State Police Struggle to Understand New York’s Crazy New Gun Law

Jacob Sullum|Oct. 11, 2013

New York’s SAFE Act, hurriedly approved last January because Gov. Andrew Cuomo was determined to be the first out of the gate with ill-considered new gun controls after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, is a pretty complicated piece of legislation. Who knew? That is not a rhetorical question. Legislators passed the bill so quickly that most of them did not have a chance to read it, which is one reason they have already felt compelled to amend it repeatedly. With those changes piled on top of provisions that interact with existing laws in tricky ways, it is doubtful that the average New Yorker understands what the law requires, allows, and forbids. Even the cops are confused, to judge from a new guide to the SAFE Act prepared by the state police. The introduction to the 17-page document, which was released last month, notes that “the SAFE Act has raised questions from members of the field relating to the scope of the Act and its effect on those police officers who will have the responsibility to enforce the various provisions.” A few highlights from this guide to those perplexed by the godawful mess that is the Safe Amunition and Firearms Enforcement Act:

Haven’t you always wanted an assault weapon?

Because the law broadened the definition of “assault weapon,” guns that were lawfully owned prior to January 15 will become contraband unless they are registered with the government by April 15, 2014. Once a gun is registered, “the person who registered it may keep the assault weapon for life” but may not transfer it to anyone except a police officer, a licensed dealer, or a resident of a state where the gun is legal. And in case you were wondering, “There are no exceptions that allow a person to transfer an Assault Weapon to an immediate family member.”

Magazine prescriptions.

It used to be legal to own a magazine holding more than 10 rounds if it was manufactured prior to 1994 (the last time the legislature restricted the size of ammunition feeding devices). Now it is a Class A misdemeanor, unless the magazine is “permanently modified” by next January 15 so that it accepts no more than 10 rounds. Because it turned out that the seven-round magazines Cuomo wanted to mandate do not exist, 10-round magazines, which the original version of the SAFE Act banned, are now allowed, provided you put no more than seven rounds in them. Loading eight, nine, or 10 rounds makes you subject to penalties ranging from a $200 fine to a year in jail, depending on where the magazine is located (at home or elsewhere) and whether it is a repeat offense.

Guess how many rounds I have.

“Unless there is probable cause to believe the law is being violated,” the guide warns, “there is no justification for checking a magazine to determine whether or not it contains more than 7 rounds.”

Ignorance of the law is an excuse. If you fail to register a gun that was not an “assault weapon” under the old definition but is an “assault weapon” under the new definition, you have committed a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine. But this charge applies only if you “knew that the weapon was of the type that must be registered and failed to register it.” Likewise, “if a person 1) mistakenly believed that possession of a pre-94 magazine was still legal; and if, 2) he or she either surrenders the magazine or lawfully disposes of it within 30 days after being notified by law enforcement or a county official that the magazine is unlawful, he or she may not be charged.” To avoid criminal liability, in other words, gun owners should not read the statute or summaries of it.

Cops are exempt from the gun rules they will be enforcing.

Although the legislature, in its haste, initially neglected to include the usual exceptions for active-duty and retired law enforcement officers, it later rectified that situation, restoring the double standard that cops take for granted. Hence current and former cops may possess “assault weapons,” put 10 rounds in 10-round magazines, and use even bigger magazines that are denied to mere citizens. After all, it would be is crazy to expect cops to obey arbitrary restrictions that no criminal will follow, as Norman Seabrook, president of the New York City Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, explained in January. “As a law enforcement officer for over 20 years,” Seabrook said, “I understand the importance of instituting a new policy on mandating the limits of bullets that a regular citizen can possess, but as a matter of fact the bad guys are not going to follow this law.”

How well do you know your brother?

The SAFE Act requires background checks for all gun transfers, meaning formerly private sales have to be arranged through licensed firearms dealers. The only exceptions are for transfers to “immediate family members,” which do not include siblings, grandchildren, aunts, uncles, or cousins. Violating this provision is a Class A misdemeanor. That means you can go to jail for a year if you give your grandson a hunting rifle. But at least “police are not exempt from the requirements relating to private sales of firearms.”

Your therapist can strip you of your Second Amendment rights.

If a mental health professional thinks you may harm yourself or others, he is required to report you. If the county’s director of community services agrees with that judgment (as any ass-covering bureaucrat is apt to do), he is required to pass the report on to the Division of Criminal Justice Services, which is required to check whether you hold a pistol permit. If you do, the state police are required to notify the local licensing authority. Although the state police guide says the licensing authority will then “make a determination as to whether to suspend or revoke the subject’s license,” the SAFE Act actually gives local officials no discretion in the matter, saying they “shall issue an order suspending or revoking such license.” And altough a permit is required only for handguns, the guide notes, “if a person becomes ineligible to hold a pistol permit, the Safe Act requires the person to surrender all firearms to police, including all rifles and shotguns for which no license or registration is required.”

[Thanks to Richard Feldman for the tip.]