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New Senate leader is open to changing SAFE Act

ALBANY – The State Legislature’s new top Republican said he is open to making changes to the SAFE Act gun-control law even though he was one of the handful of GOP senators who in 2013 voted for the crackdown on assault weapon sales and other restrictions on firearms.

“Fundamentally, I think there are changes we can advance. Do I expect lofty praise and support from the Assembly and executive? Not really, but that should not for a moment dissuade us,” new Senate Majority Leader John J. Flanagan Jr. said in an interview Tuesday with The Buffalo News.

The comments by Flanagan, who was elevated by his members to the top Senate job Monday, came as the National Rifle Association’s New York chapter said the six upstate Republicans who backed Flanagan – including Sen. Catharine M. Young of Olean – should be ready for GOP primary contests next year.

“I hope for the sake of the six upstaters who voted for Flanagan that they got a good deal because I think they’re going to wind up paying the price for it in the long run,” said Tom King, president of the New York State Rifle and Pistol Association.

In an interview in the same GOP conference room where he was elected 24 hours earlier in a close vote against a Syracuse-area Republican, Flanagan, of Suffolk County, said that there are “extensive internal discussions” among Senate Republicans on provisions of the SAFE Act that should be targeted for repeal or changes. In fact, at one point during the interview, a downstate Republican popped into the conference room and said he was looking for the internal meeting on the gun-control law.

Flanagan cited two provisions the Senate might try to get changed. One restricts the gifting of certain guns, such as in a will, to family members, a provision that Flanagan called “dumb.” The other, and one of the most contested, bans more than seven bullets being loaded into a gun’s magazine. That provision is the subject of ongoing litigation; previous state law banned the possession of magazines manufactured after September 1994 that could hold more than 10 rounds.

“To me, I think it should be 10,” Flanagan said.

Flanagan defended what he described as his long legislative history backing Second Amendment rights and said that outright repeal of the law is not going to happen. He said the Senate insisted on “incredibly important provisions” in the SAFE Act, such as stronger penalties for gun crimes and a requirement that mental health providers report potentially dangerous patients to officials who then can seek to confiscate their weapons.

The new majority leader said he doesn’t think “for a second” that those provisions should be rescinded.

He said that although he does not own a gun or hunt, and while he did vote for the SAFE Act, he is willing to listen to lawmakers who are making a case for how the SAFE Act should be amended.

What motivation Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo or the Democratic-led Assembly might have for changing the gun law is far from certain.

Flanagan acknowledged the issue’s complications. “Clearly there are those who believe anything short of repeal is a failure,” Flanagan said.

Second Amendment advocacy groups unsuccessfully pressed upstate Republicans to stick together in Monday’s majority leader vote and put Sen. John A. DeFrancisco, a Syracuse-area Republican and SAFE Act opponent, into the job. Six upstate Republicans sided with Long Island’s Flanagan in the closed-door round of voting between Flanagan and DeFrancisco. In the private vote, Flanagan got 18 votes, and DeFrancisco received 15.

In the eventual floor vote, taken after the leadership had been decided behind closed doors, all Republicans voted for Flanagan.

King said upstate lawmakers who backed Flanagan ignored constituents who are still “incensed” about the SAFE Act. He noted, in particular, Young and James L. Seward, a Central New York Republican whose Mohawk Valley district includes the hometown of the Remington gun-manufacturing company. The leader of the gun rights group said his organization wants to see major changes made to the law, including doing away with an ammunition purchase database provision, letting gun owners again legally purchase ammunition directly from out-of-state suppliers and relaxing some of the assault weapon crackdowns.

“The SAFE Act hasn’t gone away,” King said. “Now, what the Senate has done is put somebody in who voted for the SAFE Act as leader of the Senate and a person from the Long Island delegation. And they want upstate to be considered part of the state again?”