing lawful activities like firearms and ammunition sales.
“Cuomo would like to mimic the federal government,” said Capanna. “But that’s a substantial, extremely advanced system and he’s doing it as a startup, I think that led to a lot of fumbles along the way.”