New York’s SAFE Act has been on the books for almost seven years now, which is long enough for folks to form an opinion about how well the package of gun control laws is working in the state. New York University law professor James Jacobs has been studying the law and its effects for years, and he’s come to the conclusion that the law is a failure; an “exercise in symbolic politics” rather than a real public safety measure.
Jacobs and co-author Zoe Fuhr have a new book on Governor Cuomo’s gun control plans called The Toughest Gun Control Law in the Nation: The Unfulfilled Promise of New York’s SAFE Act, and he’s laid out the premise for the book in an op/ed at the website CityLand.
The SAFE Act immediately ran into implementation and enforcement difficulties. The provision limiting ammunition loading magazines to seven rounds had to be abandoned because there are no such magazines to fit most popular firearms models. The SAFE Act’s drafters either didn’t know that or didn’t care since the point of the law was to demonstrate the governor’s values. In any event, a federal court struck down as irrational the provision that set maximum magazine capacity limitation. The seven round capacity limitation was withdrawn and replaced by a ten round maximum capacity rule, with the proviso that no magazine could be loaded with more than seven rounds. A federal court struck down that proviso as irrational and in violation of substantive due process.
The provisions regulating ammunition sales and purchases were abandoned. The technical (software) obstacles could not be overcome, at least not at a reasonable cost.
Jacobs goes on to note the lack of compliance with the SAFE Act’s registration requirement for so-called “assault weapons,” estimating about 10% of New York’s gun owners complied with that aspect of the law.
In fact, Jacobs says only one provision of the SAFE Act has ever really been enforced.
The only provision that was successfully implemented was the one requiring mental health professionals to report to county officials the names of patients perceived to be mentally ill and dangerous. If the county official agrees (and, not having seen the patient, they have no basis for disagreeing), the patient is then reported to the New York State Department of Mental Health and added to database of persons disqualified from gun purchasing or possessing a gun. The patient whose name is reported, however, does not have to be notified. The extent to which the reported patients have been or are separated from their guns or prevented from acquiring new guns is unknown.
I’ll disagree with Jacobs here, because there’s one other provision that has been used by prosecutors, particularly those in Brooklyn and the Bronx. Part of the SAFE Act upped the penalty for possessing a firearm without a license from a misdemeanor to a felony, and that’s been the portion of the law that’s actually seen the most use. Unfortunately, that aspect of the law has also fallen hardest on young black men without serious criminal histories.
In retrospect, the SAFE Act looks like an exercise in symbolic politics. The Act was stillborn due to poor design, a failure to provide funds for implementation and enforcement, and the absence of a state-level agency capable of implementation, enforcement and evaluation. In the final analysis, law in action is far different from law on the books.
That much is true. What is also true is that many of the politicians who voted for the SAFE Act don’t really care how poorly it was written or how impossible it was to implement. The job of lawmakers is to make laws. It’s up to law enforcement to enforce them, and if the law is almost impossible to enforce, why that just means lawmakers need to make more laws!
I look forward to checking out Jacobs and Furh’s new book. Maybe I’ll even send a copy to Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, who’s getting ready to implement his own exercise in symbolic politics with his package of gun control bills.