Disarmed by Mistake

New York’s new gun law

The SAFE Act, a gun control law hastily passed by the New York legislature in January, includes a provision requiring mental health professionals to report any patient they deem “likely to engage in conduct that will cause serious harm to self or others.” That is how David Lewis, a 35-year-old Amherst librarian, was stripped of his guns and his Second Amendment rights in April.

Lewis got his guns back a couple of weeks later, after state police admitted they had provided erroneous information to the county clerk who instructed Lewis to surrender his firearms. But the exact nature of that mistake remains mysterious, suggesting the law is not working as intended.

Under the SAFE Act, gun confiscation is supposed to be the last step in a process that begins with a report from a physician, psychologist, registered nurse, or licensed clinical social worker to a county mental health official. If the official agrees with the clinician’s assessment, he or she passes the report on to the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS), which determines whether the patient holds a firearms license.

If he does have such a license, which is required to buy a handgun legally in New York, the DCJS must notify the local licensing official—in this case, Erie County Clerk Chris Jacobs—who must suspend or revoke the patient’s license and order him to hand over all his firearms, including rifles and shotguns. If he fails to do so, police are authorized to seize them.

Although some news reports suggested Lewis was a victim of mistaken identity, his lawyer, Jim Tresmond, says the state police were worried by the fact that Lewis had once been prescribed an anti-anxiety drug. Yet the state police, which issued a statement saying “no guns are being taken because an individual is on anti-anxiety medication,” should not have known anything about Lewis’ treatment history. The SAFE Act says “information transmitted to the Division of Criminal Justice Services shall be limited to names and other non-clinical identifying information.”

In an interview with a local TV station, Jacobs blamed the incident on “a flawed law that was passed so quickly without forethought on how something would be implemented.” The mental health provision, he said, “doesn’t look like it’s going to work on paper, and now we know it really doesn’t work.” 

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