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Gun Policy

Why the Low Turnout for New York’s Assault Weapons Registry Isn’t a Surprise

A pattern of noncompliance by gun owners gives fresh fodder to anti-regulators.

Fewer than 24,000 New York residents have registered their assault-style firearms with law enforcement since the state’s landmark gun policy bill went into effect in 2013, suggesting that many gun owners are failing to comply with the legislation, newly released records show.

According to a county-by-county breakdown of gun-ownership statistics published Tuesday by Albany’s Times Union, only 44,485 assault weapons have been registered by 23,847 gun owners under the SAFE Act, which was signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo a month after the 2012 massacre in Newtown, Connecticut. The National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), an industry trade association, estimates that as many as one million New Yorkers own weapons that fit the law’s criteria.

The SAFE Act, widely considered the strictest set of gun laws in the country, bans the sale and possession of assault weapons under an expansive definition that includes semiautomatic rifles, shotguns, and pistols with military-inspired accessories, such as detachable magazines and protruding pistol grips. Gun owners who already possessed the assault-style weapons when the legislation was signed in to law were allowed to keep them, but were required to meet an April 2014 registration deadline with the New York State Police.

In a statement on Tuesday, Tom King, president of the New York State Rifle & Pistol Association, said he was “amused at the pathetically low numbers of New Yorkers who registered their so-called assault rifles.” He guessed that most of them are law enforcement officials, who are already required to do so.

The New York numbers echo the problems with assault-style gun registries introduced in other states. Just over the border in Connecticut, gun owners registered more than 50,000 firearms classified as assault-style weapons after legislation similar to the SAFE Act was passed in 2013. A Hartford Courant columnist, citing industry analysts, has written that “the most conservative estimates place the number of unregistered assault weapons at … perhaps as high as 350,000.”

In 1990, at the end of a yearlong window to register “military-style semiautomatic guns” in California, only about 7,000 weapons (out of of an estimated 300,000) were registered. According to Guns.com, California’s assault-weapon registry currently contains 145,253 rifles, pistols, and shotguns — but as in New York, it is thought there are one million possible “assault weapons” in circulation. A series of prohibitions — sparked by a 1989 schoolyard massacre in Stockton, California — has expanded the list of weapons subject to bans or registration, but modifications to circumvent the regulations have stayed one step ahead.

High-profile mass shootings have made assault weapons a target for lawmakers. But restrictive policies have galvanized gun-rights advocates, who purchase the weapons in defiance while pointing to the fact that there’s little proof that regulating assault weapons actually reduces gun violence. A 2013 report by the National Institute of Justice, the research arm of the Justice Department, concluded, “Since assault weapons are not a major contributor to U.S. gun homicide and the existing stock of guns is large, an assault weapon ban is unlikely to have an impact on gun violence.”

Gun victims advocates say it’s precisely because of the high death toll an assault-style gun with a high-capacity magazine can facilitate that makes them so important to regulate. “AR-15 style firearms, AK-47 style weapons and UZIs belong in war zones,” Po Murray, of the Newtown Action Alliance, told Guns.com. “Not in Newtown, Santa Barbara, Chicago, Los Angeles.”

[Photo: Flickr user Diana Robinson]