Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announces the signing of a bill that...

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announces the signing of a bill that removes guns from domestic abusers during a bill signing ceremony at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan on May 1, 2018. Credit: Charles Eckert

ALBANY — Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is proposing six gun control bills in his budget and more than two dozen more are active in the legislature this first election year since Republicans lost the State Senate majority and the power to block firearms measures.

“We should not deny our communities and our state this opportunity that has been granted to us, of controlling both houses and the governor’s office, to pass tough measures of gun control in this session,” said Assmb. Felix Ortiz (D-Brooklyn), who has sponsored several gun control bills.

“I would say this can be one of the biggest years when you go to the history book,” Ortiz said in an interview. “New York State will finally be able to move forward to have real gun control reforms in place.”

The dozens of gun control measures adopted and proposed so far in the 2019-20 legislative session follows a dearth of gun control measures from February 2013 through 2018. During that time, the Senate’s former Republican majority blocked most gun measures following the passage of the landmark SAFE Act in January 2013, a month after the Sandy Hook school massacre in Connecticut. Since the Sandy Hook shooting that left 26 dead, including 20 children, other states have led a gun control movement nationwide in the face of inaction at the federal level, experts said.

The SAFE Act's provisions included banning assault rifles; using a background check to keep "dangerously mental ill" people from buying firearms; requiring renewal of pistol permits; and limits on how many bullets a rifle can hold without reloading.

Republicans, with little input on Democratic gun bills, have also found their own gun proposals — to support legal gun owners’ rights and crack down on illegal guns — mired in committee.

For example, a bill by Assembly Republicans to repeal most of the SAFE Act backed by a petition of more than 125,000 names has failed to move from committee since 2013. Even a Republican bill to require public hearings before gun control bills are passed has failed to move out of its initial Assembly committee since April 26, 2019.

“We are all for good public policy that makes sense,” said Assembly Republican leader William A. Barclay (R-Pulaski), who sponsors the public hearing bill. “We want to keep our citizens safe, but we also think there is a constitutional right to bear arms. We don’t think this meets the balance test.”

Cuomo, however, said he won’t let New York be surpassed by other states on one of his legacy issues.

“We enacted the nation's best gun safety law with bipartisan support after the Sandy Hook massacre, but before Orlando, El Paso, Parkland, Las Vegas, Dayton, Pittsburgh and countless other massacres,” Cuomo said in his January State of the State address. “You cannot count the number of lives we saved in New York with the SAFE Act, but you could have been able to count the number of lives we would have lost if we didn't pass the SAFE Act. And thank God we did.”

This year, Cuomo proposes:

  • Prohibiting “ghost guns,” which would bar individuals who can’t legally possess a firearm from buying separate parts, then assembling an untraceable gun or shotgun.
  • Authorizing courts to seize guns from the scene of a domestic violence incident.
  • Denying firearm permits and licenses to an applicant who committed certain misdemeanors deemed serious in another state. Current law already denies permits and licenses to New Yorkers if they commit serious misdemeanors within New York.
  • Requiring all crime gun data including ballistic records to be kept in a centralized database for use by law enforcement. 
  • Sharing “flags” of mental health concerns about gun owners to officials in other states.
  • Creating a “domestic violence misdemeanor” that could deny firearms from an abuser upon conviction.

“It’s certainly no surprise that Governor Cuomo is proposing further gun measures for New York, most notably a proposal to ban so-called ghost guns, which have rapidly appeared in criminal hands in the last couple of years,” said Robert J. Spitzer, distinguished service professor at the State University of New York at Cortland and author of “The Politics of Gun Control.”

Nationwide, laws against “ghost guns” and for “red flag laws” to seize firearms away from people deemed to be a danger are gaining support in other states, including more conservative states such as Ohio and Virginia, experts said.

“Pro-gun groups like the National Rifle Association and the National Shooting Sports Foundation have lost much of their political influence in recent years,” said Mike Lawlor, criminal justice professor at the University of New Haven and a former Connecticut legislator who sponsored several gun control laws.

Last year, the NRA said laws and civil action by New York and other states were costing the organization tens of millions of dollars and could potentially deprive the NRA of "financial services essential to the NRA's corporate existence and its advocacy mission."

“Grassroots organizations like March for Our Lives and Moms Demand Action seem to gain strength following each mass shooting,” Lawlor said. Presidential candidate “Michael Bloomberg's nascent presidential campaign adds resources and attention to the issue.”

In New York, other active bills in the legislature would add a 10-day waiting period for the purchase of rifles and shotguns; prohibit any child younger than 12 from attending gun shows; adopt “Nicholas’ Law” to require firearms to be locked away when not in use; create the “Safe Homes Act” that would immediately remove firearms from the site of domestic violence until a court decides they should be returned; require a gun violence prevention program in schools; prohibit many .50-caliber rifles; and provide tax credits for purchasing gun safety equipment such as safes.

If approved, the measures would join bills passed last year in the first month of the 2019-20 term, including: The red flag law that allows law enforcement to seize the firearms of someone a judge finds to be a danger; increasing the maximum time period for a national background check to be completed before a license or permit is issued; banning of “bump stocks” that allow rapid fire; prohibiting schools from arming teachers; creating a uniform gun buyback program; and requiring applicants for gun permits to release any mental health records from other states.

No analysis can prove laws deterred mass shootings. But since the SAFE Act was passed, violent crimes using firearms have dropped statewide — by 39% in New York City to 4,245 incidents; and by 21% in the rest of the state, including on Long Island, to 3,645 incidents in 2018, according to the state Division of Criminal Justice Services.

Since passage of the 2013 SAFE Act, there were two “active shooter incidents” in New York by the end of 2018, according to FBI statistics. From 2000 to 2013, New York had eight of the shootings, according to the FBI.

By comparison to New York’s 10 incidents from 2000 to 2018, California had 30 incidents, Florida had 24, and Texas had 17, according to FBI statistics. The FBI defines an active shooter as “an individual actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a populated area,” although definitions of mass shootings differ widely among advocacy groups and law enforcement agencies.

Politically, a Siena Research Institute poll last year shows the SAFE Act championed by Democrats is popular with New York voters. The poll five years after the SAFE Act was enacted shows support by 74% of voters in New York City and 61% in the suburbs, including Long Island which will again be a battleground in the fall elections. Just 48% of upstate voters supported the act.

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