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Gun control fight shapes bitter Saratoga sheriff primary

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Today's is primary day across New York state. There are big races in New York City and western New York.

One of the biggest contests in our region is the Republican battle for the sheriff post in Saratoga County.

Mike Zurlo, a former sheriff's lieutentnat, had been seen as the Republican frontrunner in that contest. He's been endorsed by the county GOP and by retiring sheriff James Bowen.

But he's faced a stiff challenge from Jeff Gildersleeve, a former state police
investigator who currently works for the Warren County sheriff's department.

Gildersleeve gained momentum after promising not to enforce New York's tough new gun control laws.

Brian Mann reports that the bitter Saratoga primary has emerged part of a wider debate over sheriffs and their response to the SAFE Act.

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Reported by

Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

Following the deadly shooting in Newtown Connecticut, New York's legislature passed one of the toughest gun control laws in the nation. 

The Safe Act banned the sale of assault rifles and high capacity ammunition clips, and closed loopholes on sales at gun shows. 

Those restrictions were approved on a bipartisan vote and made it through the state's Republican controlled Senate. 

The law is still popular in urban parts of New York, but in Upstate counties the Safe Act sparked a ferocious backlash.

Right from the start, many gun owners said they wouldn’t comply with the law, which they say violates the 2nd amendment and turns them unfairly into criminals. That puts sheriffs like Dave Favro in rural Clinton County in a tight spot.

“I don’t want to see a citizen revolt, because that’s going to create more violence in one sense.  However, I can understand…this is an infringement and where does it stop?” Favro asked.

So Favro hates this law.  He says many of his best friends – and the people who vote him into office – absolutely love their guns and won’t ever comply with the SAFE Act’s restrictions. 

The state Sheriffs association agrees and has called for the law to be repealed, even joining a lawsuit hoping to overturn it in federal court.

But this spring, a half dozen sheriffs went a step further, announcing they’ll flat-out refuse to enforce the SAFE Act.   

In an interview with WIVB TV, Erie County Sheriff Tim Howard described his stance as a kind of civil disobedience.

“Do you want law enforcement people that will say, ‘I will do this, even though I know it’s wrong?’”

The issue became a flashpoint this summer in the high profile sheriff race in Saratoga County New York. 

Candidate Jeff Gildersleeve was viewed as a long-shot in the Republican primary until he announced that he too would side with sheriffs refusing to enforce the SAFE Act.

Gildersleeve spoke on Albany news talk station 1300.

“They’re doing the right thing.  As it should be.  And I keep getting accused – come on, what other laws won’t you enforce?”

Candidate Mike Zurlo was interviewed on the same station by conservative writer and talkshow host Fred Dicker.  Zurlo said he too hates the SAFE Act, but will enforce it.

This is the question being asked by many gun control activists who support the SAFE ACT.  Can sheriffs really just ignore state laws that their neighbors and local voters don't like?

Speaking last week, Governor Andrew Cuomo, who pushed through the law, argued that rebellious sheriffs run the risk of causing "chaos."

 “If you had district attorneys and police commissioners and sheriffs just, everyone gets to pick and choose what laws they like, that obviously would be a dangerous and frightening precedent.”

Voters will have their say today as they go to the polls in primaries across the state. 

If more moderate candidates are defeated, the number of rural sheriffs refusing to enforce the SAFE Act could grow.

The debate in New York isn't unique.  County sheriffs in Colorado, Oregon and other states have said publicly that they won't enforce state and Federal gun laws that they think violate the US constitution.

Back in Clinton County, Sheriff Dave Favro doesn’t face a primary this year. 

After a lot of soul searching, he’s decided that he can’t ignore the SAFE Act, though he hopes to enforce it as sparingly as possible.

“I can’t tell my deputy not to enforce the law, because where do you draw the line, what law to enforce?  I don’t have to like them, I don’t have to support them and I can fight to have them changed.  Whether I personally like them or don’t, it’s irrelevant.  It is a law.”

The state sheriff’s association has declined to say publicly whether its members should enforce the SAFE Act while the law is being challenged in the courts. 

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