CAPITAL REGION — Four-plus years after passage of the SAFE Act, New York has some of the strictest gun-control laws in the nation.
The weapons used to perpetrate the worst mass shooting in U.S. history two weeks ago in Las Vegas are illegal to buy, sell or possess in this state, but whether the state is any safer because of the restrictions on assault-style weapons is a matter of opinion: The state had one of the lowest firearm-related death rates in the nation even before assault weapons were limited.
High-capacity ammunition magazines have been banned in New York since 2013. Machine guns have been illegal here for much longer, and a bump stock — or any other modification that makes a semiautomatic weapon function like a fully automatic weapon — is illegal to install.
Assault-style weapons that stopped short of machine guns were legal to purchase in New York state up until April 15, 2013; all such weapons were required to be registered from that point forward.
Based on the thousands of assault weapons purchased in the early 2013 rush to beat the ban, and the thousands that already were in private hands — the National Shooting Sports Foundation estimated the total number at 1 million — the State Department of Criminal Justice Services statistics suggest limited public compliance with this rule and limited enforcement of it:
- A total of 44,095 assault weapons are registered statewide.
- There have been 17 arrests for failure to register a legally owned assault weapon recorded statewide from April 15, 2013, to Sept. 22, 2017. Just one of those arrests was in the Capital Region.
- There have been 123 arrests for possession of high-capacity magazines recorded statewide from March 16, 2013, to Sept. 22, 2017. (In the Capital Region that included three arrests in Albany County, two in Saratoga County, and one in Fulton County. Montgomery, Schoharie and Schenectady counties had zero such arrests.)
- From Jan. 1, 2012, to Sept. 22, 2017, 816 arrests were made statewide under Penal Law 265.02(7), the state law subsection that defines assault weapons. (In the Capital Region, there was one such arrest in Montgomery County, three each in Fulton and Schoharie counties, four in Saratoga County, five in Schenectady County and 22 in Albany County.)
- From Jan. 1, 2012, to Sept. 22, 2017, 338 arrests were made statewide under Penal Law 265.02(2), the subsection that bans fully automatic firearms or semiautomatic weapons modified to simulate machine guns.
There’s a significant caveat with this last statistic, though: 265.02(2) includes possession of explosive devices, incendiary devices, silencers, and any defaced firearms, not just machine guns — and state statistics don’t indicate what exactly led to each arrest, only that the arrest was made under 265.02(2). In the Capital Region, three such arrests were made each in Albany, Saratoga and Schoharie counties; two in Montgomery County; and one each in Fulton and Schenectady counties.
New York State Police spokesman Beau Duffy said New York law is clear on the weapons used in Las Vegas: They are illegal here. Simply possessing a bump stock or other device allowing simulated machine gun fire is not, by itself, illegal, but possession of any firearm modified with such a device is a felony offense. Mere possession of a detachable magazine holding more than 10 rounds is illegal.
State lawmakers in Nevada and U.S. lawmakers in Washington have introduced legislation to ban bump stocks in the wake of the shooting.
Dave Leon, co-owner of B&D Gunsmoke, a Rotterdam gun shop, said he has significant reservations about New York’s heavy gun regulations. But he wouldn’t object to a state or federal ban on the purchase or possession of bump stocks.
“It really is a travesty that it was ever even designed or developed,” he said. “There’s no way to be responsible when you shoot with a bump stock. It sprays everywhere.”
But beyond that, he doesn’t think the SAFE Act — rushed into law in New York after an elementary school massacre in late 2012 in neighboring Connecticut — accomplishes much for public safety.
“Are we safer because of the SAFE Act? I don’t believe so.”
What it has accomplished is to decrease the options and increase the paperwork for law-abiding gun owners — and limit the inventory for licensed gun dealers — he said.
“We’ve really had to modify everything that comes into the store before we put it on the shelf,” Leon said. “We’re at a disadvantage compared to other states.”
