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Gun rights activist Richard Mack (L) and Clinton County Sheriff David Favro (R) hold a press conference in Plattsburgh, opposing the New York SAFE Act. Photo: Brian Mann
Gun rights activist Richard Mack (L) and Clinton County Sheriff David Favro (R) hold a press conference in Plattsburgh, opposing the New York SAFE Act. Photo: Brian Mann

Will upstate NY cops, sheriffs enforce gun control laws?

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New York's tough gun law, known as the SAFE Act, was pushed through last January by Governor Andrew Cuomo, winning support from the Democratic Assembly and the Republican-controlled Senate.

Over the last six months, however, political opposition to the law has grown, especially in upstate counties where gun ownership is popular. A growing number of law enforcement officials, especially county sheriffs, now say they're deeply troubled by the law, which bans assault rifles and large ammunition clips. Some officers say they won't actively enforce the SAFE Act.

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I don't want to see a citizen revolt [over gun control] because that's going to create more violence.
Sheriff David Favro sits in a conference room at the Clinton County Jail – which serves as his department's headquarters – and makes it clear that he thinks the New York SAFE Act needs to go.

"The SAFE Act has been a train wreck since it started," he says.

The SAFE Act, passed earlier this year on a bipartisan vote and signed by Governor Cuomo, established some of the toughest gun control laws in the US.

Governor Cuomo signs the SAFE Act. Photo: Karen DeWitt
Governor Cuomo signs the SAFE Act. Photo: Karen DeWitt
It passed following the deadly mass shooting last December in Connecticut which left 28 people dead, including many children.

The law sharply restricts sales of assault rifles, limits the number of rounds carried in ammunition clips, and regulates the sale of ammunition.

That's deeply controversial for many gun owners. Sitting next to Favro in Plattsburgh is gun rights activist Richard Mack, himself a former sheriff from Arizona.

Mack is here in Plattsburgh for a gun rights rally – and his message to law enforcement officials like Favro is simple. The SAFE Act, he says, shouldn't be enforced.

"People who own guns who are law-abiding citizens are going to get very frustrated with this law. Will that create more violence and more problems, I think between government and citizens it has that potential. I hope not."

Favro seems to endorse this idea – that the new law has put his officers at odds with many residents – and enforcing it may put them in harm's way.

"I don't want to see a citizen revolt, because that's going to create more violence in one sense," Favro says. But he adds that the SAFE Act "is an infringement and where does it stop."

Many gun owners and gun rights activists in upstate New York have said point-blank that they won't obey the SAFE Act. Won't register their assault rifles or obey strict new rules governing gun sales.

Back in January, right after the law passed, Darrel Savage from Tupper Lake spoke at a meeting hosted in Lake Placid by New York State Police.

Asked if he plans to comply with the law, he said, "No, definitely not."

James Lytle of Horseheads at the Feb. 28, 2013 anti-gun control rally in Albany. Photo: Karen DeWitt
James Lytle of Horseheads at the Feb. 28, 2013 anti-gun control rally in Albany. Photo: Karen DeWitt
At a rally this spring in Albany, that same idea was taken up by thousands of protestors, who changed, "We will not comply!"

This idea that the SAFE ACT is deeply flawed and violates the 2nd amendment of the constitution is shared by many law enforcement officers in Upstate New York.

These officers are often elected officials who face fierce political pressure in their rural counties.

In a YouTube video posted online, Orange County sheriff Carl Dubois tells a crowd of gun rights activists that he is on their side, displaying his NRA membership card and his handgun permit.

Similar views are on display in another YouTube video uploaded in February showing Saratoga County sheriff James Bowen joining ranks with gun rights activists.

During the exchange, Bowen is asked whether his officers will enforce the new gun control law. He answers cautiously.

"Until I am sure that this law is a law, I am being very careful how I operate," Bowen says.

Erie County sheriff Tim Howard goes a step further, saying that his deputies won't make arrests when gun owners violate the SAFE Act.

"Do you want law enforcement people who will say, I will do this even though it's wrong?" Howard asked in a report aired last May on WIVB-TV in May.

Not all law enforcement officials in New York agree. Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has praised the SAFE Act and the District Attorneys Association of New York issued a statement saying the law would give police "stronger tools to protect our communities from gun violence."

Leah Gunn Barrett, head of a group called New Yorkers Against Gun Violence says she's not surprised that there's opposition to the gun regulation among sheriffs – but she says they still have a duty to uphold to uphold all the laws of New York state.

"Sheriffs tend to be more conservative," she notes. "This is true across the country, they represent more rural areas. But the fact is that the New York SAFE Act is the law in New York state. Any person who is dedicated to enforcing the laws of New York state should certainly enforce it."

Some sheriffs say they've been pressured by the Cuomo administration to keep their political views about the SAFE Act to themselves. That's a charge Governor Cuomo denies.

But opposition to gun control among law enforcement officials is clearly a political win for gun rights activists.

The National Rifle Association released a video which includes testimony from law enforcement officials such as Columbia County's district attorney Paul Czajka, who this spring dismissed an arrest made under the SAFE Act.

"I am a strong supporter of the entire Constitution, including the 2nd Amendment," Czajka told the NRA.

Back in Plattsburgh, Clinton County Sheriff Dave Favro acknowledges that the SAFE act puts him in a tough spot.

He says he himself has questions about what kind of gun regulations actually make sense in the modern world. He also says that his oath of office will require him to enforce the gun control law, even as he protests against it.

"I can't tell my deputies not to enforce the law, because where do you draw the line?" he asks, adding that he has taken an oath to uphold the "laws of the state of New York, whether I personally like them or don't."

But sitting at his side, gun rights activist RichardMack says he doesn't think that's how it will play out. He says Favro and his deputies will quietly ignore the law.

"I don't believe him," Mack says. "He's a good man. Police discretion and how we enforce the law is up to us."

Some of this tension may be sorted out in the courts. The New York State Rifle and Pistol Association has sued Governor Cuomo in an attempt to overturn some or all of the SAFE Act.

That case is still pending. In May, the New York State Sheriffs Association officially joined the lawsuit, hoping to overturn one of the toughest gun laws in the US.

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