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Since the first day of this year, thousands of otherwise law-abiding Connecticut residents - at least 20,000 and maybe as many as 100,000 - have become criminals. They have broken a new state law that required owners of military-style rifles and high capacity magazines to register them with the State Police by last Dec. 31. Not quite 50,000 rifles were registered by the deadline but that could be as little as 15 percent of the now illegal assault rifles in Connecticut, according to the state-based National Shooting Sports Foundation, which is familiar with industry sales.
Some of these rifle owners - there's no way of knowing for sure how many - may not have been aware that the rifles and high capacity magazines they had owned for months or years now have to be registered. Connecticut lawmakers enacted that requirement because they believe it is necessary to keep track of these extra-lethal weapons that can no longer be legally purchased in the state.
Other gun owners simply missed the deadline, while some are deliberately choosing to disobey the law.
We do not doubt that many sincerely believe the measure, passed after the Newtown massacre, should never have become a Connecticut law because it violates their Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms. But that doesn't give them the right to disobey it. The law's constitutionality is a matter for the courts to determine, not the individual gun owner. In the meantime, he or she must obey the law or face the consequences of breaking it.
Failure to register the rifle or its high capacity magazines is a Class D felony, punishable by up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine. A sentence of this magnitude would be unheard of for a first-time offender, but committing a felony is serious and a blot on an otherwise clean record that would not be without consequences.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy indicated a willingness last week to work with those who wish to obey the law when he announced the state would accept applications that were mailed in good faith before the New Year's Eve deadline but did not reach the state because of circumstances beyond the applicant's control - like the noon closing of post offices on that day.
This would, however, impact only a few hundred individuals now in violation of the law. The administration appears willing to talk about other ways to get more gun owners registered and reduce the number of Connecticut citizens who now find themselves unconvicted felons. The governor has said he is ready to discuss the issue, but it could take legislative action to extend the registration.
Since the intent of the law is to create a record and track these weapons, not to make criminals of gun owners, we would urge the administration and the legislature to find some way to provide a bit more time for registration.
No one should take any joy in having 20,000 or 100,000 citizens suddenly becoming criminals. If possible, a way should be be found to allow these gun owners a chance to reconsider and follow the law.
As to those who sincerely believe the requirement is wrong, we respect their beliefs, but that does mean they can disobey this law or any law.