The sheriffs thought they were being summoned to the Capitol to discuss ideas for changes to New York’s gun control law, the SAFE Act. Instead, Gov. Andrew Cuomo told them to keep quiet.
Opposition to the new law has simmered in upstate areas since Cuomo signed the law in January. Many county sheriffs oppose it, particularly its expanded definition of banned assault weapons, and have spoken out around the state. In January, the New York State Sheriffs’ Association wrote Cuomo with an analysis, and later suggested tweaks.
Cuomo invited its leaders to the Capitol last month, people briefed on the meeting said. The group included Sheriffs’ Association Executive Director Peter Kehoe and Chemung County Sheriff Christopher Moss.
“We didn’t get a response (to the analysis) from him, but we could tell after the budget was passed that none of those recommendations were taken into consideration,” Moss said. “When we got there, we never got to the contents of the letter.”
Instead, Cuomo pushed the sheriffs to stop publicly speaking out against the act, Moss said.
“The governor was of the opinion that the sheriffs around the state should not be interjecting their personal opinions in reference to the law,” Moss said, adding that Cuomo said sheriffs can’t do that and enforce the law.
One person briefed on the meeting said Cuomo threatened to remove sheriffs from office, a little-used power afforded the state’s chief executive under the state constitution. Moss would not confirm this. He did say the meeting was heated at times, but overall he described it as “cordial.”
Kehoe did not return calls, and Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi declined to comment. An administration official, speaking anonymously because he was not authorized to discuss a private meeting, “strongly” denied Cuomo had threatened to remove any sheriff.
Last week, the Sheriffs’ Association as well as several elected sheriffs filed an amicus curiae brief supporting a federal challenge to the SAFE Act.
“We’re not really protesting the law; we’re protesting the methodology in which the law was forced upon the people without input of the people,” said Livingston County Sheriff John York, a Republican who chairs the group’s executive committee.
Erie County Sheriff Tim Howard has said he “won’t enforce” the act.
Cuomo has said the law will “save lives.”
The law broadened the definition of banned assault weapons, increased penalties for illegal gun possession, reduced public access to gun permit information and required mental health professionals to report concerns about a gun-owning patient who posed a risk of harming himself or others. It bans any magazine with the capacity to accept more than 10 rounds, and bars people from loading magazines with more than seven cartridges.
The bill was unveiled on Jan. 14 and passed through a “message of necessity” that waived a three-day waiting period. The Senate, led by a Republican-dominated coalition, passed the bill by a 43-18 vote hours after the text became public. The Democrat-dominated Assembly passed it the next day, and Cuomo signed it.
In the amicus brief, the sheriffs wrote: “Law enforcement’s work is made more difficult attempting to enforce unclear laws that harm, rather than promote, public safety. The laws appear willfully blind to legitimate safety interests, and instead are tailored to impact, and negatively impact, law-abiding firearm owners.”
Asked last week about the court brief, Cuomo said, “They’re free to litigate — God bless America.”
He did not directly say if he thought sheriffs should speak out against laws they enforce, but said, “They’re politicians. They run for office, too.”
On Monday, Cuomo said Rensselaer County Clerk Frank Merola was “not upholding the law” when he said last week he would refuse to release permit-holder information. The law allows permit holders to make their information exempt from state Freedom of Information Law disclosure if they apply and meet set criteria.