Jan 02, 2014 — On Tuesday, Federal Judge William Skretny in Buffalo ruled that most provisions of the NY SAFE Act were constitutional. Martha Foley and Brian Mann discuss how this effects the gun control-gun rights debate going forward into 2014.
Martha: This week a Federal judge in Buffalo ruled that most of New York's controversial gun control law - known as the SAFE Act — is constitutional and doesn't violate the 2nd amendment. Judge William Skretny did strike down one provision of the law, which limited the number of rounds of ammunition that can be carried in a clip or magazine. Brian Mann - our Adirondack bureau chief - has been following the debate over the SAFE Act since it was signed into law last January. He joins me now on the line to talk about this ruling and what it means for the gun control debate in New York state. Brian, first of all, was this ruling a surprise?
Brian: It really wasn't. Gun rights activists have won some victories in Federal court in recent years, but in general judges — including some very conservative judges — have upheld the right of states to regulate firearms. In this case, Judge Skretny ruled that New York's ban on the sale of assault rifles and large-scale ammunition clips don’t violate the second amendment— and this is a quote “does not totally disarm New York’s citizens and it does not meaningfully jeopardize their right to self-defense.” Skretny also determined that the rules in the SAFE Act serve an important function, which is basically public safety.
Martha: But gun rights groups do plan an appeal?
Brian: That's right. This is expected to continue moving up, maybe as high as the Supreme Court. The New York State Rifle and Pistol Association filed this lawsuit. This week, their spokesman Brian Stapleton told the Buffalo newspaper that he expects an appeal to happen, though he wouldn't say on what legal grounds that would be filed on.
Martha: And Judge Skretny did strike down one provision of the law, limiting the number of rounds carried in ammunition clips.
Brian: That's right. The SAFE Act allows magazines and ammunition clips of up to 10 rounds in size, but limited the number of bullets that can be loaded into those clips to seven. That provision struck a lot of people, including law enforcement leaders, as arbitrary and confusing and really hard to enforce. So Judge Skretny rejected that part of the law.
Martha: This law passed in a really big hurry as a response to the deadly shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut. That shooting, which is still unexplained as to motive, left 20 children and six adults dead. The vote passing this law was clearly a bipartisan vote ... that’s was particularly significant in the Republican controlled state Senate. But it seems like the debate has not rested there. We still see along our road sides “Repeal the Safe Act” signs, which are pretty common. It sounds really like the conversation has intensified.
Brian: I think that’s right. The SAFE Act really put New York in the middle of a fierce national debate over gun control and a lot of gun rights groups have focused their energies on mobilizing in New York. But this is really a classic example of the upstate-downstate divide. Overall, polls still show that New Yorkers support the SAFE Act by roughly a two-thirds margin, and that support has held steady. A lot of that support of course coming from down state and from the city. Also, support for Governor Cuomo, the architect of this law, has held steady at around 60 percent, which means he's poised to win re-election next year if nothing changes. So that’s something that guns rights activists have hoped to put him in the cross-hairs, but that just hasn’t happened yet. But across Upstate New York and the North Country there is fierce opposition to this law. People see it as a deep violation of their civil liberties and an affront to the gun-owning culture.
Martha: There was another event that happened after this law was passed. I want to ask you about enforcement. While these legal challenges go on, the law is in effect. There is now a ban on assault rifle sales and people who already own these firearms are required to register them. A lot of gun-owners are refusing to comply. You reported last year that some sheriffs in upstate counties are suggesting that they won't actively enforce the law. Where does that stand?
Brian: This has brought some real tension between Governor Cuomo and the New York State Sheriffs Association. And again, you have the potential for a really divided reality in New York, where these rules could be enforced more stringently downstate and left largely unenforced in more rural counties including parts of the North Country. So far, state officials are saying that the law is being enforced. State officials say more than 1,000 gun violations that would have been charged as misdemeanors before the SAFE Act have been boosted to felony status. Also, roughly 60 people statewide have been charged with misdemeanors for having oversized ammunition magazines. A spokeswoman for the Governor said last month that those cases are evidence that the law is making New Yorkers safer. But gun rights activists say they think they’re will be lax in enforcement and the rules are turning law-abiding gun owners into criminals if they refuse to register.
Martha: Okay, Brian Mann is our Adirondack bureau chief and he's been covering the debate over gun control in New York state. Again, a Federal judge in Buffalo ruled this week that New York's SAFE Act is constitutional. Appeals are expected.