Minor changes applied to customized firearms are reportedly being used to evade the prohibition on assault weapons in New York State, where lawmakers tightened gun laws after a string of mass shootings in 2012.
The AR-15 rifle is one of the most sought after guns in the US, in part because of its popularity for hunting deer and other game, but also because many people with little weapon experience have found it easy to use. Yet the same gun has been used in a number of mass shootings, including at an Aurora, Colorado movie theater and at Sandy Hook elementary in Newtown, Connecticut.
Arguing that further weapons legislation would help their state avoid a similar tragedy, New York legislators signed the Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act (SAFE Act) less than a month after the Connecticut shooting left 28 people dead. It was the first bill signed into law by Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has called the bill the “toughest assault weapons ban in the country."
The SAFE Act forces ammunition dealers to conduct background checks on customers, creates a state registry of assault weapons, and gives mental health professionals the authority to take a gun away from an unstable patient, among other requirement. Democrats at the national level have called for all of those changes and more to be adopted for the entire country, yet critics have wondered if the changes have been as effective as initially promised.
Gun-rights advocates have maintained that the law violates their civil liberty under the Second Amendment. Arrest records from March 2013, when the major provisions went into effect, until December indicate that 1,078 of the total 1,291 charges under the new law came in New York City.
Sheriffs in more rural, conservative areas of New York announced they would simply not enforce the law.
While the AR-15 is generally portrayed in the national media as an “assault weapon,” that term does not have an exact concrete definition. The SAFE Act defines an assault weapon as any semi-automatic rifle which accepts a magazine of ammunition and has one of ten features listed under the law, ranging from a flash suppressor to a bayonet mount.
As such, slightly customized versions of the AR-15 are available for sale throughout the state that has promised to crack down the hardest. A Fox News report, for instance, mentioned that the guns are in fact becoming more popular because the replacement features are visually appealing.
“Some guns they’re banning are the safest guns,” Alan Gottlieb, president of the Second Amendment Foundation, told the right-leaning news channel. “There aren’t many accidents committed with Bushmaster rifles, and there are a number of times that so-called assault rifles have been used in self-defense.”
Justin Reickhart, who manages a gun shop in Lackawanna, NY, admitted that the SAFE Act may have actually boosted AR-15 sales.
“Believe it or not, if I had a hundred things to sell, they’d already be gone. I’m hoping to have them in my shop in the next two-weeks,” he said.
“We’ve already showed it to about a dozen people, just a picture of what it’s going to be, and the younger generation – they already love it. They’re like, it’s the same gun, just with a sci-fi-looking stock. The suggested retail price is going to be $1,050. Prior to the ban, you would have been able to buy the gun for $949.”
Even as gun-rights advocates come forward, the SAFE Act seems increasingly unlikely to face any difficulty soon. In December 2013 William M. Skretny of Federal District Court in Buffalo ruled that expanded prohibitions on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines are lawful because they serve to “further the state’s important interest in public safety.”
“Studies and data support New York’s view that assault weapons are often used to devastating effects in mass shootings,” he wrote.