The gun sales portion of Gunsmoke’s business isn’t growing in the current regulatory environment, Leon said. He’s moving to place more emphasis on safety and marksmanship training.
“Our goal over the next year or so is to build an indoor range,” he said, complete with training and large-screen electronic simulation. “It’s (the shooting range) still a nightmare with insurance.”
The irony of it all, he said, is that many mass shootings are perpetrated by mentally disturbed people who are acting alone and in secret, so they are hard to detect.
(The New York SAFE Act does include a requirement that mental health professionals report to authorities any patients they feel are a risk to harm themselves or others.)
What effect New York’s strict firearm laws have on crime prevention can be a ticklish question, particularly in the wake of a massacre. (The district attorneys of Fulton, Schenectady and Saratoga counties did not return calls for comment.)
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control compiles statistics on firearms-related deaths that show New York is one of the safest states in the nation, in terms of shooting deaths:
- There were 33,594 people killed with firearms nationwide in 2014, about the same number as were killed by falls, alcohol-related causes and motor-vehicle crashes. Only 32.8 percent of the shooting deaths, about 11,000, were homicides. The bulk of shooting deaths — 63.7 percent — were suicides.
- In 2005, there were 30,694 shooting deaths nationwide, 40.2 percent of them — about 12,300 — were homicides.
- In 2014, New York had the fourth-lowest firearm death rate (both suicide and homicide) among the 50 states, behind Hawaii, Rhode Island and Massachusetts. Deaths per 100,000 people ranged from 2.6 in Hawaii to 19.2 in Alaska. New York had 4.2 per 100,000 — a total of 875.
- In 2005, firearms-related deaths ranged from 2.1 per 100,000 in Hawaii to 18.5 in Alaska; New York was sixth-lowest, with 5.3 per 100,000 — a total of 1,019.
One local official who’s had decades to ponder the question from multiple angles is Richard Giardino. He was elected Fulton County sheriff in 2015, previously was a Fulton County judge for 18 years, and before that was the Fulton County district attorney for five years. He also was an assistant district attorney in Nassau and Fulton counties, and once was a part-time police officer.
“Many upstate sheriffs feel a lot of the regulations don’t target criminals,” he said. “The rules had a disproportionate effect on legal handgun owners or semiautomatic rifles.
“The SAFE Act in my opinion had very little impact on the real culprits.”
To judge by the number of arrests statewide since 2013, police agencies lack the resources and/or inclination to actively seek out people who possess illegal firearms, or who illegally possess legal firearms. Giardino said this is the case for his department.
So unless the weapon comes to police attention through some other means, it goes undetected.
Giardino also notes the old familiar upstate-downstate divide. Legal guns are much more common outside New York City than within, but New York City representatives dominate the state Legislature. According to the state DCJS, of all the SAFE Act arrests in New York state from 2013 to present, 80 percent were made in New York City, which accounts for only 43 percent of the state's population.
Giardino said that, over the course of his decades on the bench, he issued thousands of pistol permits and, as a visiting judge in 10 counties, presided over hundreds of criminal trials, including about 40 homicides. In one of the homicides, a pool cue was used to kill the victim. In another, a rock. But none involved a legally permitted handgun, he said.
Each year, he added, he would revoke a few dozen pistol permits for assorted unrelated offenses, such as drunken driving or domestic violence that didn’t involve gunfire. But again, he said, the people who legally owned the guns weren’t committing crimes with them — they just showed themselves through some other action to be unsuited to own a pistol.
Referring to the Las Vegas shooter, Giardino acknowledged the intent of New York laws even as he questioned their impact.
“If that person had followed New York law, they wouldn’t have been able to fire that many shots in that period of time,” he said. “The biggest problem when you see these mass shootings is mental health issues.
“If the guy in Las Vegas had taken a truck and rammed it into the crowd, you could have had as many deaths. Not as many injuries. To me, the method isn’t as important as the fact that I lost a loved one.”