Monday, January 19, 2009

It's a blast from the past with New York's gun control laws

I've written before about how, when I was a New York City resident, I tired of the endless, intrusive and insulting process of applying for a pistol permit. Disgusted, I purchased a banned "assault weapon" on the black market. What I haven't written is that I also bought two pistols without a permit or registration -- perfectly legally. It was a purchase that would probably have never taken place without the perverse incentives inevitably created by restrictive laws.

For years, I stayed away from this topic because there was a nice, under-the-radar loophole in the law and I felt no need to rock the boat. It's still there, but it's not under the radar any more. The law allows for the red-tape-free purchase and possession of "antique firearms" and replicas thereof. That means guns in obsolete calibers for which ammunition is no longer manufactured. It also means muzzleloading hunting rifles. Most importantly, it includes cap-and-ball revolvers of the sort used around the middle of the 19th century. As the New York State Police Website puts it:

The Penal Law definition of antique firearm is generally applied to muzzle loading black powder firearms, but also applies to pistols or revolvers "that use fixed cartridges which are no longer available in the ordinary channels of commercial trade".

Muzzle loading pistols or revolvers do not have to be registered on a pistol permit if the owner never intends to fire them.

If they are possessed in a loaded condition or are simply possessed simultaneously with the components necessary to make them fire, they must first be registered on a valid pistol permit.

Note: Should a manufacturer begin to produce ammunition for a pistol or revolver for which ammunition had not been available previously, that weapon no longer meets the criteria of an antique weapon and is required to be registered. A pistol or revolver, regardless of age, when possessed with the ammunition necessary to make it discharge, is required to be registered.

This rare (in New York) oasis of relative freedom in a sea of overregulation survives in the Empire State largely because nobody ever had much reason to take notice. Criminals don't need to mess with loose gunpowder, percussion caps, lead bullets and grease. They just go to the black market and buy whatever modern weapons suit their fancy. So, frankly, does most everybody else. The usual estimate of illegal firearms in New York City is two million, as jaded urbanites apply the same attitude to gun control that has seen them through Prohibition, vice laws, the war on drugs and the rest of the regulatory state. But for people squeamish about illicit transactions and just looking for some insurance to keep in the nightstand, a cap-and-ball revolver might well do the job.

And there are some very nice working reproductions of Civil War-era guns available at very reasonable prices.

The opportunity for self defense provided by the muzzleloading exception to New York's byzantine gun laws has long been a matter of quiet understanding. The gun shop in which I purchased my (modern) pistol and started the legal paperwork for a permit so I could take the thing home had a small display case facing the main case of modern weapons. The smaller case contained modern reproductions of Colt, Remington and similar revolvers of the sort that won the West before anybody thought of wrapping the stuff that goes "bang" in a copper or brass tube to make it easier to handle. These revolvers take longer to load than their descendants, but once loaded, they function pretty much like today's guns.

While would-be gun buyers (inevitably) fumed over the hassle and expense of getting a modern weapon within the rules set by New York City (where the powerful are given special consideration for permits -- or bodyguards), these blast-from-the-past alternatives sat there, offering another option. Nobody said anything, but ... There can't be that many Civil War buffs in Manhattan.

I didn't buy my cap-and-ball guns at the store, because the frustration set in while I was at home. Besides, I wasn't going to pay New York prices if I could help it. So I mail-ordered what I wanted with no fuss.

Of course, New York's legal exception applied only so long as the guns were kept as paperweights. Bring ammo into the picture and the "loophole" goes away. But once you have the iron at home, what do the authorities know? And with my strictly under-the-table "assault weapon" purchase, I wasn't pretending to be law-abiding. In fact, I was on a sock-it-to-the-state tear.

So I bought percussion caps and bullets too. Gunpowder was another matter. It wasn't hard to find, but it was a tad more regulated than lead balls and I didn't want to raise any red flags. I actually improvised my own at first (it worked fine) before buying the real stuff outside the city.

And there I was, well-heeled with little fuss.

