ALBANY – In a case that backers vow to take all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, a major gun-rights group filed suit Thursday in federal court in Buffalo seeking to toss out the state’s new gun-control law on a variety of constitutional grounds.
The lawsuit by the New York State Rifle and Pistol Association, the state affiliate of the National Rifle Association, attacks the NY-SAFE Act on several legal fronts, including claims that it violates interstate commerce protections and the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms.
The legal work for the lawsuit has been two months in the making, and Tom King, the group’s president, said he is confident the case will set a precedent.
“The New York courts are fairly liberal, and they have not been the friendliest to the Second Amendment, but we believe this is going to be a landmark case that is going to be eventually heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, and we hope the law is overturned,” King said in an interview Thursday.
The lawsuit says the gun law, which passed in January, violates the U.S. Constitution’s commerce clause, which empowers the federal government to regulate interstate commerce, because the law restricts interstate commerce by requiring private gun owners to go through dealers if they want to sell guns to a private party in another state.
The law’s ban on assault-style weapons is being challenged on equal protection grounds and on several federal court cases that have said a particular class of firearms cannot be banned, King said. As for the equal protection argument, he said, “If the firearms are so dangerous and the bad guys are using them, why shouldn’t individuals be able to purchase these firearms if they want?”
King said the lawsuit also challenges the ban on sales of ammunition clips containing more than seven bullets. The current law allows up to 10 rounds in a clip.
But Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said the law is likely to be changed to permit the current 10-round clips to be sold; they were to be banned as of April 15. Cuomo said that while the 10-round clips can be sold, owners will not be able to place more than seven bullets in a magazine unless they are at a gun range or shooting competition.
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, said Thursday that gun manufacturers have informed the state they have no intention of making special seven-round magazines to be sold in New York State.
In response to the Cuomo and Silver comments, King said: “It doesn’t do anything yet because it’s not law.”
The NY-SAFE Act was pushed through the Legislature following the Sandy Hook school shootings in Connecticut. Cuomo and gun advocates say such instances of violence call out for stricter laws on gun possession and sales.
The new law enacted stronger prohibitions against assault-style weapons, increased registration requirements, hiked penalties for crimes committed with guns and set up a state ammunition tracking system.
It also requires mental health professionals to report to county officials the names of patients they deem to be a threat to themselves or others. Counties report those names to the state, which will check to see if the patients own guns; the state then can move to confiscate the weapons. Mental health professionals have voiced concern the provision will create a chilling effect and dissuade people who might need professional help from seeking it if they think their weapons will be taken away.
The gun debate has only intensified since the law was passed. Counties across the state have passed nonbinding resolutions condemning the measure or asking for its repeal. The Board of Supervisors in Schoharie County, west of Albany, last week said the county would not spend any money to enforce the law.
Cuomo said Thursday he had not seen the details of the lawsuit.
King could not say why the lawsuit was filed in Buffalo except to say it was done on the advice of lawyers.
Besides the NRA’s New York affiliate, an Albany-based group with 45,000 members founded in 1871, plaintiffs include gun rights and sportsmen’s groups around New York, individual gun owners and gun companies, including Lancaster-based Bedell Custom.
The NRA said it is a part of the suit filed in U.S. District Court. Besides asking the court to declare the law unconstitutional, the plaintiffs seek temporary and permanent injunctions to keep New York from enforcing it.
“The National Rifle Association is committed to defending the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding New Yorkers,” said Chris Cox, executive director of NRA’s Institute of Legislative Action.
Cox said Cuomo and lawmakers “usurped the legislative and democratic process in passing these extreme anti-gun measures with no committee hearings and no public input. This obvious disrespect for New Yorkers and their Second Amendment rights will not be tolerated.”
State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, whose office will defend the state against the lawsuit, did not comment on the specifics of the litigation.
But he said in a written statement that the NY-SAFE Act is a “comprehensive law that is making New York communities safer, while ensuring constitutional protections to responsible gun owners.” He promised to “aggressively defend” the state against the suit.
The lawsuit states that the action was brought “to vindicate the right of the people of the state of New York to keep and bear arms under the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution.”
The 46-page complaint seeks to overturn the law on a number of fronts, including that the new assault weapon ban has “radically broadened” the definition of such weapons to include “countless” guns that had been considered common before the law was enacted.
The law includes a severability clause, which means if a court were to strike out one provision, all the other provisions would remain on the books.