The NY SAFE Act, a broken umbrella of enhanced state gun control laws hastily passed in the emotional wake of the Newtown, Conn., elementary school shootings, will be a year old on Jan. 15.
Don’t look for much of a celebration.
It remains as controversial as when it was smuggled through the Legislature on the first day of the session by its eager champion, Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Upstate, it was instantly reviled as a crude, condescending downstate attempt to stick it to legal gun owners for political gain and nothing much else, with eventually 52 of the 62 counties passing resolutions against it. An unprecedented rejection.
Still, most of the inevitable legal challenges were thrown out. The one serious constitutional challenge brought by the New York State Pistol & Rifle Association and a number of the other gun rights groups and individuals, with the backing of the National Rifle Association, got its first decision from a federal district judge in Buffalo last week. Media accounts of the decision call it a victory for Cuomo and gun control advocates because it seemingly affirmed most of the NY SAFE Act as constitutionally sound. But a close reading of Judge William M. Skretny‘s decision shows that he came closer to halving the baby, that it’s far more complicated than one side winning or losing.
In fact, I would say the gun rights folks came out of this far better than they expected, and are in a pretty good place as they now ascend the federal court system with in all likelihood a pretty conservative U.S. Supreme Court as the last stop.
Judge Skretny threw out Cuomo’s senseless seven-round limit in a 10-round clip rule, a big issue for handgun owners, as arbitrary. But just as important was his reasoning and logic. A legal gun-owning homeowner defending himself from an illegally armed invader, a situation in which the individual right to bear arms is at its zenith, should not be at a numerical disadvantage if shots are exchanged with someone who will have no regard for legal round limits. That is an argument that can be extrapolated well beyond handguns, and no doubt will be.
I can see my friends cringe at this, but it’s time for New Yorkers to realize what the constitutional issue boils down to is the right to protect oneself with a gun. In limited circumstances, that could mean shooting back at people. It may seem idiotic, distasteful, alarming. The argument is not with me; it’s with the courts and our Founding Fathers, not in that order. Further, stated the judge in his decision, handguns are the predominant weapon for home defense. So while handguns are responsible for more than 90 percent of the violent gun crimes in this country, creating more barriers to access to handguns and ammunition for legal gun owners again creates an unlevel playing field and could push the constitutional rights button. It’s a delicate balance between public safety concerns and individual gun rights.
On the question of the various bans and heightened security in the SAFE Act of so-called assault weapons, the judge comes down on the side of public safety, citing the state’s statistical evidence of the frequent presence of these weapons at civil events of mass destruction like Newtown. But even here, he leaves many doors open for the gun advocacy groups. He labels them ”legal weapons in common use,” that millions are legally used without incident and that includes banned high-capacity magazines. The judge does not buy the argument that assault-style weapons are inherently toxic.