ALBANY – Gun rights advocates say they are pressing on to the United States Supreme Court after an appeals court Monday upheld two key components of New York’s SAFE Act gun control law.
The 2nd Circuit of the United States Court of Appeals said the law’s ban on semiautomatic assault-style weapons, along with a prohibition on large-capacity ammunition magazines, both pass constitutional muster and do not violate the Second Amendment rights of gun owners.
The court, however, did uphold a lower-court ruling, issued in late 2013 by Chief U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny in Erie County, that struck down a SAFE Act component that had made it illegal for individuals to load more than seven rounds of ammunition into a magazine capable of holding 10 rounds.
New York State, the court ruled, failed to produce evidence that the provision would stop criminals from simply adding three more rounds to get the magazine to its full, 10-bullet potential. “It is thus entirely untethered from the state rationale of reducing the number of assault weapons and large-capacity magazines in circulation,” the court said in its 57-page ruling.
The seven-round limit was among the key components pushed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo when he got lawmakers to go along with the SAFE Act in early 2013. With seven-round magazines difficult to find, a compromise was struck that said gun owners could use 10-round magazines, but load only up to seven rounds in them. The appeals court ruling means that gun owners can legally load 10 rounds in a 10-round magazine.
The governor, in a statement Monday afternoon, highlighted his legal victories in the court ruling. He did not address the appeals court ruling upholding the earlier court decision striking down the limit on a maximum of seven rounds in a gun magazine.
“Today, common sense prevailed,” Cuomo said of the ruling. He said the bipartisan way in which the law passed in 2013 should be an example for Congress to act on stronger national gun control laws.
“This case validates a simple, fundamental truth about gun control: that it is possible to have strong laws that keep our communities safe, while at the same time respecting the rights of law-abiding gun owners,” he added.
Monday’s decision considered challenges brought to both the New York and Connecticut gun laws that were enacted in the aftermath of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in which 20 young children and six adults were murdered by a lone gunman.
The New York law banned semiautomatic firearms that contained one or more military-style features, such as a telescoping stock, bayonet mount, flash suppressor, grenade launcher and others. Large-capacity magazines also were banned.
Both of those provisions were upheld Monday by the appeals court and in the earlier decision by Skretny.
The appeals court said that New York and Connecticut “have adequately established a substantial relationship between the prohibition of both semiautomatic assault weapons and large-capacity magazines and the important – indeed, compelling – state interest in controlling crime,” the appeals court decision states.
The court rejected the arguments by the plaintiffs – which included the New York State Rifle and Pistol Association, the Sportsmen’s Association for Firearms Education and other groups, businesses and individual gun owners – that the law “will primarily disarm law-abiding citizens and will thus impair the very public safety objectives they were designed to achieve.’’ The court said there is a “dearth of evidence that law-abiding citizens typically use these weapons for self-defense” and that the state tailored the two key components of the law “to address these particular hazard weapons” that it said has a higher chance when used to inflict more numerous and serious wounds to more people than other weapons.
The court said there are still “numerous alternatives” for people to purchase weapons with magazines capable of holding up to 10 rounds and to use them for self-defense. “The burden imposed by the challenged legislation is real, but it is not severe,” the court ruled.
The appeals court did overturn two Skretny rulings pertaining to vagueness in the law. The court rejected Skretny’s decisions affecting certain, limited aspects of the law pertaining to pistols that are automatic weapons and definitions of certain military-style features on a weapon, including what the law misspells as a “muzzle break” instead of a “muzzle brake.”
Tom King, president of the rifle and pistol association, which is the state chapter of the National Rifle Association, said there are now five varying circuit court rulings involving gun control laws that are ripe to be combined and sent as one challenge to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“I’m happy,” he said of the appeals court ruling striking down the seven-round limit in 10-round magazines. “Could I be happier? Absolutely. But we’re on our way to the Supreme Court.”
“The result is really pretty much what we though was going to happen. The 2nd Circuit is not known for being in any way a pro-gun friendly court. We’ve been saying from Day One this is going to be a Supreme Court case,” King added.
A gun control group praised the court’s ruling. Leah Gunn Barrett, executive director of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence, said the ruling “recognizes that the regulations are reasonable.”
The group used the ruling to again push for passage of legislation strengthening mandatory gun storage laws in the homes of people who own any kind of firearm. The legislation passed the Assembly in June; in the GOP-controlled Senate, its sponsors and co-sponsors are all Democrats and it has not moved this year.