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SAFE Act court ruling dumps 7-bullet limit

Posted on January 9, 2014

Buffalo, N.Y. — New York’s SAFE Act, roundly criticized by sportsmen, gun owners, and even upstate county sheriffs and government leaders, has been upheld by a federal judge.

But Judge William Skretny did rule late last month the state’s gun control law can’t limit a magazine to seven bullets, tossing that provision of the SAFE Act and giving its opponents a minor legal victory.

Skretny, in U.S. District Court in Buffalo, ruled the SAFE Act, passed by the state Legislature during a late-night vote a year ago and immediately signed into law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, is not unconstitutional and doesn’t violate Second Amendment rights.

The New York State Rifle & Pistol Association and several other groups had filed suit challenging the SAFE Act, which bans large-capacity magazines and many semiautomatic firearms, including some popular sporting rifles and shotguns.

Skretny’s 54-page ruling, handed down Dec. 31, concluded the SAFE Act provisions are constitutional because they’re related to achieving an “important governmental interest” in public safety. Large-capacity magazines and semiautomatic ability make guns more lethal, he wrote, citing testimony submitted in the case.

The law “applies only to a subset of firearms with characteristics New York state has determined to be particularly dangerous and unnecessary for self-defense,” his decision read. “It does not totally disarm New York’s citizens, and it does not meaningfully jeopardize their right to self-defense.”

At the same time, he tossed the seven-round magazine limit, calling it “an arbitrary number.”

New York State Rifle and Pistol Association president Thomas King overturning the magazine capacity limit “was a big win. That was one of the main points of contention.”

In tossing the magazine capacity limit, Skretny essentially agreed with gun rights advocates that limiting the number of bullets that could be placed in a large-capacity magazine could make a gun-owning homeowner less safe against a criminal.

“This provision, much more so than with respect to the other provisions of the law, presents the possibility of a disturbing perverse effect, pitting the criminal with a fully loaded magazine against the law-abiding citizen limited to seven rounds,” the judge wrote.

The judge also tossed a portion of the law that banned firearms capable of accommodating a muzzle brake that reduces recoil.

The SAFE Act was adopted last January following the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., by a gunman police said used a semi-automatic rifle and 30-round magazines to kill 20 children and six adults.

“Of course, this is only one incident,” Skretny wrote. “But it is nonetheless illustrative. Studies and data support New York’s view that assault weapons are often used to devastating effect in mass shootings.”

The New York State Rifle and Pistol Association and several other plaintiffs challenged the law, claiming it infringed on “fundamental constitutional rights to lawfully possess, keep, bear and use firearms for self-defense and other lawful purposes.”

The passage of the SAFE Act also triggered and immediate outcry from sportsmen and gun owners, who staged several public protests, including one at the state capital that attracted over 10,000 people.
Several upstate county sheriffs joined in opposition to the law, some saying they wouldn’t enforce it. County lawmakers and municipalities passed resolutions calling for its repeal, and many gun owners say they won’t comply with the law by registering their semiautomatic firearms.

The law redefined an assault weapon as a semi-automatic rifle that can accept a detachable magazine and has one military-style feature, such as a pistol grip or thumbhole stock. That definition applies to popular AR-15s and several other rifles, pistols and shotguns, which can no longer be sold legally in New York.

The law requires an estimated one million residents who bought one previously to register it by April 15.

Last month’s ruling is seen as Round One in what many legal experts predict will be a protracted legal battle that will likely end up before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, at press time the Jan. 15 date was approaching in which all sellers of ammunition must register with the state police. While that deadline was still seemingly in place, confusion reigned over whether it would be pushed back due to delays in setting up the registration system.

Ammunition dealers had previously been told they would have to conduct background checks of customers and record ammo buys beginning Jan. 15. But a letter from state police indicated the state database “is currently under construction and not operational.”

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