As 2013 comes to a close, New York state is looking back on nearly a year full of stricter gun laws.
Many still question the effectiveness of Gov. Andrew Cuomo's Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement (SAFE) Act which was signed into law on Jan. 15, and imposed a variety of restrictions including a reduction of magazine capacity and registration of newly defined assault weapons.
The Chautauqua County Sheriff's Office saw a surge of paperwork, much of which Sheriff Joe Gerace said included pistol permit applications along with exemption forms filed by permit holders in order to prevent their information from being released to the public.
Photos by Katie Atkins
Mickie Matecki-Muirhead is pictured firing a .22-caliber pistol at the Jamestown Rifle Club’s indoor shooting range. Members of the Jamestown Rifle Club hope to see reforms within New York’s SAFE Act in the coming year.
The combination caused a "paperwork nightmare," he said.
Fortunately for those working in the Chautauqua County Clerk's office, the deadline to file the exemption form has passed, but the amount of pistol permit applications continues to rise due in part to passage of the SAFE Act, Gerace said, adding that the process of obtaining a permit takes roughly six months.
"We're doing the best we can with what we have, trying to improve the process with existing staff," Gerace said.
Shortly after the law was enacted, Gerace attended the semi-annual Sheriff's Association meeting in Albany to discuss the positive and negative sides of the act.
"We spent a great deal of time on the law and developed a position," Gerace said. "We did like some of the aspects of the law, and we did have some serious concerns on other parts."
The law made the killing of emergency first responders an aggravated or first-degree murder charge, enhanced penalties for the crime and required life without parole, of which the Sheriff's Association approved.
It also required comprehensive review of mental health records before granting firearms permits and provided that guns must be safely stored if the owner lives with someone who has been convicted of a felony or domestic violence crime, has been involuntarily committed, or is currently under an order of protection.
Usage of the National Instant Criminal Background Check System for private sales, except between immediate family, was also required.
A survey performed by the Associated Press found that 52 percent of Americans favor stricter gun laws, 31 percent want them to remain as they are and 15 percent think they should be loosened.
NEED FOR REFORM
Gerace said there were other positive aspects to the law, but reform is desperately needed as there are still many unanswered questions and tremendous support statewide to repeal the SAFE Act.
"There are parts of the act that are not going to make New Yorkers safer, and I'd like to see those issues resolved," he said.
One of those issues was the reduction in the maximum capacity of magazines. The Sheriff's Association said it believed the restriction would not reduce gun violence.
"The new law will unfairly limit the ability of law-abiding citizens to purchase firearms in New York," the association stated in a letter to Cuomo. "It bears repeating that it is our belief that the reduction of magazine capacity will not make New Yorkers or our communities safer.
The act also classified rifles with certain features as assault weapons which posed restrictions to many owners.
Sheriffs stated that the assault weapon term was "too broad" and prevented the possession of many weapons that are legitimately used for hunting, target shooting and self defense. "Classifying firearms as assault weapons because of one arbitrary feature effectively deprives people the right to possess firearms which have never before been designated as assault weapons," they stated.
The act came under scrutiny for how fast it was put into practice, and a proposed background check requirement for purchasing ammunition was scheduled to take effect Jan. 15, but the date has been set back due to a lack of preparedness within website development.
SHOOTING AS A SPORT
Aside from those in law enforcement, rightful gun owners have spoken out about the SAFE Act and its regulations.
Dave Allen, Malinda Stoller and Mickie Matecki-Muirhead of the Jamestown Rifle Club have been familiar with guns for more than 30 years. As National Rifle Association certified instructors and gun-sport enthusiasts, they have expressed concern as to how the SAFE Act will affect the future of the sport of shooting.
They, too, have many unanswered questions and concerns, one of them being January's ammunition purchase background check.
"There are many hoops to jump through," Matecki-Muirhead said.
Besides the act's seven-round limitation on handguns, Matecki-Muirhead, Stoller and Allen are concerned about the health care aspect of the law. Under the SAFE Act, if a health care provider deems a gun owner dangerous to themself or others, firearms may be confiscated.
"You should be able to get the help you need," Matecki-Muirhead said. "You're not dangerous just because you need help. I'm afraid we're on a slippery slope."
"It's kind of our culture. It's a rural thing," Allen said, adding that people who are unfamiliar with guns are often scared of them.
"That's why we're here, to educate and inform," Matecki-Muirhead added.
All three argued that if a criminal wants to hurt others, the act will not be stopped by a seven-round limitation.
For example, Stoller said, the Boston Marathon bombers used pressure cooker bombs which killed three people and injured several others. Although she was heartbroken by the violence at Sandy Hook, the SAFE Act "missed the target" and was a poor precedent for solving acts of violence.
"It's a morality issue," Allen concluded.
Currently, there are approximately 300 members of the Jamestown Rifle Club and over the course of its existence, just one accidental injury has occurred among adult shooters. There has never been an injury within the club's junior programs.
The rifle club also has a women's shooting program which meets monthly and aims to educate women on how to properly fire a gun.
Allen, Stoller and Matecki-Muirhead hope to see the SAFE Act change in the coming year.
"It's a very frustrating situation for gun owners and us, in law enforcement," Gerace said. "Criminals don't care and they're carrying their guns illegally, at full capacity, while the law-abiding homeowner can't."
Gerace suggests gun owners let their feelings on the act continue to be known to state legislators and Cuomo.
"With regard to the SAFE Act, I'm hopeful that the legislature will take steps to amend it," said Assemblyman Andy Goodell, R-Chautauqua County, adding that he hopes to see changes to the act's current rifle restrictions.
Gun owners with rifles falling under the assault weapon category must register their guns by April 15, 2014.
"The safest rifle is one that's being held and used by a hunter who knows how to aim it accurately and knows and follows the safety rules we require all hunters to follow," Goodell said, further suggesting that everyone comply with the law and register their rifles by April 15.