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Editorial: Fix the SAFE Act

Erie County District Attorney John J. Flynn Jr. may have decided not to prosecute a long controversial portion of the SAFE Act, but that decision will do nothing to end the confusion. That job falls to the State Legislature and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who passed the law six years ago.

Five years ago, U.S. District Court Judge William M. Skretny upheld key parts of the SAFE Act. But he also threw out the part of the 2012 gun-control law that allowed no more than seven rounds to be loaded into a maximum 10-round clip. Three years later, the 2nd Circuit of the United States Court of Appeals upheld Skretny’s 2013 ruling.

Gun control advocates could celebrate the ban on high-capacity magazines and semiautomatic weapons with detachable magazines and one or more military-style features. Opponents of the law could point to Skretny’s ruling and the 2015 decision. Now, they can tout Flynn’s decision not to prosecute.

Since rulings from federal courts below the U.S. Supreme Court are not binding on state entities, as this newspaper quoted Flynn, “the 2013 and 2015 rulings on this part of the SAFE Act amount to mere suggestions.” Individual county district attorneys can decide whether to adhere to the rulings of federal judges.

How will citizens know when they’re breaking the law? The State Legislature and Cuomo must devise some cohesive language to avoid inevitable confusion. Right now, being arrested for violating the provision of the law limiting the number of rounds in a magazine is dependent upon the policy of the police agency.

State Police initially stopped enforcing the limit after the first court decision. That was then. Now they declare the law in effect today as written.

The law continued to stand in Erie County and in the City of Buffalo. There are currently 23 open cases in Erie County related to the provision. Those defendants, according to Flynn, will soon see those charges dropped. Buffalo police said they will stop arresting people for such violations.

Four Buffalo men have to be relieved. They were arrested after a traffic stop in Buffalo and were accused of having two, fully loaded 10-round magazines in their vehicle. The News brought the matter to Flynn’s attention last week. The district attorney is threading a fine political needle in choosing not to prosecute.

Remember when Erie County Sheriff Timothy B. Howard thought it would be a good declare he would not enforce the law? An important point of fact: It was 2013 and Howard was running for re-election, so aligning himself firmly with anti-SAFE Act constituents — much of his base — was cagey politics. We do not believe Flynn, who took office in 2017, is playing politics but he has to be ready to answer skeptics.

The New York Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act has been mired in controversy since its hasty implementation following the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. That tragedy resulted in the deaths of 26 people, including 20 children. The State Legislature hurriedly passed the SAFE Act in January 2013 and the governor, who pushed for passage, signed it into law in March of that same year.

Then came Skretny’s ruling in December 2013 followed by the 2nd Circuit in October 2015.

As for Flynn, he said his decision to cease prosecuting this aspect of the SAFE Act is based on the point that there has been “no ruling by the division of the State Appellate Court that covers Erie County.” Moreover, he is depending on the ruling a federal judge in his geographic area, in addition to the 2nd Circuit, which is one step below the U.S. Supreme Court.

Lacking federal action on guns, the SAFE Act was a valuable response to rising gun violence, and remains so. Most of its provisions have been upheld in both state and federal courts. But it needs to be repaired. State lawmakers and the governor could easily straighten out the confusion. Indeed, it is their duty.

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