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New York gun owners shrug off tough new rules: What happens now?

The SAFE Act, passed in New York last year, had an April 15 deadline for owners of assault-style weapons to register their guns with the state. Some 1 million residents have refused to abide.

With some tearing up gun registration forms in public protest on Tuesday, some 1 million New York gun owners shrugged off an April 15 deadline to register assault-style weapons under a tough post-Sandy Hook gun control law.

The rebellious stance is being taken by a subgroup of Americans who often make a show of being “law-abiding.” But it’s now set off a possible standoff with the New York State Police over registering assault-style weapons – a sore subject in a country simmering with gun-confiscation fears after myriad high-profile shootings.

For now, gun rights experts say, the outcome in New York is uncertain. Will the state take the initiative to seize unregistered weapons? If it doesn’t, will the new gun controls be exposed as toothless, even meaningless?

“The line in the sand has been drawn, and if Gov. Andrew Cuomo wants to send state police out on house-to-house searches and put hundreds of thousands of people in prison, they can do that,” says Dave Kopel, research director at the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank in Denver.

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Tuesday’s protests were another sign of New York emerging as a battleground on gun issues. In late 2012, The Journal News in White Plains, N.Y., drew heavy criticism after publishing addresses of pistol permit holders in the county. Just this week, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg pledged $50 million toward a national effort called Everytown for Gun Safety, focused on improving background checks.

As for the legislation in question, the SAFE Act, it bans semiautomatic rifles that can take detachable magazines and those with military features like pistol grips, folding stocks, second hand grips, bayonet mounts, and flash suppressors.

New York residents who already own those guns can legally keep them so long as they register them with the state – the failure of which is punishable as a misdemeanor and, possibly, a felony.

In December, a federal judge in Buffalo, William Skretny, upheld the SAFE Act, which was spurred by the Sandy Hook massacre in neighboring Connecticut. Judge Skretny ruled in essence that the state has a right to curb and regulate ownership of certain weapon styles because they pose a legitimate threat to public safety.

Nevertheless, New York gun owners argued Tuesday that the entire law is a fallacy. They say the weapons it targets are basically semiautomatic sporting rifles and are no more or less deadly than those rifles.

Creating a registry on such an allegedly false pretense is seen by many as a setup for what they call SAFE Act II: an all-out assault-style weapon ban.

On Tuesday, hundreds of gun owners rallied in New York, some carrying signs that said, “We Will Not Comply.”

To be sure, gun control groups are pointing out that the same gun owners who proclaim to be responsible and “law-abiding” are now putting their guns at risk by refusing to abide by the law.

“No guns are being taken away unless you fail to register your military-style assault weapon, if you happen to own one,” Leah Gunn Barrett, executive director of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence, told The Buffalo News. “If you register it, you can keep it.”

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New York isn’t saying how many gun owners refused to register by the April 15 deadline, partly because state police, given the lack of a central registry up until now, don’t really know. Some estimates put the total at about 1 million people.

A similar bill in Connecticut also demanded that those who own certain kinds of guns register them. An estimated 300,000 gun owners refused. The state so far has done nothing, and technically, the state has “very likely created tens of thousands of newly minted criminals,” The Hartford Courant’s Dan Haar wrote earlier this year.

It’s far from clear what law enforcement will do if they encounter unregistered guns on the beat. As they have with other recent gun control laws, many sheriffs have been skeptical, calling many of the laws unenforceable.

Eric County Sheriff Timothy Howard told The Buffalo News that “theoretically,” law enforcement could report somebody during an investigation, but whether they actually will is another question, he said.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I am not encouraging them to do it. At the same time, their own consciences should be their guide. I am not forcing my conscience on them. That is a decision they should make.”

Notably, there’s a loophole that gun owners who don’t register could use for potential legal cover: The law allows owners to remove offending features such as pistol grips and, thus, remain within the law.