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Owning guns is SAFE(r)

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Nearly a year later, the New York Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act is as controversial as it was the day it was passed.

And how it was passed on Jan. 15, 2013, immediately drew major complaints. But that was nothing compared to the fury gun rights advocates unleashed at what was contained in the measure.

With the first anniversary of the mass shooting in Newton, Conn., occurring last month and that of the passage of the NY SAFE Act approaching, this is a good time to examine the gun control issue. I’ll explore the SAFE Act in this column and review broader questions in the next few days.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo invoked the “message of necessity” tactic last year to pass the NY SAFE Act. It allows the Legislature to bypass the state constitution’s requirement that lawmakers wait at least three days before voting on a measure that has been introduced. This loophole essentially renders the three-day provision meaningless.

Legislators worked on passing the NY SAFE Act late into the night Jan. 14 of last year, an effort that carried over until the next day. This once again gave the appearance that they rushed the measure through in the dead of night before anyone could mount opposition.

The NY SAFE Act broadened what qualifies as an assault weapon and made it illegal to own such a firearm under this new definition, unless someone already owned one before the law was passed. A Jan. 17, 2013, article in the Times-Union reported that Gov. Cuomo said the message of necessity was needed to prevent a rush on purchases of assault weapons as the bill was being considered.

He made a valid point here. If the goal was to halt further proliferation of assault weapons, gun enthusiasts would make a beeline to their nearest dealer to buy as many of these firearms as possible.

Gov. Cuomo, however, put the entire bill under the message of necessity allowance. And since some portions of the law weren’t scheduled to go into effect for months, he used poor judgment.

He should have used a message of necessity to prohibit the sale or transfer of any assault weapon, with the new definition of this firearm included. But a sunset clause should have been attached to the bill, say for three months.

This way, no one could legally acquire assault weapons for three months while legislators mulled over the remainder of the bill. Members of the Assembly and Senate would have had time to examine the NY SAFE Act’s merits while opponents expressed their concerns.

If the bill passed in parts or its entirety before the sunset clause expired, those measures would be put into effect all the while providing ample time for a vigorous debate. Otherwise, the assault weapons ban passed via the message of necessity procedure would disappear.

Aside from redefining and banning the sale or transfer of assault weapons, the NY SAFE Act limited high-capacity magazines to seven rounds, expands the use of background checks to buy firearms and ammunition, creates an assault weapons registry, compels mental health patients believed to have made a credible threat to be reported to state authorities and increases penalties for specific gun crimes, among other provisions.

The item banning high-capacity magazines has proven to be the most problematic. Since many firearm magazines come standard with a capacity of 10 rounds, Gov. Cuomo declared that owners could only put seven rounds in them.

But a federal judge declared this part of the law unconstitutional last month. And it’s a good thing because it’s unenforceable. Are police expected to stop people randomly to inspect their firearms to ensure there are no more than seven rounds in the magazine?

The other hiccup with the law is the provision requiring mental health patients to be reported if they are believed to have made a credible threat against someone. Mental health professionals have said this could adversely affect their ability to counsel patients. Some have said they won’t comply with this portion of the law, declaring that the confidentiality of patient information trumps any safety measures in the law.

As wildly unpopular as the NY SAFE Act is, I fail to see where opponents have much room for criticism. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that reasonable regulations on gun purchases and ownership are constitutional. Except for those two questionable areas, I don’t see what’s unreasonable about the rest of the law.

Why, for example, do gun enthusiasts raise so many objections to increasing the use of background checks? They have proven to be effective in areas where they are enforced.

Where they haven’t been effective is in situations where they are not required. So gun rights advocates cannot claim that background checks don’t work. What doesn’t work is allowing people to buy guns under specific circumstances without background checks.

If every single gun purchase and transfer was subject to a background check — no exceptions — more firearms would be kept out of the wrong hands. And the NY SAFE Act is a good step in the right direction on this front.

But opponents of the law are set to speak out. At noon this Saturday, the Northern New York Freedom Fighters will re-create the “shot heard ‘round the world” in Concord, Mass., in 1775, beginning the American Revolution.

Members of the group will fire a symbolic shot at the Black Lake Fish and Game Club, Route 58 and Potato Street in Morristown, to protest the passage of the NY SAFE Act. Trap shooting will follow for anyone interested.

People are invited to join members of the Northern New York Freedom Fighters in opposing perhaps the most stringent gun control measure in the nation to be passed following the tragedy at Newton. But like much of the misguided vitriol over gun control, I believe these shots will ring hollow.

Jerry Moore is the editorial page editor for the Watertown Daily Times. Readers may call him at 315-661-2369 or send emails to jmoore@wdt.net.

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