It’s no secret Sheriff Timothy B. Howard is opposed to New York’s new gun-control law.
But Howard, who is running for re-election this year, is now ratcheting up his opposition by filing a friend of the court brief in the lawsuit seeking to overturn the SAFE Act and, even more important perhaps, by suggesting the law not be enforced.
“I’m more than reluctant,” he said of the new law Thursday. “I won’t enforce it.”
Howard, one of four sheriffs who joined in filing the brief this week, said he considers the law unconstitutional and a waste of valuable resources, and believes it will ultimately be overturned by the courts.
The law, passed in January, is the subject of a federal court challenge in Buffalo by the New York State Rifle and Pistol Association, and others. The suit claims the law violates an individual’s right to keep and bear arms under the Second Amendment.
“The Constitution is the law of the land,” Howard said. “If you know it’s a violation of the Constitution, how can you enforce it?”
Howard said his views on the law’s enforcement are his own and he has not encouraged or discouraged his deputies to follow suit. He also indicated the district attorney has the ability to charge people with SAFE Act violations even if he and his deputies disagree,
“I don’t think we’re going to suppress evidence,” he said. “I just don’t think we’ll be actively pursuing it.”
The SAFE Act, pushed through the State Legislature following the Sandy Hook school shootings in Connecticut, included an expansion of New York’s assault weapons ban, as well as a new restriction on the size of ammunition clips. The Legislature later changed the measure back to the old standard of 10 rounds in a clip.
Howard is not the only sheriff to oppose the law – his brief was filed by the New York State Sheriff’s Association – but his stance on enforcement does put him at odds with some of his like-minded peers.
“I don’t get to pick and choose what laws I enforce,” said Putnam County Sheriff Donald B. Smith, a former president of the association. “That’s exactly why we filed the amicus brief. We need to change this law.”
Smith, like Howard, does view the SAFE Act as a step backward and a blow to law-abiding citizens, especially gun owners.
The law, he said, may prove successful in limiting the type of weapons the general public can buy, but it will have little or no impact on what drug dealers, gang members and other criminals can get their hands on.
“I actually call it the not-so-safe act,” Smith said. “Ultimately, why would we put our citizens at a disadvantage to the criminals.”
Assemblyman Sean Ryan, D-Buffalo, almost couldn’t believe his ears when told of Howard’s public stance.
“He said that?” Ryan asked incredulously. “There are all sorts of principled ways of going about this. Law enforcement officials aren’t allowed to pick and choose.
“He’s elected as the law enforcement official in Erie County, and he’s elected to enforce the laws,” he added. “If he’s not happy with the laws, he should join the legislative branch of government.”
There are some public officials across the state, however, who agree with Howard’s stance.
In March, the Schoharie County Board of Supervisors voted to defy enforcement of the new law and urged its state lawmakers to oppose any state budget proposals that include money to enforce it.
“I don’t want to see a lot of government resources spent on something that might not last,” Howard said. “If we start making criminal cases and making charges under this law, it means resources will be diverted from other things.”
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, one of the law’s major backers, said the sheriffs’ opposition to the SAFE ACT has as much to do with politics as constitutional law.
“They’re free to litigate,” he said. “God bless America.”
He then added, “They’re politicians who run for office, too.”
Howard, who has publicly aired his concerns about the SAFE Act, including testifying at an Assembly hearing in Buffalo in February, believes the law is both illegal and impractical.
It won’t help police fight crime, he insists, and it may do just the opposite by causing law-abiding gun owners to lose trust in law enforcement. In the past, he has used words like “reckless” and “irresponsible” to describe Cuomo’s push for the measure.
In addition to expanding New York’s assault weapons ban, the new law also requires mental health professionals to report the names of patients they think are a threat to themselves or others and gives the state authority to confiscate weapons if they have them.
Mental health experts claim the provision will create a chilling effect on people who need professional help but might otherwise avoid it because their weapons might be taken away.
“I just think it’s wrong every way you look at it,” Howard said. “Excuse the pun, but the result was a shotgun approach.”