New York Governor Andrew Cuomo won a legislative vote to toughen gun controls and make it easier to keep firearms from the mentally ill, making the state the first to respond to the Newtown, Connecticut, school massacre.
The bill passed by the Assembly today and the Senate last night tightens restrictions on sales, bars ammunition magazines that hold more than seven rounds and closes gaps in a 2000 ban on assault weapons, which Cuomo said has “more holes than Swiss cheese.” It also gives authorities ways to seize guns owned by mentally ill people deemed to be a threat.
“This unfortunately required tragedy and loss of life to spur the political process to action,” Cuomo, a 55-year-old Democrat, said before signing the law in Albany. “This is a gun-control bill that actually exercises common sense.”
Lawmakers’ approval makes New York the first to act on growing calls for tighter limits on firearms since Dec. 14, when a 20-year-old man killed 20 children and six adults in Newtown’s Sandy Hook Elementary School. Democratic governors and lawmakers in at least 10 states are seeking new controls, challenging the firearms lobby’s clout.
“Cuomo seized the opportunity to exploit tragedy and put his own personal politics ahead of sound public policy,” the National Rifle Association, the nation’s largest gun-rights group, said in a statement posted on its website. The governor, the NRA said, was “determined to steal the thunder from an anti-gun White House.”
Senator Dean Skelos, a Long Island Republican who leads his party in the chamber, said he voted for Cuomo’s bill because it strikes a balance between gun owners’ rights and public safety.
“Your right to own a gun will be protected in terms of confidentiality, and there will be no confiscation of weapons, which at one point was being considered,” Skelos told reporters just before voting. “It protects the Second Amendment.”
The package is the toughest in the nation, with the lowest legal magazine capacity, Cuomo said.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the legislation is “not everything some people would want, but it’s a big step in the direction.” He is co-founder of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a group of more than 700 municipal chief executives that has called for regulations to keep firearms from criminals, terrorists and the mentally ill.
“We have some of the toughest gun laws in the country, and this just strengthens them,” said the mayor, who is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.
The shooter in Newtown, Adam Lanza, used a Bushmaster semiautomatic AR-15-style rifle similar to those made at a Remington Arms Co. plant in Ilion, in upstate New York. Two weeks later, two firefighters were killed in Webster, near Rochester, by a 62-year-old man also wielding a Bushmaster. About three dozen workers from the Ilion plant were in Albany yesterday to protest tighter controls on the weapons.
New York law already bans magazines made after 1994 that can hold more than 10 bullets. The Bushmaster used in Connecticut held 30 rounds, according to state police there. Cuomo’s measure would make all high-capacity magazines illegal in New York.
Cuomo’s measure also outlaws the weapon used by Lanza, according to a statement provided by Cuomo’s office. Under the existing ban, a firearm needed to have a combination of military-style characteristics such as a pistol grip and a flash suppressor to be illegal. Now, a semi-automatic rifle or pistol with detachable magazine needs to have only one of those features to be deemed illegal.
The changes make New York the first U.S. state to require real-time background checks for ammunition, according to Cuomo’s office. The checks would alert law-enforcement officials to high-volume buyers. The measure also prohibits the sale of ammunition over the Internet.
The expanded ban goes into effect immediately and allows those already owning the weapons to keep them, though they can be sold only out of state.
“It’s a knee-jerk reaction to tragedy,” said Jamie Rudwall, president of the United Mine Workers of America Local 717, which represents about 1,200 Remington workers in Ilion. “I have three small children myself. I know first-hand what it means. What we need is to look at ways to prevent that kind of stuff as opposed to eliminating the rights of law-abiding citizens.”
The measure would require professionals such as doctors to report to authorities when a mentally ill person makes threats or discloses impulses to use a gun illegally. Such reports could be used to permit the seizure of weapons.
Cuomo’s bill also would give holders of pistol permits protection from public exposure, if they ask for it. After Newtown, a suburban New York newspaper published the names of those people in Westchester and Rockland counties, using information obtained through Freedom of Information laws and drawing criticism for jeopardizing the safety of residents.
In Connecticut, Governor Dan Malloy said last week that he’ll set up an advisory panel to propose new gun controls, similar to a task force created by President Barack Obama. In Colorado, where 12 people died in July during a shooting in a movie theater, Governor John Hickenlooper has suggested that “universal background checks” be required for gun purchases.
The proposals mark a shift from previous years, when debate focused on broadening the right to carry guns, including at colleges or in public buildings.
“The main thrust has been on expanding gun rights, not a retraction,” said Richard Feldman, president of the Independent Firearm Owners Association, a Rindge, New Hampshire-based group that opposes restrictions on gun owners. “This is the most intense discussion of the gun issue in my lifetime.”
Vice President Joe Biden, who leads Obama’s task force, said last week that there’s a growing agreement on the need for background checks on all types of gun sales and a ban on high-capacity magazines. Obama said yesterday that he received recommendations from Biden for legislative and executive actions to stop gun violence as part of the response to Newtown.
The NRA, which has 4 million members, said last week that Obama is moving to “attack the Second Amendment,” which protects the right to bear arms. The Fairfax, Virginia-based group’s opposition poses an obstacle in the House of Representatives, which is controlled by Republicans, who more often side with gun-rights advocates than do Democrats.
Among the states whose governors or lawmakers are calling for new gun controls are Arizona, California, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Maryland and Oregon.
More proposals may emerge as legislative sessions in many states begin in coming weeks. In a recent letter to supporters, the NRA said state lawmakers “will soon be voting on dozens of new bills to impose greater restrictions on your right to own and use firearms.” Andrew Arulanandam, a spokesman for the group, didn’t respond to a telephone message seeking comment on proposals that have already been put forward.
Republicans control a majority of governorships and state legislatures. Gun-control measures will be more difficult to pass in those states, said Andy Pelosi, executive director of States United to Prevent Gun Violence, a New York-based group.
“We’re going to have to fight a very uphill battle, whether it’s in Washington or state legislatures,” Pelosi said.