EDITORIAL: Chatham did not resolve anything

WHAT A DIFFERENCE a month makes, at least in the Town of Chatham. Last month in front of a sparse audience the Town Board declined to consider a written request for a resolution calling for repeal of the new state gun and ammunition law called the NY SAFE Act. This month, facing an overflow crowd, a divided board adopted a measure critics of the law called for… kind of.

The following resolution was circulated after the May 16 Chatham Town Board meeting:
Councilman Swartz offered Res #87-13 and moved its adoption to oppose the NY Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act on the grounds that it is unconstitutional. The Town Board of the Town of Chatham requests that the NY Safe Act be returned to the New York State legislature for reexamination and full review. The Town Board of the Town of Chatham further requests that this Act follow proper procedure, in accordance with guidelines set-forth by the New York State Legislature, to become law.

The wording of the resolution touches on the points requested at the May 16 meeting by Councilman Henry Swartz, Jr., who said the law is unconstitutional and objected to the way it was adopted by the legislature, which seems to be what that clause in the last sentence–“in accordance with guidelines…”–intends to address.

Mr. Swartz, board member Maria Lull and Supervisor Jesse DeGroodt were endorsing demands from people who spoke at the meeting in support of a statewide effort to repeal the SAFE Act. They see the law as an infringement by the state of their rights under the Second Amendment of the Constitution of the United States and they describe the procedure by which as illegal or at least immoral.

For Chatham that last point leads to the uncomfortable question of why the language of the town resolution was not written down before the meeting and distributed to the board members and the public, giving everybody a chance to ask for language that’s not quite so fuzzy.

The effort to build grasssroots support for repealing the SAFE Act has been around for months. The board knew that there was interest in a resolution on the SAFE Act because of the request the previous month and because Mr. DeGroodt’s recent vote in support a similar resolution adopted by the county Board of Supervisors.

Despite that, the resolution on which Chatham Board members voted last week amounted to a couple of loosely connected thoughts expressed verbally by Mr. Swartz and Mr. DeGroodt. Their statements were drafted into a final document only after the vote was taken and the meeting had adjourned.

A resolution of a majority of Town Board members is insignificant compared to a major piece of statewide legislation like the SAFE Act. But Chatham looks pretty silly, not to mention hypocritical, when board members wag their fingers at the state for not following “proper procedure” and then turn around and adopt a resolution drafted with even less thought about proper procedure.

Procedure does matter. If a draft town resolution had been run by the town attorney, for example, he might have reminded supporters that a categorical statement declaring the SAFE Act unconstitutional is false. A law adopted by the state legislature and signed by the governor remains the law until such time as the Supreme Court declares it unconstitutional or lets stand a similar ruling by a lower court.

Not knowing how the Constitution works can undermine a board’s credibility when that board sets out to declare a law unconstitutional.
And then there’s that other constitution, the state constitution. The Chatham resolution refers to “guidelines set-forth by the New York State –Legislature,” which seems to refer to the “message of necessity” a governor declares to compel the legislature to vote on a bill within a very short time. Governor Cuomo attached just such a message to the SAFE Act bill. It’s a constitutional tool that does not specify when a governor may apply it. Republicans and Democrats alike have used it for years. To eliminate it you’d have to amend the state constitution. Good luck with that.

The SAFE Act has flaws. It would benefit from a thorough public review. But the law is here to stay, even if federal courts overturn some parts. The political geography of this state guarantees it. Someday perhaps we’ll learn how to balance public safety and personal liberty in ways that advance both. It will take longer to get there, though, if we’re distracted by flawed gestures that equate pandering with principles.

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