U.S. Judge Upholds Most New York Gun Limits
Governor Cuomo signs the NY Safe Act into law.
A federal judge ruled on Tuesday that New York’s strict new gun laws, including an expanded ban on assault weapons, were constitutional, but struck down a provision forbidding gun owners to load more than seven rounds into a magazine.
The ruling offered a victory to gun control advocates at the end of a year in which efforts to pass new legislation on the federal level suffered a high-profile defeat in Congress, although some new restrictions were approved in state capitals.
The judge, William M. Skretny of Federal District Court in Buffalo, said expanded bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines were legally sound because they served to “further the state’s important interest in public safety.”
The new laws in New York, enacted in January 2013, are among the most restrictive in the country. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a Democrat, pushed for the state to be the first to take action after the mass school shooting in Newtown, Conn.; gun rights groups accused him of ramming through new gun restrictions they called ill-conceived, poorly understood and unconstitutional.
In a 54-page ruling, Judge Skretny struck down a well-known but troubled portion of the law, which prohibited gun owners from loading more than seven rounds into a magazine. He called the limit “an arbitrary restriction” that violated the Second Amendment.
But, saying that “whether regulating firearms is wise or warranted is not a judicial question; it is a political one,” he found that Mr. Cuomo and lawmakers had acted within their bounds when they drafted the gun laws, and specifically cited the Bushmaster semiautomatic rifle and 30-round magazine used in the Newtown shooting.
“Of course, this is only one incident,” Judge Skretny wrote. “But it is nonetheless illustrative. Studies and data support New York’s view that assault weapons are often used to devastating effect in mass shootings.”
He said that the gun law “applies only to a subset of firearms with characteristics New York State has determined to be particularly dangerous and unnecessary for self-defense; it does not totally disarm New York’s citizens; and it does not meaningfully jeopardize their right to self-defense.”
Gun control advocates, who celebrated the New York laws as one of the few success stories in a year in which more state legislation loosened laws than tightened them, said the ruling confirmed their position that the government had the right to pass strict controls on firearms.
“A lot of states can take courage and take heart from this ruling, and maybe even Congress will take notice,” said Leah Gunn Barrett, the executive director of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence. “The Second Amendment does not preclude reasonable regulation. It doesn’t mean you can have guns that are extremely dangerous, like assault weapons.”
But the states that have passed new gun restrictions have seen a backlash. In Colorado, where there have been two high-profile mass shootings — in Aurora and in Columbine — lawmakers voted to expand background checks and limit the capacity of ammunition magazines. The laws prompted recalls of two state senators in September; a third resigned in November rather than face a recall, and some sheriffs have declined to enforce the laws.
And in New York, the laws have damaged Mr. Cuomo’s standing upstate as he prepares to seek re-election in November; in a year-end progress report released on Friday, he only briefly mentioned the gun laws. A spokeswoman for the governor declined to comment on the judge’s ruling.
Thomas H. King, the president of the New York State Rifle and Pistol Association, which was among the lawsuit’s plaintiffs, said opponents of the law would appeal Judge Skretny’s ruling.
“Right from Day 1, I’ve been telling people that this is the first step,” he said. “This is going to the Supreme Court.”
Gun rights groups have responded with outrage to the new laws, holding demonstrations at the Capitol in Albany, denouncing politicians like Mr. Cuomo and questioning the laws’ legality. Some gun owners have said they will refuse to comply with a requirement that people who already own assault weapons register them with the state.
The seven-round limit on magazines, which Mr. Cuomo had highlighted when he pushed for the new laws, had run into problems before Tuesday’s ruling.
In March, in response to complaints that seven-round magazines were not available for sale, Mr. Cuomo and leaders of the State Legislature reached an agreement to modify that portion of the law so that 10-round magazines could still be bought.
But they kept the seven-round limit in effect, meaning that gun owners would still be forbidden to load more than seven rounds into a 10-round magazine, except at gun ranges, where they could load the full magazine.
In court papers, the plaintiffs argued that the seven-round limit threatened the ability of New Yorkers to defend themselves, while the state attorney general’s office said there was no evidence to support “fantastical scenarios involving multiple home invaders” that would necessitate a firearm loaded with more than seven rounds.
Judge Skretny sided with the gun owners, writing that the restriction could wind up “pitting the criminal with a fully-loaded magazine against the law-abiding citizen limited to seven rounds.”