Yates County Sheriff Ron Spike, State Senator Tom O'Mara, and Assemblymen Phil Palmesano and Bill Nojay voiced their strong opposition to much of Gov. Andrew Cuomo's "New York Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act of 2013," otherwise known as the SAFE Act, at the Feb. 13 meeting of the Yates County Chapter of The Shooter's Committee on Political Education (SCOPE).
"Guns have two enemies," said Spike, "rust and politicians!" which drew laughter and applause from the crowd estimated at over 200. He stated at the outset that neither he nor any of the sheriffs of upstate New York would be going door-to-door confiscating guns.
Spike echoed the statement of the New York State Sheriffs' Association in support of several key points regarding gun crimes:
"We have identified the following six provisions of the new law which we believe are helpful and will increase the safety of our citizens."
• RESTRICTION on Freedom of Information (FOIL) requests about pistol permit holders.
"By granting citizens the option of having their names and addresses withheld from public disclosure, the new law does provide a mechanism to allow people to decide for themselves whether their personal information should be accessible to the public. We believe, however, that no one should have to explain why their personal information should remain confidential. A better procedure, we believe, is simply to exempt all this personal information from FOIL disclosure," says the association's position statement.
• KILLING of emergency first responders.
The association's position states, "The new law makes killing of emergency first responders aggravated or first degree murder, enhancing penalties for this crime and requiring life without parole. First responders need this protection, evidenced all too often by attacks on them when they attempt to provide help, and in special recognition of the terrible attacks on two firefighters in Webster, and attacks on first responders in Jefferson County."
• REQUIREMENT of National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) checks for private sales (except between immediate family).
"We believe that this will ensure that responsible citizens will still be able to obtain legal firearms through private transactions, with the added assurance that private buyers are approved by the federal National Instant Criminal Background Check System. We remain concerned that this provision will be very difficult to enforce and will likely only affect law abiding citizens," says the statement.
The Opt Out form is available at the County Clerk's office.
• COMPREHENSIVE review of mental health records before firearms permits are granted and review of records to determine if revocation of permits is required.
"Sheriffs believe that there is an urgent need to increase funding for mental health care. The new law imposes reporting requirements on many mental health care professionals and others who may make a determination that a person is a danger to himself or others. The law further gives needed authority to courts or others who issue firearms permits to deny permit applications or to revoke permits already issued. We believe that this issue demands a much more full and detailed discussion about how to keep guns out of the hands of such people. The Sheriffs of New York want to pursue these issues with the Governor and the State Legislature."
• SAFE storage of firearms.
"The new law provides that guns must be safely stored if the owner lives with someone who has been convicted of a felony or domestic violence crime, has been involuntarily committed, or is currently under an order of protection. We agree that firearms owners should have the responsibility to make sure that their weapons are safeguarded against use or access by prohibited persons, and the new law adds these protections to ensure that weapons are safely and securely stored," notes the association's position.
• INCREASED penalties for illegal use of weapons.
"The new law adds several increased sanctions for violation of New York gun laws and creates new gun crimes which did not previously exist. These new provisions will provide added tools for law enforcement to prosecute such crimes. We further believe that the new provisions should help deter future misuse of firearms. We also suggest that the legislature consider limitations on plea bargaining for all gun crimes." say the sheriffs.
While Spike said he has no problems with any of the criminal penalties SAFE imposes, he says much of the law "puts me and my officers in a terrible position." He and NYSSA had many more points on which they criticized the SAFE Act, including:
• Assault weapon ban and definition of assault weapons is too broad.
• Inspection of schools by state police rather than sheriffs and local police. "Sheriffs are in the best position to know the security needs of schools in their own counties," he says.
• Reduction of ammunition magazine capacity. Spike says, "The new law will unfairly limit the ability of law‐ abiding citizens to purchase firearms in New York. It bears repeating that it is our belief that the reduction of magazine capacity will not make New Yorkers or our communities safer."
• Five-year recertification of pistol permit status and registration of existing assault weapons with State Police. According to Spike, the state has granted $36 million for this effort, but the State Police are already asking county clerks to manage the new mandate. NYSSA also believes this is in conflict with Sheriffs' duties regarding issuance of pistol permits. "Pistol permit information should be maintained in one file at the local level, and forwarded to a statewide database for law enforcement use," says Spike.
• Sale of ammunition. Spike comments, "The law should be clarified about the use of the Internet as a vehicle for these sales, out‐ of‐ state sales to New York residents, and other issues. Businesses have said that they do not understand the new provisions and are concerned that they will have to cease operations,"
• Law enforcement exemptions for firearms and ammunition. "We understand that the governor and legislature have already agreed to review and modify these provisions where necessary, and the sheriffs want to be part of the discussion to make the changes effective," he adds.
• Method of bill passage. Spike comments, "While many of the provisions of the new law have surface appeal, it is far from certain that all, or even many of them will have any significant effect in reducing gun violence, which is the presumed goal of all of us. Unfortunately, the process used in adoption of this act did not permit the mature development of the arguments on either side of the debate, and thus many of the stakeholders in this important issue are left feeling ignored by their government."
Spike reiterated NYSSA's conclusion, "Sheriffs represent all the people, and we take an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of New York. Sheriffs will continue to enforce all laws of the state and will protect the rights of all citizens, including those rights guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of New York."
