It was supposed to be a lunchtime forum so law enforcement could explain the state’s new, stricter gun control law.
But a gathering in Clarence on Tuesday was more like a public demonstration of gun owners, who vented their anger and frustration toward lawmakers in Albany.
“This is a big mistake,” one man said during the question-and-answer period. “This law should be repealed.”
At least 150 people from across Niagara and Erie counties packed into the Clarence library to hear what authorities had to say about changes to owning assault-style semiautomatic weapons and high-capacity magazines.
It was contentious from the get-go.
Dozens of people stood shoulder to shoulder in the small community room in the library. Others spilled into the hall.
As state officials began their presentation, the crowd stood and broke into the Pledge of Allegiance, stressing the words “under God” and “with liberty and justice for all.”
“This law is not only confusing, it’s totally inappropriate,” said William Chapman of Alden.
Chapman, a gun instructor, stood at the back of the room. He showed up at the forum to listen, but also wanted to let someone – anyone – from the state know that the stricter gun law is infringing on his rights.
“It’s part of the Second Amendment to own firearms,” said Chapman, 50. “They’re restricting it. They’re going way beyond.”
Tom Schultz listened quietly from the hallway. He didn’t know about the forum until just the other day, when he noticed a small posting on a website.
“They have it on a weekday afternoon with very little notice and they still get a good turnout,” said Schultz, of Elma. “That shows you how upset people are.”
Frustrations over this issue are boiling over beyond the Buffalo Niagara region.
The New York State Rifle & Pistol Association said on its website Tuesday that it was set to file a notice of claim against the state, paving the way for a lawsuit against the new gun control law.
“I feel bad for the people that are here to give the information,” said Schultz, 56, “but people are venting because they had no other input on this.”
The forum in Clarence was attended by representatives from state and county law enforcement agencies and was the first of several held in counties around the state throughout the day.
Mike Green, executive deputy commissioner of the state Division of Criminal Justice Services, and Steve Hogan, first deputy counsel for the State Police, offered an overview of the new law with a short presentation that hit on some of the highlights.
All assault weapons, as defined under the NY SAFE Act, are illegal to buy or sell in the state. Anyone who owns such a weapon is allowed to keep it, but owners must register it with State Police within one year, beginning April 15.
The new legislation also addresses high-capacity ammunition clips – only clips that hold seven or fewer rounds can be bought and sold in the state. Gun owners who had clips that can hold up to 10 rounds can keep them, but cannot have more than seven rounds in each clip.
While the resentment in the room was aimed at the politicians in Albany, Green and Hogan took the brunt of the heat on Tuesday, often being interrupted by comments from gun owners frustrated by the new legislation.
“Police officers should be arresting the traitors that signed it!” piped up one man.
“When are we going to debate it?” chimed in another.
“The purpose today is not to debate the bill,” Green told the crowd. “The bill is passed. It is what it is. We’re simply trying to get information out about the [law].”
Eventually, the gun owners – some of whom cut out of work to attend the noon meeting – lined up, and one by one, asked more detailed questions about the new law.
Fred Cimato of Clarence was concerned about what the state considers an excessive purchase of ammunition.
He’s a professional sport shooter, so it’s not unusual for him to buy thousands of rounds at one time. He wanted to know if this was going to be a problem for him.
“They really didn’t give me an answer,” said Cimato, 46.
The state representatives were at the Clarence forum for well over two hours, but it was clear it was going to take some more doing to sort out confusion over the new law.
“I drove all the way here in the rain, got wet feet and soaked because of Cuomo,” yelled one man, “and you can’t answer my question?”
State representatives said the forums are continuing today in other parts of the state. More are planned for Western New York in the future, a state spokeswoman said, but dates weren’t immediately available.
Hogan also directed gun owners to the website www.nysafeact.com, which has a question-and-answer section and photographs of weapons to help owners understand if their gun will now be classified as an assault weapon.
In addition, Hogan said, people can get answers by calling the toll-free number (855) 529-4867 during business hours on weekdays.
“We know there are going to be new questions popping up every day from gun owners and dealers,” Hogan said. “We want to answer these questions.”
But Richard Hummell walked out of the forum early – and disappointed.
“There was no new information, no clarification,” said Hummell, of Clarence. “What I learned here today, I knew before I came. It was all online. I was hoping to get a little more clarification. I’m not a lawyer and a lot of it is legalese.”
Hummell also was unhappy that the forum was poorly publicized.
“This is a clear attempt to limit the crowd,” said Hummell, 58. “If you want to have an event like this, have it on the weekend. Have it at 7 p.m.”