ALBANY, N.Y. — Come Tuesday, owners of assault weapons in New York will be faced with a choice: Register those firearms with the state or potentially face a felony charge.
Some gun owners have long threatened to ignore a requirement to register assault weapons under the SAFE Act, a set of strict gun laws approved by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state lawmakers last year.
With the registration deadline set for Tuesday, they’ll soon have their chance.
“We are not asking our members what they are going to do, nor are we advising them what to do,” said Tom King, president of the New York State Rifle & Pistol Association. “When someone asks me, I say it’s a personal choice and I don’t want to know.”
The consequences of ignoring the deadline are severe.
If a gun owner is found to have knowingly violated the registration requirement, they could face either a misdemeanor for failing to register or a felony for illegal possession of an assault weapon.
The law allows for either charge, and a spokeswoman for New York state police said last week it will be up to prosecutors to decide which to pursue. A “field guide” distributed by state police last year says the misdemeanor should apply if the assault weapon was purchased before Jan. 15, 2013, and the felony should apply if it was purchased after that date.
If police and prosecutors find the assault weapon owner unknowingly missed the deadline, the gun owner would be given 30 days to register their weapon with state police.
The SAFE Act, which was enacted in January 2013 in the wake of the elementary school shooting in Newtown, Conn., included a broader ban on assault weapons in New York. Now, New York residents aren’t allowed to purchase most semi-automatic weapons with a “military-style feature,” such as a telescoping stock or a pistol grip on long guns, and the ability to hold a detachable magazine.
But those who owned now-banned firearms before Jan. 15, 2013, were allowed to keep their weapons, as long as they register before Tuesday or make permanent changes to make the military-style features inoperable. They also could have sold their guns out of state before Jan. 15 without registering, but now must register before selling them outside New York, according to state police.
Stephen Aldstadt, president of the Shooters Committee on Political Education, said he’s hearing from more and more gun owners who are opting to modify their weapons rather than register.
Some others, he said, are ignoring the registration requirement completely.
“We don’t encourage people to disobey the law, but we are hearing very much from people that they are not going to register at all or they are going to make modifications so it doesn’t qualify as an assault weapon,” Aldstadt said.
Along with King and Aldstadt, some gun club leaders are intentionally avoiding offering their members advice on how to deal with the registration requirement.
“People are doing all sorts of things,” said John Elms, president of the Broome County, N.Y., Sportsmen’s Association. “They’re modifying them. Some people have gotten rid of them. You don’t have much of a choice. It’s entirely up to the individual what they do.”
With the deadline set to take effect, the head of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence — one of the SAFE Act’s biggest proponents — said gun owners should be expected to follow the law.
“They can make all the noise they want, but the law is the law,” said Leah Gunn Barrett, the group’s executive director. “The New York SAFE Act was passed by a bipartisan legislature, signed by Gov. Cuomo well over a year ago. It’s being implemented, and people are expected to comply with the law.”
Among those opting to modify their rifles is Mike Cole, 53, of Henrietta, N.Y.
Cole, who participates in shooting competitions in the Rochester, N.Y., area, said he spent at least $300 each on both of his AR-15s to make them SAFE Act compliant, including capping a threaded barrel and removing a pistol grip.
Spending the extra money was preferable to registering under a law he says was passed unethically, Cole said. Lawmakers passed the bill in the middle of the night shortly after Cuomo and legislative leaders came to an agreement on its language.
Gun-rights groups have held a number of rallies in opposition to the law.
“It doesn’t do anything for curbing crime, other than cost people who purchased and own their guns legally a lot more money,” Cole said.
It’s not known how many assault weapons there are in New York, and the state has refused to say how many people have registered.
State police, which is tasked with maintaining a private database of all assault weapon owners, cites a provision of the law requiring the agency to keep information in the database confidential.
“A provision of the SAFE Act pertaining to confidentiality prevents State Police from releasing information related to the registration of assault weapons including the number of assault weapons registered,” state police spokeswoman Darcy Wells said in an email.
The state Committee on Open Government, however, has said the total number of registrants should be public.
Because owners of the grandfathered-in assault weapons weren’t previously required to register with the state, there aren’t any good estimates on how many are in New York.
King said he believes the number may be between 1 million and 2 million. Aldstadt said “at least hundreds of thousands.” But both cautioned that their calculations were strictly guesses based on conversations with their members.
Those whose assault weapons were grandfathered in under the SAFE Act are able to keep them for life. But they can only be sold or transferred to police, a gun dealer or to someone out of state.
If a registered assault weapon is legally sold, the previous owner would have to notify state police within 72 hours.
At least two gun manufacturers are producing semi-automatic rifles that are specifically made to comply with the SAFE Act.
The AR-15 and the AR-10 by Missouri-based Black Rain Ordnance would eliminate several features that were made illegal under the law, including pistol grips and threaded barrels.
Just Right Carbines, based in Canandaigua, N.Y., has been producing a carbine rifle since August that complies with the SAFE Act, General Manager Anthony Testa said. The grip was modified to comply with state law.
“Everybody is doing basically the same thing, which is basically adopting a stock that was originally produced for the California market and basically adopting that stock for the New York market,” Testa said.
Efforts to further change New York’s gun laws continue in the state Legislature, though few bills have bright prospects in both houses.
Last week, the Assembly Codes Committee voted to “hold” a Republican-backed bill that would repeal the entirety of the SAFE Act, which effectively killed its chances of passage this year.
Some Democratic lawmakers also have pushed bills that would increase gun-storage requirements and require microstamping — in which a unique code is printed on shell casings when a round is fired. But the issue hasn’t gained traction in the state Senate, which is controlled by a coalition of Republicans and breakaway Democrats.
Contributing: Joseph Spector, Gannett Albany (N.Y.) Bureau