Oddly enough, I chuckled over the matter with a few Europeans about a year after the fact, and a Hungarian told me that the law was almost identical back in his home country. He said he knew plenty of people who didn't want to bother with the authorities or the black market, but who were packing like it was 1859. (A quick check reveals that Hungarian law still parallels New York antique-gun regulations.)

Unfortunately, last year, one of the twisted control freaks who infest elected offices in and around New York City got his knickers in a bunch over the antique-gun exception. In one of those statistical rolls of the dice, a New York State trooper was wounded with a black-powder rifle around the same time some guy was found with a muzzleloader on a college campus. That's two incidents in a state of 20 million people. In terms of things worth worrying about, that should have ranked up there with sewer gators coming up through your toilet and biting you on the ass. But this is New York. Assemblyman Michael N. Gianaris decided that antique guns are a threat to the public safety.

Ironically, Gianaris touts his Greek heritage in the first line of his official biography. The Greek government admits that the country's not-so-submissive population of fewer than 11 million people own 1.5 million illegal guns. You gotta wonder how Gianaris would fare in the old country.

So far, Gianaris's attempt to disarm the 19th century (and its admirers) hasn't gone anywhere. That's probably because of the loud screams raised by New York's many museums and historical reenactors, who fear felony charges for any mistakes they may make while licensing and registering their extensive collections of wall-hangers.

Welcome to our world.

But Gianaris and some breathless press coverage about "deadly" black-powder guns have let the cat out of the bag. New Yorkers may or may not continue to be able to arm themselves with the finest defense technology available to Ulysses S. Grant, but they're no longer operating under the radar.

Besides, New Yorkers have better options. Until the law changes for the (less restrictive) better, one way or another, that sizeable minority of New York City residents who want to exercise the right to self defense can take advantage of one of the better black markets in the country. Really, anything is offered for sale -- much of it at pretty good prices. Most people looking for a gun in that city -- and unwilling to subject themselves to the intrusion, expense and arbitrary permit withdrawals of the legal process -- do exactly that.

In all things, liberty finds a way around the law.

But it's still interesting to reflect on the weird holes in the law left by yet another effort to impose draconian restrictions on disfavored activities and objects by government officials who know what they don't like -- even if they don't understand it in the least. Overregulation always produces defiance and illicit markets. But sometimes it also produces oddities, like new life for antique technology.



Blogger Kent McManigal said...

I'm surprised you didn't also get ahold of one of the Kirst Cartridge Konverters to make your black powder into a modern cartridge gun, all still without any Imperial entanglements.

January 20, 2009 11:22 AM  
Blogger J.D. Tuccille said...


I noticed a couple of versions of that years ago. But it's not on the radar yet. ;)

January 20, 2009 11:40 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I hoped to go a different route, buying a pre-1899 cartridge revolver, chambered in .38 S&W, an obsolete cartridge. But any ambiguity about levels of obsolescence in the federal and state wording ("that use fixed cartridges which are no longer available in the ordinary channels of commercial trade"), is washed away by the state police, who say that if "a manufacturer" (in a gun-loving nation of 300 million) makes ammo for it, it's not antique (if ever intended to fire). And not only that, but that even if Pre-1899s are "simply possessed simultaneously with the components necessary to make them fire" they must be registered. I read that as meaning also ammo made at home, for truly obsolete rounds. So I am sticking to my rifles (I live outside NYC), which Albany is less afraid of. Though I do have an 1851 Navy replica in .44 . . .

March 27, 2009 12:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nicholas Soriano

I also own a 1851 naval replaca 44 cap and ball and was arested for having it loaded in my home oddly enough on mothers day o9 on that day an individual,Paul Griffin, Came to my residence in Sullivan County NY and pointed a loaded semi auto 32 Cal. hand gun at my wife daughter and my self and threatened our lives. yes he was arrested on felony charges ect...However,even though my pistol was in an other room I was also arrested by the sherrifs dpt. and charged w/a 4th degree misdemeanor 265.01-1 even though the gun was not used and I had no intention of causing bodily harm. Fing, B. S.

May 28, 2009 4:44 AM  

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