Harry Scull Jr. /Buffalo News
Owners of assault-style weapons were supposed to have registered their guns by Tuesday.
But there is no way of knowing exactly how many of these weapons there are in the state and how many were registered under the NY SAFE Act.
The state refuses to say how many were registered, claiming it is confidential information protected by the law.
Gun-rights advocates estimate compliance will be less than 10 percent.
And in Erie County, the sheriff says he will not force his deputies to enforce registration.
“Theoretically, any law enforcement officer who encounters anyone with this type of gun at a minimum is supposed to record the serial number and the individual’s identity and report it to Albany,” Sheriff Timothy B. Howard said.
But will his deputies do that?
“I don’t know. I am not encouraging them to do it. At the same time, their own consciences should be their guide. I am not forcing my conscience on them. That is a decision they should make,” Howard said.
The sheriff’s opposition sits well with roughly 70 opponents of the law who gathered outside the Walter J. Mahoney State Office Building in downtown Buffalo late Tuesday afternoon to shred State Police registration forms for assault weapons.
It was seen as a form of civil disobedience to a law that opponents say was hastily drafted some 16 months ago in response to the December 2012 massacre in Newtown, Conn., where 20 elementary school children and six adults were slain by a heavily armed gunman.
But rather than make the public safer, opponents contend the law’s main accomplishment has been to create a new classification of criminals – individuals who out of conscience refuse to register their assault weapons because they believe the law overstepped their Second Amendment right to bear arms.
The law’s supporters say it gives police more tools in tracing ownership of these guns should they end up stolen, and, aside from the registration requirement, closes a loophole requiring background checks for the private sales of weapons.
At the rally
“They have been shredding the Constitution for years,” said Rus Thompson, who led Tuesday’s rally. “You shred the Constitution, we’ll shred any form you want us to fill out. They can’t arrest a million people. What are they going to do?”
“Nobody is going to comply with this,” added Tim Swedenhjelm, a gun owner and a 30-year range safety officer from Springville. “We don’t call them ‘assault rifles’ because they’re not ‘assault rifles.’ Assault rifles are automatic weapons. These are not automatic weapons. When I hear politicians call them assault rifles, you know they don’t know what they’re talking about.”
The SAFE Act defines assault weapons as semiautomatics capable of accepting detachable magazines and with one military-style feature that could include protruding pistol grips, folding stocks, thumb hole stocks, a second hand grip, bayonet mount or flash suppressor.
Chants at the rally included “We will not comply” and “Cuomo’s got to go.” Some of the signs included: “Millions of Gun Owners Hurt No One Yesterday” and “You Won’t Get Gun Control By Disarming Law Abiding Citizens.”
Some at the rally wore “Repeal New York SAFE Act” T-shirts or shirts that called for a “New York Resistance” encouraging people to “Join Your Local Militia” and “Do Not Register Your Guns,” while several passing motorists, including an Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority patrol vehicle, honked in support.
However, for those who ignore the registration, there are serious consequences.
Legal penalties for failure to comply include a misdemeanor charge that calls for forfeiture of the weapon and up to a year in jail, unless it is determined that the lack of compliance was unintentional. In that case, a 30-day amnesty period is allowed to register the weapon.
There is also a more serious felony charge, possession of a knowingly unregistered gun, that could be imposed. That carries up to four years in prison, if convicted.
From the tone of the rally, though, protesters were accepting that risk.
SAFE Act proponents described the rally and others across the state in recent months as an overreaction from “a vocal small minority” of gun owners who do not represent the majority of state residents who favor the law and gun safety.
“There’s a lot of hyperbole and misinformation floating around. People who owned these weapons before Jan. 15, 2013, can keep them. All they need to do is register them. It is painless, easy and costs nothing,” said Leah Gunn Barrett, executive director of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence. “No guns are being taken away unless you fail to register your military-style assault weapon, if you happen to own one. If you register it, you can keep it.”
But her group’s disdain for such weapons was unmistakable. “These weapons of war,” Barrett said, “have no place in our communities.”
The purpose of registration, she explained, is to assist police by providing them with a record of the weapon.
“Gun owners are required to report the theft of guns to the police,” Barrett said. “If an assault weapon that has been registered ends up in the wrong hands and is used in a crime, the police will know who is legally responsible – the gun owner.”
But for owners of assault weapons, the issue is not that simple.
“We believe the law is not just, it is not the government’s business. Registration is confiscation. Once you register your gun, it is not really yours,” said Lisa Donovan, a spokeswoman for NY2A – New York 2nd Amendment Coalition. “We don’t trust the State Senate and State Assembly that they are done with the SAFE Act. We feel there will be a SAFE Act II. That’s why we are fighting so hard now.”
Leaders at an informational gathering to discuss concerns about the SAFE Act on Monday night in Springville said there was no doubt that many of the more than 500 gun owners who attended were not registering their assault-style guns.
“From talking to gun dealers, gun owners and gun advocates, it is estimated that there are more than one million assault-type guns in the state,” said Assemblyman David Di-Pietro, R, C, East Aurora, one of the meeting’s organizers. “We estimate that less than 10 percent of the owners of these guns will comply with the registration.”
DiPietro disagreed with the claim that the law will give police a better handle in tracking weapons used in crimes.
“Most of the guns used in crimes are illegally obtained. So anyone who tries to say that registration will lead to less crime and more identification of criminals is a blithering idiot and doesn’t know what they are talking about. In general, name me a gangster who complies with gun laws.”
Stephen J. Aldstadt, president of the statewide Shooters Committee on Political Education, said his organization is not advising individuals to ignore the registration.
“I’ve been going all over New York State speaking to crowds, and hundreds have told me they do not plan to register their guns under the SAFE Act,” said Aldstadt, a Colden resident. “As an organization, we certainly can’t tell people not to obey the law, but what people are telling us is that they are not going to comply with this law.”
Earlier in the day, before heading to the downtown Buffalo rally, Gia Arnold, the anti-SAFE Act candidate opposing State Sen. George D. Maziarz in a Republican primary, attacked the senator on the issue during a Lockport news conference.
Arnold, a Holley housewife, said that even though Maziarz voted against the SAFE Act and has made speeches advocating its repeal, he also has said that the only likely avenue of success is through the courts.
Arnold accused Maziarz of “lip service and complacency” on the issue. Of his reliance on court rulings to overturn the law, she said, “To me, that is the white flag of surrender.”
Maziarz on Tuesday evening disagreed with her assessments.
“My opposition to the SAFE Act is well known among Second Amendment supporters, and I have been recognized by the NRA, the Shooters Committee on Political Education and the Niagara County Federation of Conservation Clubs for supporting gun owners across New York,” the senator said.