New York gun control: Hudson Valley cops balk at enforcement as laws take effect

Residents in the Hudson Valley talk about gun control in New York.

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As the primary enforcers of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's sweeping gun control laws, state troopers hear directly from New York gun owners -- and so far, it's been an earful.

So much so that, last week, the New York State Troopers Police Benevolent Association issued a statement distancing troopers from Cuomo and warning of public resentment toward law enforcement since the gun law's passage.

"The individual members of this union did not write the terms of the bill nor vote on its passage," the State Police PBA said. "We urge the citizens of New York State to remember that troopers are simply tasked with the lawful mandate to enforce the laws of the state, regardless of their personal opinion of such laws."

The extraordinary statement -- police do not normally distance themselves from the laws they enforce -- is the latest in a series of declarations and resolutions warning that parts of the NY SAFE Act may be difficult to enforce.

Signed into law by Cuomo just a half-hour after it passed the Assembly, the SAFE Act contains more than a dozen provisions, including a long list of features that qualify a gun as an assault weapon. The law requires owners of assault weapons to register the weapons with State Police.

It includes penalties for gun owners who fail to register assault weapons, or fail to store weapons and ammunition as required. It requires ammo dealers to report sales details to the state and closes the so-called "private sale loophole" by requiring background checks in connection with all gun sales.

The message from the troopers echoes the sentiments of the New York State Sheriffs Association, which has said its members "strongly believe that modifications are needed to clarify the intent of some of these new provisions and that revisions are needed to allow sheriffs to properly enforce the law in their counties."

In addition to describing NY SAFE's definition of assault weapons as "too broad," because it includes "many weapons that are legitimately used for hunting, target shooting and self defense," the sheriffs association questioned how its members could enforce provisions like the law's limit of seven rounds in a magazine.

The sheriffs "remain concerned that this provision will be very difficult to enforce and will likely only affect law abiding citizens," the group wrote.

ENFORCEMENT QUESTIONS FROM OTHER GROUPS

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Although such public statements are strong by the standards of law enforcement organizations, they're still relatively muted, compared with the true feelings of the state's police officers, said Jacob Rieper, vice president of legislative and political affairs for the New York State Rifle and Pistol Association.

"I'd even go so far to say that they want nothing to with this law, period," Rieper said.

Concerns about enforcement problems are shared by gun shop owners, who say their customers are worried about becoming accidental felons.

"They never thought this through," said Michael Timlin, owner of RT Smoke & Gun Shop in Mount Vernon. "From day one, I thought, how is this thing going to be enforced?"

When federal gun laws have changed in the past, dealers were informed with mailings explaining the changes and providing information on how to comply with new aspects of the law. That didn't happen with the NY SAFE Act, said Sal Quattro, owner of Quattro's Hunting Supplies in Pleasant Valley.

"We're all confused. I'm a dealer and I'm confused," Quattro said.

People who have questions about New York's new law are frequently directed to a state website or to a State Police hotline, where troopers field "hundreds of calls a day," State Police Capt. Michael Jankowiak said.

Asked how police might enforce the law's prohibition against loading more than seven rounds of ammunition into a magazine -- Jankowiak paused for a moment.

"If you had a weapon and it came under the scrutiny of law enforcement, they would remove the magazine and check the number of bullets in it," he said. "This would be in the course of an investigation, if we had a reason to check the magazine and its capacity."

Timlin -- the gun shop owner -- wondered whether the law might be enforced at traffic stops, already tense situations for drivers and cops. If the driver or passenger is transporting a gun, Timlin asked, "What does the officer do?"

"Does he ask me to get out of my car and then take the firearm out of the holster, bag or your person? That's the last thing law enforcement, or anybody, wants," he said. "Where am I taking this gun out now? Am I taking it out on the side of 287 and presenting it to a law enforcement officer outside of my window? It's ludicrous."

POLLS SAY PUBLIC SUPPORTS THE LAW

Despite the ongoing rallies and media campaigns by outspoken gun-rights advocates, there are indications the public supports the new gun law, at least in principle.

A poll by the Siena Research Institute, released in March, found that 61 percent of New Yorkers like the NY SAFE Act, with the greatest support among the state's large pool of registered Democrats. However, 48 percent of those polled also said they felt the law was rushed into enactment, in a bout of emotion following the Newtown massacre.

A similar poll released this week by Quinnipiac University found that 63 percent of voters said they support the new gun laws. The pollsters noted a regional split, with supporters of the NY SAFE Act concentrated in the New York City area, while upstate voters disapprove.

That geographic breakdown is likely a major factor in the statements by the State Police PBA, whose members primarily work in upstate communities.

Critics suggest that the first few attempts to enforce provisions in the SAFE Act have brought out problems with the law.

In Erie County, Amherst librarian David Lewis was able to retrieve his guns from local cops last week, after they were confiscated over concerns about his mental health. It turned out that State Police had mistaken the Erie County man for an Orange County man of the same name.

A judge revoked Lewis' pistol permits and the Erie County clerk sent a letter saying Lewis was mentally unfit to own guns -- all before authorities realized their mistake.

On Wednesday, William G. Greene, a Saratoga-area man, became one of the first to run afoul of a provision sealing the so-called "private sale loophole." Greene posted to a Facebook page for gun enthusiasts, announcing he was selling an RUNS .223 caliber rifle.

He found a buyer, who turned out to be an undercover state trooper. If Greene had sold the weapon a week earlier, before provisions of the new gun law took effect, he would have gone home with a pocket full of cash. Instead, he was hauled off in handcuffs.

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