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Stronger gun control has stronger prospects in all-Democratic state Capitol

Stronger gun control has stronger prospects in all-Democratic state Capitol

Local firearm dealers waiting to learn whether there will be another rush by gun buyers
Stronger gun control has stronger prospects in all-Democratic state Capitol
Frank Havlick of Frank's Gun & Tackle Shop Inc., Vails Mills, right, talks with customer Eddie Wait of Rock City Falls Thursday.
Photographer: MARC SCHULTZ/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER

ALBANY — Gun advocates and opponents are waiting to see what the new year brings in the state Capitol, where Republican control of the Senate — a longstanding brake on state gun control measures — is about to end.

Long-frustrated Democratic legislators have revived old gun control proposals and offered new ones, such as raising the minimum firearm purchase age from 18 to 21; allowing civil litigation against manufacturers alleged to have irresponsibly marketed firearms to irresponsible people; and creating a criminal charge for non-secure storage of a firearm that is later used to injure or kill another person.

On Monday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo formalized his own list: a ban on bump stocks, (devices that allow a semi-automatic rifle to fire more like a machine gun); a 10-day waiting period for gun buyers who are neither approved or who are rejected during their federal background checks; and a Red Flag law that would create an extreme-risk order of protection, allowing the confiscation of firearms from people before they are convicted of certain crimes.

Cuomo’s proposals are one part of his 2019 Justice Agenda, a list of 20 progressive priorities for the coming session of the Legislature. Some of the proposals previously have stalled in the Senate.

Watching it all with similar interest but dissimilar emotions are those who like guns or dislike them -- and those who make a living from guns.

BUSY SEASON

Autumn is a busy time at most gun shops, thanks to hunting season and holiday gift-giving. This year, some shops are seeing an additional jump in sales thanks to Election Day.

“We’ve seen a great number of people since the election who’ve expressed concern about their rights being trampled again,” said Craig Serafini, owner of Upstate Guns and Ammo in Niskayuna.

The SAFE Act, a landmark package of gun-control measures signed into law in 2013, prompted New Yorkers to rush out and purchase guns before the law took effect. The assault-type semiautomatic rifles that have been used in a number of massacres nationwide, and that were specifically targeted in the 2013 law, were big sellers then.

The phrase “SAFE Act II” is being thrown around by firearms enthusiasts now, though there have not been any formal proposals under that name.

David Leon, co-owner of B&D Gunsmoke in Rotterdam, said he hasn’t seen as many people worried about expanded gun control recently as there were in 2013.

“This time, they’re not as educated, and the politicians are being a little more tricky because they want to get something passed,” Leon said.

John Havlick, owner of Frank’s Gun Shop in Broadalbin, said he was swamped with customers this past week but added he usually is busy this time of year.

“You hear that a little bit,” he said, referring to customers expressing concern about stricter gun control, “but from Aug. 1 to the end of the year, we always do exceptionally well on gun sales.”

There’s another uptick in winter, when tax refund checks start rolling in, Havlick said.

GUN CONTROL

Both sides of the gun control debate have been known to cite facts selectively. 

A favorite talking point of gun control opponents is that rampant gun violence in Chicago — a city with strong regulations on gun ownership — proves regulations are worthless. The argument comes despite the fact New York City, which also has strong gun control measures, has seen its homicide tally plummet from 2,245 in 1990 to 290 in 2017. 

Likewise, anyone who points to New York City as a gun-control success story is ignoring the fact that the city’s strict gun-control laws already were in place as the bloodshed there rose through the 1980s and peaked in the early 1990s.

And anyone who points to the large number of firearms-related deaths in New York state (900 in 2016) to show the futility of the state’s strong gun control regulations is ignoring federal statistics that indicate New York has nearly the lowest rate of firearms-related deaths of all 50 states.

Some cite a statistic that supports the SAFE Act: According to the state Department of Criminal Justice Services, firearm-related violent crimes outside New York City declined in three of the four years between 2014 and 2017. But that ignores the fact that those crimes were also down in three of the four years between 2009 and 2012.

And so go conversations about gun laws: Each side has its favorite numbers, and each is ready to punch holes in the other's stats.

If nothing else, the Chicago-New York City split suggests there is more to preventing gun violence than new laws.

“My basic thought is it was enforcement,” Serafini said of the decline in New York City gun violence. “Chicago doesn’t give people tools to enforce laws — we attempt to govern based on feel-good legislation, rather than common-sense legislation.”

At Upstate Guns and Ammo, customers and proprietors alike are waiting to see what comes out of the 2019 legislative session — or not waiting.

“There’s a lot of different things that we as an industry are expecting to see," Sarafini said. "We definitely see an uptick in sales of AR-15s [but] our biggest uptick is going to again be handgun sales.

“It’s all people who want to protect themselves -- protect their rights while they can.”

GROWING BUSINESS

Havlick has had enough success in the past and has enough confidence in the future that he is building a new home for the business his parents started 35 years ago. Frank’s Gun & Tackle Shop will move just a mile down the road. Looking at traffic patterns and talking to his fellow Route 30 merchants convinced him to relocate his business there.

Havlick’s got the building gutted, has replaced the plumbing and has started finishing the interior. Next month, it should be ready for paint and shelving, and then he’ll make the move.

Black Friday was huge this year, Havlick said, and he’s confident future sales will be strong, as well. Smaller-caliber weapons with milder recoil seem to be doing well, particularly among older customers, he said.

Like many in the firearms industry, he doesn’t see the value of recently enacted gun control measures -- or the proposed measures. 

“It just dumbfounds me how people get so brainwashed by him,” Havlick said of Cuomo.

He said Frank’s Gun & Tackle sells thousands of guns a year and sees just 20 to 30 potential buyers fail the federal background checks required before a sale. The failure is often for something that happened long ago, not because the buyer is a recent criminal.

“The guy robbing a bank doesn’t walk into a gun shop to buy a gun — regular people come here,” Havlick said.

He added: “[The state] could come out with a 100-day waiting period. I could drive probably 10 minutes from here and buy any illegal gun I want.”

KEEPING PACE

Leon, at Gunsmoke, said Cuomo’s new agenda will be more feel-good legislation that will limit constitutional rights rather than limit crime.

“I just continue to focus on the egregious nature of what the SAFE Act did,” Leon said. 

Looking forward, Leon said the extreme-risk order of protection would unconstitutionally deprive people of their rights to own guns before conviction.

“The Red Flag scares me more than anything … to me, all this stuff he’s doing is a huge infringement.”

(The state has already addressed post-conviction gun ownership for domestic violence-related convictions: Cuomo earlier this year signed a law barring those with even misdemeanor-level convictions for such crimes from possessing firearms.)

As for the proposed bump stock ban? Leon offers no criticism of that -- only the governor’s method for putting it forward.

In October 2017, a man in a high-rise hotel used bump stock-equipped rifles to shoot more than 460 concertgoers in Las vegas, 58 of them fatally. Possession of bump stocks is technically legal in New York state, but their installation on a rifle is illegal.

Some in the firearm sports community have sprung to the defense of the bump stock since the Las Vegas massacre, on the theory that any degree of gun control is a slippery and unconstitutional slope, but others excoriate the devices as a reckless way to increase a weapon's rate of fire at the expense of accuracy. (Leon, for example, calls them a “travesty.”)

But the point soon may be moot in New York: President Donald Trump’s administration announced Tuesday it would ban possession of bump stocks -- effective in 90 days -- on the grounds that they turn legal rifles into illegal machine guns. Gun Owners of America promptly announced plans for a legal challenge, but unless that is successful, Trump may beat Cuomo to the finish line on that one.

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