RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
The shooting last year at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut just before Christmas and leaving little children dead looked for a moment like it would change gun laws. It didn't, expect in a couple of places. New York was one. That state quickly passed one of the toughest gun control laws in the nation, but it was hugely controversial, especially in rural parts of the state.
As North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann reports, a growing number of county sheriffs now say they won't enforce the new gun control legislation, which they describe as unconstitutional.
BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: The Safe Act banned the sale of assault rifles and high capacity ammunition clips and closed loopholes on sales at gun shows. Those restrictions were approved on a bipartisan vote and made it through the state's Republican-controlled Senate. The law is still popular in urban parts of New York. But in upstate counties, the Safe Act sparked a ferocious backlash.
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MANN: Right from the start, many gun owners said they wouldn't comply with the law, which they say violates the Second Amendment and turns them unfairly into criminals. That puts sheriffs like Dave Favro in rural Clinton County in a tight spot.
DAVE FAVRO: I don't want to see a citizen revolt because that's going to create more violence in one sense. However, I can understand, yeah, this is an infringement and where does it stop.
MANN: So Favro hates this law. He says many of his best friends and the people who vote him into office absolutely love their guns and won't ever comply with the Safe Act's restrictions. The State Sheriff's Association agrees and has called for the law to be repealed, even joining a lawsuit hoping to overturn it in federal court. But this spring a half dozen sheriffs went a step further, announcing they'll flat out refuse to enforce the Safe Act.
In an interview with WIVB TV, Erie Country Sheriff Tim Howard described his stance as a kind of civil disobedience.
TIM HOWARD: Do you want law enforcement people that will say I will do this because I'm told to do it, even if I know it's wrong?
MANN: The issue became a flashpoint this summer in a high profile sheriff race in Saratoga County, New York. Candidate Jeff Gildersleeve was viewed as a long shot in the Republican primary until he announced that he too would side with sheriffs refusing to enforce the Safe Act. Gildersleeve spoke on an Albany news talk station.
JEFF GILDERSLEEVE: They're doing the right thing, as it should be. And I keep getting accused, well, what other laws won't you enforce?
MANN: That's exactly the question being asked by many gun control activists who support the Safe Act. Can sheriffs really just ignore state laws that their neighbors and local voters don't like? Speaking last week, Governor Andrew Cuomo, who pushed through the law, argued that rebellious sheriffs run the risk of causing chaos.
GOVERNOR ANDREW CUOMO: You have district attorneys and police commissioners and sheriffs just - everyone gets to pick and choose what laws they like; that obviously would be a dangerous and frightening precedent.
MANN: Voters will have their say today as they go to the polls in primaries across the state. If more moderate candidates are defeated, the number of rural sheriffs refusing to enforce the Safe Act could grow. The debate in New York isn't unique. Country sheriffs in Colorado, Oregon and other states have said publically that they won't enforce state and federal gun laws that they think violate the U.S. Constitution.
Back in Clinton County, Sheriff Dave Favro doesn't face a primary this year, and after a lot of soul searching he's decided that he can't ignore the Safe Act, though he hopes to enforce it as sparingly as possible.
FAVRO: I can't tell my deputies not to enforce the law because where do you draw the line what laws to enforce. I don't have to like them. I don't have to support them and I can fight to have them changed. Whether I personally like them or I don't is irrelevant. It is a law.
MANN: The State Sheriffs Association, meanwhile, has declined to say publically whether its members should enforce the Safe Act while the law is being challenged in the courts. For NPR News, I'm Brian Mann in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.