A shot at understanding

LAKE PLACID – A forum on New York’s new gun law attracted a big crowd Tuesday despite the relatively short notice and mid-day timing.

The forum on the New York Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act was held at the Conference Center at Lake Placid at 1 p.m. Tuesday. It featured a brief presentation on the new law, which sped through the state Legislature and was signed into law earlier this month, and a lengthy question-and-answer period with area reporters and gun owners.

“Clearly, we have a hot issue here,” Col. Tom Fazio of New York State Police told a crowd of about 40 people. “We’re here today just to really present the law the way it is – this is what’s on the book – to help everybody kind of understand what the law says.”

The forum was relatively low-key, even though the state and national debate over gun control has been anything but. Gun owners in attendance asked their questions, and the law enforcement officials answered them. But frustration over the new law was evident.

“I am myself a New York state carry permit holder,” Nathan Mattoon of Tupper Lake said. “To get this permit, I had to wait nine months and pay over $100 to have my fingerprints taken, and to have a criminal and mental health background check, both of which I passed. … Yet under the SAFE Act, my Glock 19 and more specifically the magazines that I once owned have been deemed too dangerous for me to own and use.

“Frankly, I find the hypocrisy of the SAFE Act to be insulting.”

Throughout the forum, Fazio and other state law-enforcement officials were asked for their opinion on the new law. Kevin Bruen, assistant legal counsel for state police, said their job isn’t to opine about the SAFE Act.

“We are neutral enforcers of law,” he said.

Fazio said the law was designed to make New York a safer place by keeping firearms out of the hands of criminals, convicted felons and the mentally ill. He said it also respects Second Amendment rights for hunters, sportsmen and other legal owners.

Fazio explained that the new law bans high-capacity magazines and assault weapons, although it does include a grandfather clause for certain firearms. It also toughens criminal penalties for people who use or possess illegal guns, and makes the murder of a first responder a class A-1 felony, carrying a mandatory penalty of life in prison without parole.

“A vast majority of guns are not affected by this law – that’s your lever, your pump and bolt action (firearms),” Fazio said. “Owners of guns that are classified as an assault weapon may permanently modify their gun so as to render it a non-assault weapon. If you take away the characteristic that makes it an assault weapon, you no longer have to register it.”

Using display posters, Fazio explained the characteristics that will now designate a rifle, shotgun or pistol as an assault weapon. For a rifle to be considered an assault weapon, it must be semiautomatic and able to accept a detachable magazine, and then have one of the following military characteristics: a folding or telescoping stock, a protruding pistol grip, a thumbhole stock, a second hand grip, a bayonet mount, a flash suppressor, a threaded barrel, a muzzle compensator or a grenade launcher.

A semiautomatic shotgun with one or more of the following characteristics would be considered an assault weapon: a folding stock, a telescoping stock, a thumbhole stock, a fixed magazine with capacity of more than seven rounds, or the ability to accept a detachable magazine.

For semiautomatic pistols, many of the same characteristics apply, Fazio said.

If a firearm owner has a gun that meets the new definition of an assault weapon, what should they do? Bruen said if a person owned the gun prior to Jan. 15, they can keep it and register it, sell it to a federally licensed firearms dealer or sell it to someone in a different state.

One of the tenser moments came when Tupper Lake resident Barry Mattoon, Nathan’s father, asked Bruen if police would confiscate high-capacity magazines if someone didn’t turn them in.

“If someone refuses to turn in a 30-round magazine after the date it’s considered illegal, will it be taken? Will it be confiscated?” Mattoon asked.

“The Fourth Amendment, and Article VI of the New York State Constitution, still apply,” Bruen said. “If you’re asking me, will the state police enter your home and take magazines that are illegally possessed, the answer is no – unless they have probably cause and a warrant signed by a judge.”

Bob Brown of Saranac Lake, who serves as executive program director of the New York State Conservation Council, told the Enterprise he didn’t like the way the SAFE Act was drafted, debated and signed into law in such a short amount of time. He said he spent seven years working on legislation to make it legal for 14- and 15-year-olds to hunt for big game.

“And it passed, and they were able to hunt this year – no accidents, no fatalities – but it took me seven years,” Brown said. “You’d think that something that would affect the Second Amendment, mental health, law enforcement – let alone gun owners – would be done in a fair manner and above board. And it wasn’t.

“My opinion is that it probably helped the governor work his way toward possible election as president of the United States, but other than that it’s created a lot of problems for legal firearms owners in the state that haven’t caused any problems at all.”

Speaking to reporters after the presentation, Fazio said he thinks the new law will help police officers keep people safe.

“When you speak about taking a gun from maybe someone who has some mental health issues, or take it from someone who has the propensity to commit a crime and a felony, and to keep the guns out of those hands is a good thing,” he said.

Across the state, county clerks, state and local police, sheriff’s offices and others have been fielding questions about the new law. Asked if he feels that law-enforcement officials are being drawn away from their regular duties to provide information about the law, Fazio said he doesn’t think so.

“There’s no concern,” he said. “Anytime you come out with new legislation, it’s a little bit confusing, and we need to make sure that people understand it.”

Contact Chris Morris at 891-2600 ext. 25 or cmorris@adirondackdailyenterprise.com.