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Safe Act gun control law a key issue upstate in governor's race

An election campaign yard sign against the New

An election campaign yard sign against the New York Safe Act is shown in Clarksville, N.Y. on Wednesday, Oct. 1, 2014. Photo Credit: Hans Pennink

NEW SCOTLAND -- Driving along the two-lane roads of upstate New York, the signs seem to pop up every few minutes: "Repeal the Safe Act."

Often, the owner of the sign will have scribbled "Un" in front of "Safe," making it clear he or she thinks very little of a statewide gun-control law Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo pushed through last year in the wake of the Newtown, Connecticut, school shooting massacre. For some upstate residents, it's become a key issue in the gubernatorial campaign.

The Democratic incumbent has championed it as one of his signature accomplishments during his four years in office. Largely, the Safe Act, as lawmakers call it, tightened the definition of assault weapons under state law, making more of them illegal. Anti-gun-violence groups have hailed it as one of the top gun-control laws in the nation.

But gun-rights advocates have said it goes too far and is technically flawed, and they have promised to make Cuomo pay at the ballot box this fall. Though polls say most New Yorkers support the law and give Cuomo a huge lead over Republican Rob Astorino, critics said opposition runs deep and is committed to turning out the governor in November.

"Everywhere you go, there's an anti-Safe Act sign. I was shocked," said Tom King, president of the New York State Rifle and Pistol Association, which saw its membership double to 47,000 after the law was enacted. "I think there's a storm brewing."

Pollsters counter that gun-rights advocates are vocal, but not numerous.

"They will vote in a large bloc against Cuomo," said Maurice Carroll, spokesman for the Quinnipiac University poll. "But there's not enough of them."

Rush turning act into law

Cuomo rushed the new gun law through in January 2013, a month after Newtown, making New York the first state to act after Adam Lanza shot and killed 20 schoolchildren and six educators. The law created a statewide registry for assault weapons and pistols. It mandated all gun sales be made through licensed dealers, required background checks of ammunition buyers, and made New York the first state to check ammunition purchases in real time.

The original version of the law also would have made New York the first to limit gun magazines to seven rounds, which Cuomo hailed. But when lawmakers later realized gun manufacturers didn't make seven-round ammunition clips, they amended the law to return to the old limit: 10 rounds.

"I am proud to be a New Yorker today," Cuomo said as he signed the law at the State Capitol. "Not just because New York has the first bill, but because New York has the best bill."

The governor waived the normal three-day waiting period between printing a bill and getting legislators to vote on it, after he and legislative leaders agreed to approve it. Rank-and-file legislators got a copy about an hour before voting began but approved it overwhelmingly.

Astorino has cited the rush in his vow to repeal parts of the law. "The Safe Act was such a terrible piece of legislation and it was done so badly," the Republican told 500 attendees who gave him a standing ovation at the Sportsmen's Association for Firearms Education Inc. gathering in Hauppauge in September.

The Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, a San Francisco-based watchdog group, said that while New York has the "most comprehensive" gun law and is now tougher on ammunition purchases, it matches California and New Jersey on assault-weapons bans and falls short of other states on microstamping bullets and limiting gun ownership.

Foes still worked up

Caught off guard by the speed of the governor's action, gun-rights groups soon began protests in 2013, including a huge rally on the State Capitol lawn. Later, anti-Safe Act signs bloomed on upstate lawns. Now, 19 months have passed, but opponents are still worked up about it.

"It's got everybody angry. People talk about it all the time," said Jim Keneston, a New Scotland resident standing in his driveway just after returning from pheasant hunting on a sunny autumn day. "It's made honest citizens like myself and my neighbors criminals."

He said there still is uncertainty about the law. He said many of his friends have .22-caliber rifles that come with 15-round clips. It's not considered an assault weapon, but he wonders about the clip.

Polls get different responses on the law, depending on the question asked.

When Siena College asked New Yorkers in March about "the toughest gun control law in the country that was named the Safe Act by Governor Cuomo," 63 percent said they approved it, 32 percent opposed.

But when Quinnipiac asked New Yorkers in August how Cuomo "is handling gun control and gun policy," they were split: 44 percent approved, 44 percent disapproved.

Leah Barrett, executive director of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence, said the law is very popular -- adding that while assault weapons provisions got the most ink, the crackdown on private, unlicensed sales of handguns will have the biggest impact.

She believes Cuomo will benefit on Election Day.

"I think it factors in really positively for the governor," Barrett said. "Astorino has been trying to get traction on this and I think he's failing."

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