ALBANY – After several thousand protesters ended their chants and stopped the applause for the fiery speeches at a State Capitol park Thursday, a key question for critics of the state’s tough new gun-control law remained: Now what?
Some gun rights advocates who gathered here in one of the largest protests in a decade or more demanded outright repeal of the law.
Others say well-crafted amendments are needed to make major changes to what they say are violations of their Second Amendment rights.
But leaders and members of many gun groups say that neither option is realistic. They believe their best avenue is a legal challenge, which the state’s National Rifle Association affiliate expects to initiate in a matter of days.
“I’m counting on the courts,” Thomas H. King, president of the New York State Rifle & Pistol Association, said after the rally against the New York Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act.
The rally attracted between 5,000 and 10,000 demonstrators – depending on whether you believe the number supplied by the Cuomo administration, which pushed through the NY SAFE Act, or organizers of the protest.
Angry demonstrators, at least 1,000 of them traveling from Erie County on 14 packed buses, showed their frustrations in colorful signs such as “Cuomo has to go” and “No more NYC laws for upstate” and “We will not comply.” Adding to the rhetorical fire were speeches by various lawmakers, several of whom had remained silent during floor debates when the bill passed despite their opposition.
Mike Bowers, of Clarence, said the gun-control law had awakened some people of his generation – he is 59 – to protest their government as they never had done before. “The goal is to draw a line in the sand and say you have pushed, and we are pushing back,” he said, clad in a blue Buffalo Bills jacket.
The rally was held on a chilly afternoon; rain earlier had turned the grounds into a muddy Second Amendment mosh pit.
There were the obvious threats of political retaliation in elections next year.
“Your governor is willing to sacrifice the Constitution, your rights as citizens and prerogatives of his Legislature on the altar of his own ambition,” National Rifle Association President David A. Keene told the crowd, which was heavily white, male and from upstate.
Keene vowed to help push back against the new gun-control law at the ballot box and in the courts. “We’re with you. We will help you defeat the politicians who would deprive you your rights. We will help you overcome these statutes in court,” Keene said.
While the word of the day – “repeal” – worked its way through the rally, few in the crowd who have an inkling of how Albany works think that such a possibility has a chance, given the law’s push by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and the easy margin by which it passed the State Legislature.
“It’s going to have to be resolved in the courts because there’s no chance in the Assembly or Senate,” said protester Rick Speth, a South Buffalo resident and Republican Party committeeman from the city.
While the state NRA affiliate does not want to talk about its legal challenge until a lawsuit is filed, Keene gave some signals that the effort will rely on a Supreme Court decision that restricted the ability to ban, as he said, firearms that are “commonly owned and widely used for legitimate purposes.” He noted that the New York law bans weapons such as the military-style AR-15 semiautomatic rifle, which he said is owned by more than 4.5 million Americans and is used for everything from competition to hunting to personal protection.
“If that doesn’t fall into the Supreme Court’s language as to what you cannot ban, I don’t know what does,” Keene told a handful of reporters outside the Capitol.
Many gun owners believe that pushing to amend the gun-control law will only make it stronger in the face of court challenges. But the law contains a “severability” clause, which means that a court could strike down just one small section of the bill without making the entire law invalid.
“We are advocating for no amendments because we just think it’s a bad bill that was passed in a backdoor manner, and it’s an infringement upon our rights,” King said.
But lawmakers and Cuomo seem intent on amending the law with “technical” changes. Lawmakers say the bill was drafted so quickly that it contains enough mistakes to fill five or more pages of new legislation, including banning police from having weapons with ammunition magazines with more than seven bullets or possibly even prohibiting some police agencies from entering school grounds without authorization because of the stronger penalties for guns found in schools.
Sen. Patrick M. Gallivan, R-Elma, who voted against the bill, says it has to be amended. “There’s an obligation that any legislator who thinks there is something wrong with this or that it should be repealed should be working toward that. If it can’t be repealed, then we should be fixing as many parts as possible,” said Gallivan, the former Erie County sheriff.
What is unusual about the SAFE Act is that, nearly two months after s passage, thousands of gun owners would protest a law already on the books.
“I’m not surprised, because we certainly acted faster than the federal government and many states that have had a problem with shootings like Colorado and Connecticut,” said Assemblyman Joseph R. Lentol, D-Brooklyn, chairman of the Codes Committee.
“Does that mean it’s a perfect statute? Absolutely not. Does it mean it should be repealed because it’s imperfect? No,” Lentol said. “We can make changes.”
Those changes will not, Cuomo and Democrats have suggested, do anything about the definition of a banned assault weapon or changing the provision that reduced from 10 to seven the maximum size of ammo magazines.
The measure further restricts semiautomatic weapons, starts an ammunition-tracking system, requires gun reregistration every five years, increases penalties for gun-related crimes and requires mental health officials to notify county agencies of patients they believe could pose a threat so that their weapons could possibly be confiscated.
Many in Thursday’s crowd said they will simply ignore the requirement to register semiautomatic weapons with the state. Such defiance has occurred in other areas that have cracked down on certain weapons, and it could be a major test to see how serious Cuomo n will be about enforcing the law.
Bowers, the Clarence resident, talked of Cuomo having a well-armed State Police escort all the time. “That’s OK, but not OK for me?” he said of the guns that Cuomo’s security detail can have.
The governor spent the day far from the Capitol in New York City and on Long Island. But he defended the law as it was being attacked outside his Capitol office by demonstrators. “I’m proud of the law,” he said at a Long Island event. “I’m proud of what we did. I believe it will literally save lives. I believe it’s long overdue.”