O'Mara, Palmesano, and Nojay all voted against the SAFE Act, and were unreservedly critical of Cuomo's method of ramming it into law claiming necessity, saying it was the governor's attempt to remain in the national public eye for his future political aspirations.
O'Mara said, "He did not give us the opportunity to get your input, and you're here tonight to give us your input after the fact."
In the three weeks since the law was passed, O'Mara says he has received as many e-mails opposed to the SAFE Act as he has gotten in 4 1/2 years from opponents of the use of hydraulic fracturing in natural gas exploration.
He also said that law enforcement and mental health professionals were not asked to review this.
"Clearly, it was a rush to get it done to be first. It was Andrew Cuomo's attempt to be out there, out front, first going farther than anybody else," said O'Mara.
Palmesano said, "We debated this on the floor for five hours and pointed out flaw after flaw after flaw." He expects more costs and fees to be added in the future. All three stated their commitment to amend the law, but O'Mara believes an all-out repeal is impossible with the current makeup of the legislature.
O'Mara later said he is confident that the state spending to enforce SAFE will soon skyrocket, saying the $36 million budgeted for the state police will not be enough. Nojay went further, saying he believes it will soon escalate to hundreds of millions of dollars, and cited Canada's attempt to register firearms that he says was finally scrapped when costs exceeded $1.1 billion.
They expect the economic impact to go beyond state spending. Manufacturers such as Remington, with thousands of employees, have already expressed to them their fears they will be forced to relocate their operations out of state.
Many of the questions raised by SCOPE members and the public were more a matter of voicing what they hoped to see Albany do:
"Why can't we spend this money to get School Resource (Police) Officers back?"
"Will misuse of the weapons permit database be prosecuted?"
"Isn't the registry of the sale of all ammunition a defacto registry of all guns?"
"Will clubs have to perform background checks on the ammunition they sell for use on their own grounds to their own members?"
"What if a permit is denied? Will the sheriffs then come to confiscate those guns?"
That last question was one that hung in the air without a definite answer.
Yates County joins the chorus
The Yates County Legislature joined a list of 23 other counties who have passed resolutions opposing the SAFE Act, especially the manner in which it was passed, the infringement on individual liberty established in The Bill Of Rights, and the spending it will entail during an economic crisis.
Many more counties have similar resolutions on their upcoming agendas. Both Nojay and Yates County Legislature Chairman Taylor Fitch expect an overwhelming number of New York's 62 counties to add their names to that list.
"All of us feel it is unconstitutional, was done in the wrong way with no debate, and it should be overruled," says Fitch. "It will either have to be amended or go to the courts. I'm not sure which is best."
The governor's office defends the law with the following explanation:
"The NY SAFE Act is designed to make New York a safer place to live by reducing gun violence through common sense and reasonable reforms. The law respects the right to bear arms and the interest of hunters, sportsmen, and legal owners who use their guns appropriately.
"The law protects New Yorkers by:
"• Keeping guns out of the hands of convicted felons and potentially dangerous mental health patients.
"• Banning high capacity magazines and assault weapons.
"• Ensuring all gun purchases are subject to a background check.
"• Toughening criminal penalties on those who use illegal guns."
The law establishes tougher penalties for those who use illegal guns as well as measures to help combat gang violence. Tougher penalties under the law include:
Murder of a first responder who is engaged in his or her duties will become a Class A-1 felony, with a mandatory penalty of life in prison without parole.
• Possession of a firearm on school grounds or a school bus will be increased from a misdemeanor to a Class E Felony.
• Possession of an unloaded gun will be raised from a misdemeanor to a Class E felony.
• Recklessly injuring a child by a firearm will become a Class D felony.
• The purchase of a gun for someone the buyer knows to be disqualified because of a conviction of a crime, an involuntary commitment or other disqualifier, will be raised to a Class D felony from a misdemeanor. This also raised to a class D felony the sale or transfer of a firearm to an individual known to be prohibited from possessing a gun.
• Tougher penalties to permit more effective gang prosecutions, allowing a prosecutor to ask for 25 to life (previously was just 15 years) for an entire group when a gang is involved in murder.
Using or carrying a firearm during drug trafficking or a violent felony will include a 5 year mandatory minimum sentence if the gun is loaded and a 3½ year mandatory minimum if unloaded. (The Court could impose a lower sentence in drug trafficking cases depending on mitigating factors).
• Sharing a gun with an individual who is not authorized to possess a gun and commits a crime will constitute criminal facilitation.
Feb. 28 Rally
After a well attended protest in Albany last month, Nojay and others began planning a rally against the SAFE Act to be held in the Well of the Legislative Office Building on Feb. 28.
Yates County SCOPE has arranged for two 56- seat buses to take local opponents to make their voices heard. If you would like to make a statement against the SAFE Act in Albany on Feb. 28, call SCOPE Treasurer Bill Button at 585-554-6868 to reserve your bus seat. At press time, only 14 places remained. Organizers expect over 35,000 at the event.
Button says, "We're going to be civilly disobedient. If some people in Albany have to sit in traffic during the rally, so be it."
With so many voices raised in protest of a law that is criticized as hurriedly drafted and hastily passed, Sheriff Spike's words seem particularly apt, "Let us hope this has awakened a sleeping giant, because this law needs changes."