Collins takes aim at NY-SAFE Act

JOED VIERA/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHERGunsmoke owner Jeff Hill displays a Bushmaster AR-15 sporting rifle purchased by a law enforcement officer, comparing it to an ATI Omni AR-15 on the rack. The Bushmaster has an adjustable stock, a pistol grip and a flash hider, all of which are illegal under the NY-SAFE Act, except when possessed by members of law enforcement. The ATI Omni on the gun rack excludes those features.

U.S. Rep. Chris Collins, a longtime critic of the New York Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement (SAFE) Act, has unveiled federal legislation that would make key provisions of the state's gun control law illegal.

Collins' proposed bill, the Second Amendment Guarantee Act (SAGA), would prevent states from imposing an array of regulations on rifles or shotguns "in an amount greater than is provided under Federal law." The restrictions on regulation would also apply to rifle and shotgun components, including detachable magazines.

But whether the bill can make it through a bitterly divided Congress remains to be seen. Pro-gun Republicans would need the support of eight Senate Democrats to reach the 60-vote threshold to end debate on the bill. 

Dr. James Campbell, a political science professor at the University at Buffalo, foresees a "strong possibility" the bill would die in a Democratic filibuster.

"I would guess it wouldn't get anywhere in the Senate," he said. "Of course there would be intense lobbying on both sides. It's hard to say how a bill like that would fare."

The bill would likely also face a court challenge. State officials say the bill may violate the 10th Amendment, which established states' rights.

"The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people," the amendment reads.

Campbell said previous court cases over gun control have often favored states, though many have been over pro-gun rights state policies.

SAGA would void much of the language in the NY-SAFE Act, as well as other states' gun-control laws. Specifically, it would toss out SAFE Act provisions banning rifles with one or more assault-style features and another banning magazines that hold more than 10 bullets.

“This legislation would protect the Second Amendment rights of New Yorkers that were unjustly taken away by (Governor) Andrew Cuomo,” Collins said. “I am a staunch supporter of the Second Amendment and have fought against all efforts to condemn these rights. I stand with the law-abiding citizens of this state that have been outraged by the SAFE Act and voice my commitment to roll back these regulations.”

Collins has not addressed how the legislation would or wouldn't affect other key SAFE Act provisions, such as harsher sentences for gun-related offenses, the creation of a universal background check system or requirements that pistol permit holders re-certify every five years.

He unveiled the legislation Monday in stops near Rochester and Hamburg, backed by local NY-SAFE Act critics like Erie County Sheriff Timothy Howard and state Sen. Robert Ortt, R-North Tonawanda.

Asked how he felt about Collins' bill, Jeffrey Hill, owner of Gunsmoke Guns in Newfane, simply said: "About time."

To Hill and other gun owners, the SAFE Act is a bureaucratic mess that does little to save lives.

Hill said many of the so-called assault features on a rifle — pistol grips, adjustable stocks and flash suppressors — are mostly cosmetic and don't make the rifle more deadly. "It doesn't affect the performance whatsoever. It doesn't make them shoot farther or faster," Hill said.

Hill sells a modified AR-15-type rifle with the grip built into a non-adjustable stock, which is legal under the SAFE Act.

"Most everyone wants to obey the law," Hill said. "They're buying them and hoping to restore them to the way (that's permitted in) the other 49 states."

Cuomo, who has feuded with Collins in recent months over health care and other issues, released a statement calling the SAGA bill a "naked political ploy" that will put "millions of people at profound risk."

"By fighting to roll back vital legislation that protects the people of the Empire State, Collins is demonstrating once again that he is beholden to no one but the gun lobby and entrenched special interests," Cuomo said.

Cuomo added that courts have upheld the SAFE Act as consistent with the Constitution.

A spokesperson for New Yorkers Against Gun Violence said SAGA would gut background check requirements for gun purchases and allow felons and domestic abusers to access guns more easily.

"Representative Collins' dangerous proposal is a drastic, politically-driven attempt to override state and local laws that reasonably regulate the sale and transfer of shotguns and rifles, including assault weapons and high capacity magazines," Rebecca Fischer, executive director, said. 

Fischer noted New York has the third-lowest rate of gun violence in the nation and suggested the SAFE Act gets credit for that.

"We condemn this unconscionable, gun lobby-backed bill that undermines states' rights and threatens the lives and well-being of families and communities ... across the country," she added.

Gary Pudup, NYAGV's Western New York coordinator and a self-professed gun owner, said SAGA could "easily be challenged as unconstitutional."

The NY SAFE Act, adopted by the state Legislature in January 2013 through the expedited "message of necessity" procedure, laid out dozens of regulations on gun ownership, purchases and sales and increased penalties for gun-related offenses. Cuomo has called it the toughest gun control law in the United States.

In late 2013, Chief U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny struck down a SAFE Act provision prohibiting individuals from loading more than seven bullets into a magazine. But Skretny upheld the ban on weapons with assault-style features and large capacity magazines.

Hill said this has added to the confusion among gun owners over what is and isn't legal under the SAFE Act.

A 2015 Sienna Research Institute poll found 62 percent of New Yorkers overall supported the law, but a slight majority of upstate voters, 51 percent to 42 percent, opposed it. 

Hundreds of upstate municipal boards and county legislatures have adopted resolutions formally opposing the SAFE Act, according to www.nysaferesolutions.com.

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