Despite SAFE Act, police in St. Lawrence County not hunting for assault rifles
Sunday, May 11, 2014 - 8:45 am

By JIMMY LAWTON

Although all “assault rifles” in St. Lawrence County were required to be registered as of April 15, local law enforcement agencies will not be searching for violators.

The state SAFE Act passed on Jan. 15, 2013 and has angered gun advocates, hunters, shop owners and sportsman since it was implemented. The act broadened the definition of an assault weapon to fit a variety of rifles and shotguns that were legal prior to its passage.

The law also made buying the newly deemed “assault weapons” illegal. According to the law, the newly defined assault weapons can’t be sold in New York State and can’t be inherited by family members.

With the registration requirement now in effect, some gun owners are worried about how police agencies will be enforcing it.

And while local law enforcement agencies say they intend to enforce the law, they also say they are not actively searching for unregistered weapons.

“There are aspects of the ‘so-called’ SAFE Act that are good, but other parts, in my opinion, violate Second Amendment rights,” St. Lawrence County Sheriff Kevin Wells said.

Wells said he is specifically opposed to the provisions that redefine rifles as assault weapons based on cosmetic appearance.

“Cosmetic features don’t make a weapon more or less dangerous,” he said. “We are in the public safety business and there is nothing about this provision that is making us any safer,” he said.

He says his deputies will enforce the new law if they come across unregistered weapons, but also noted that people will likely be warned rather than cited on their first offense. He said a provision within the act allows officers to help people register the weapons upon first offense, a practice he says his deputies will be taking advantage of when possible.

“Our first option, if someone has (an unregistered assault rifle) and we become aware of it, is to get (him or her) to register it,” he said. “Just because you are past the deadline doesn’t mean you can’t register the weapon without penalty.”

Wells said his department has no “directive or desire” to seek out people who have not registered their weapons.

Other local law enforcement agencies seem to be of similar mindset. Potsdam Police Chief Kevin Bates said his officers will enforce the SAFE Act, but won’t be hunting for unregistered rifles.

“Basically if we encounter an assault weapon we are going to have to follow the law to make sure it’s registered. But we are not and never will be going door to door looking for unregistered weapons,” Bates said.

Bates said he is not even sure of the process for checking to see if weapons have or have not been registered.

“We haven’t got a lot of guidance. I think we will need to get additional help from New York State’s gun unit if we do encounter an assault weapon,” he said.

Bates said his officers are required to enforce the law and will issue charges when illegal weapons are uncovered, but added that there is not an active search for “assault rifles.”

Bates said such investigation would require more manpower than any police agency could possibly spare, and he is not aware of any law enforcement agency that is tracking down unregistered weapons.

In Canton, Police Chief Lori McDougal said her department will be acting in a similar fashion. She said any rumors regarding active door-to-door searches are simply not true.

“We aren’t going to go out and search for (unregistered weapons),” she said. “As it surfaces we certainly will deal with it on a cases to case basis.”

While local police departments do not plan to track down SAFE Act violators, it is unclear how New York State Police will be enforcing the new law.

State Police Lt. Kevin Boyea said he isn’t aware of an initiative to seek out gun owners in violation of the act, but suggested questions on the subject were better answered by the department’s information officers.

Phone calls to New York State Police Director of Information Darcy Wells regarding the registration enforcement were not returned.

Despite his problems with the SAFE Act, Sheriff Wells said his department plans to enforce it. He said people using the weapons in the drug trade or convicted felons in possession of the weapons will be charged, just as they were before the SAFE Act.

“There is no list. There is no investigation. We aren’t going to be knocking on doors looking for weapons. There is no desire within this law enforcement agency to do anything outside of what is required by law,” he said.