On Tuesday, (December 31, 2013), it was announced that an United States Western District Court of New York judge ruled on a SAFE Act lawsuit. After scrutinizing the SAFE Act, and analyzing the plaintiffs’ complaints, constitutional law, and court briefs, Chief Judge William Skretny upheld portions of the law, and ruled against other portions. He summarized his decision by writing, “Undertaking that task, and applying the governing legal standards, the majority of the challenged provisions withstand constitutional scrutiny.”
The SAFE Act was New York State’s response to the mass murder in Newtown Connecticut in December, 2012. It was enacted in the middle of January, 2013. The law touched many gun-control topics: a broad definition of assault weapons, the number of rounds allowed in the firearm, internet sales of firearms and ammunition, background checks, an assault weapon registry, mental health, database of ammunition sales, special sentences for killing a first responder & carrying a firearm on school property. The law also would grandfather every New Yorker’s present assault weapon, and that pistol permit holders can request their personal information to be guarded from open records requests. The New NY 23rd has publish other articles on the SAFE Act.
In the introduction of the Court’s “Decision and Order”, which is on-line, Judge Skretny reminded the readers: “Whether regulating firearms is wise or warranted is not a judicial question; it is a political one. This Court’s function is thus limited to resolving whether New York’s elected representatives acted within the confines of the United States Constitution in passing the SAFE Act.”
It should be noted that the United States Supreme Court, in District of Columbia v Heller, 2008, declared that District of Columbia’s law that banned hand guns was unconstitutional because hand guns are used for self defense, and people have a right to defend themselves. Judge Skretny, used the Heller Self Defense standard for his SAFE Act decisions.
The Heller case also pointed out that the Second Amendment “right to bear arms” is not unlimited, which the Judge referred to in this decision. Judge Skretny upheld the SAFE Act’s bans on the sales of assault weapons, which including the popular AR-15s and several other rifles, pistols, and shotguns. He also upheld the ban of high capacity (more than 10 rounds) magazines. He then ruled that the “all ammunition sales be conducted in-person” clause does not violate the Commerce Clause, which the Plaintiffs contented. It remains part of the law.
In making those decisions, Judge Skretny noted that only 2 percent of guns own by Americans are assault weapons (Decision, pg 20). In a court brief the Rochester (NY) Chief of Police concluded that assault weapons “are designed for one purpose–to efficiently kill numerous people.” (Decision, pg. 30). To support that claim, it was pointed out that more than half of the 62 mass shootings (killing four or more victims) in the United States since 1982 used assault weapons, or high capacity magazines, or both (Decision, pg. 33).
Using that information, Judge Skretny concluded the SAFE Act “applies only to a subset of firearms with the characteristics New York state has determined to be particularity dangerous and unnecessary for self-defense.” He noted that the “ban” has been misused when referring to assault weapons. “SAFE Act does not prohibit all possession of these firearms. Current owners of these weapons can keep them, but they must register them. And while current owners are permitted to transfer and sell the weapons, transfers and sales must be made to firearm dealers or out-of-state buyers.”
The Judge disagreed with the SAFE Act limiting the number of rounds gun owners can have in their magazines to seven. He wrote: “It stretches the bounds of this Court’s deference to the predictive judgments of the legislature to suppose that those intent on doing harm (whom, of course, the Act is aimed to stop) will load their weapon with only the permitted seven rounds. In this sense, the provision is not “substantially related” to the important government interest in public safety and crime prevention.” Again, the Judge referred back to the District of Columbia v Heller, and focused in on the right of self-defense.
The Plaintiffs questioned 10 aspects of the Act on the grounds that they were vague, but the Judge struck down only the three he agreed with. One dealt with “Muzzle Brakes” which was typed “Muzzle Breaks”; one dealt with semiautomatic pistols that have the ability to accept detachable magazines; and one dealing with the “five round shotgun limit”.
As referenced above, the official Decision and Orders is on line. Although it is 57 pages long, has a Table of Context which can direct you to key topics. The introduction and summary both provide good information, and there is not a lot of lawyer jargon. It shows the process the judge went through to arrive at his decisions, including the references to the information he used. There is a lot about the District of Columbia v Heller case in this decision.
There is a lot of misinformation about the SAFE Act, in the press, on the internet, and in general conversation. If you have any questions what is in the law, or what is permitted and what is not permitted, the official Decision and Orders document would be the place for the official information.
An interesting warning about Judge Skretny’s decision was reported in the Syracuse Post-Standard. They reported that “Onondaga County District Attorney William J. Fitzpatrick reminded his constituents that the ruling, including the ban of the seven round limits, is only legal in the Western District of the State, it does not change the law state wide. That could change if the state appeals the decision and the 2nd Circuit Court rules on the matter. But that could be months away, Fitzpatrick added. Until then, Fitzpatrick’s advice for those outside of Western New York is to abide by the Safe Act as written and adhere to the seven-bullet limit. “My advice would be to continue to follow the law as written unless you want to get involved in a lengthy challenge.” he said.” Most of the NY 23rd is in the Federal Western New York District, but not Tompkins and Tioga Counties. This map will show which counties are covered by this decision.
There is no doubt that this decision will be appealed. The Supreme Court will consider if they will hear this particular lawsuit, one of the many other SAFE Act lawsuits, or none. This is not a quick process. This is the law for most of the NY 23rd, and could be for a long time.