New York passes tough gun laws: 'draconian' or trailblazing?

New York State's new gun laws are being called perhaps the toughest in the nation, regulating gun sales, ammunition sales, assault weapons, and more. The NRA vows legal action.

Hans Pennink/Reuters
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) signs the New York Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act at the Capitol in Albany on Tuesday.

One month after the tragic shootings of 20 children and six adults in Newtown, Conn., the state of New York has passed the most comprehensive gun legislation in the nation and also one of the toughest.

It clamps down on the sale of ammunition and the sale of guns, requiring background checks on even the private sale of guns – except to family members. The law also attempts to keep the mentally ill from obtaining guns. It was signed into law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) late Tuesday afternoon.

In his annual State of the State address last week, Governor Cuomo promised to "enact the toughest assault-weapon ban in the nation, period."

The New York law will put the state on par with California, which had the toughest gun laws as far as assault weapons are concerned. New York used to require a two feature test to call a gun an assault weapon. Now, it will only require a single feature – such as a flash suppressor on the muzzle or a detachable magazine – to be considered an assault weapon.

However, gun-control advocates say what makes the new legislation the toughest is the state’s new restrictions on ammunition. New York will define a large capacity magazine as any that holds more than seven rounds, down from 10. Anyone owning a magazine that holds more than 10 rounds will be required to sell it out-of-state within a year.

In addition, gun sellers will be required to do a background check before selling ammunition, and residents will be required to buy ammunition through a licensed dealer. If a buyer makes a large purchase of ammo, the dealer is required to alert law enforcement officials.

“No other state is doing what New York is doing to regulate ammunition,” says Laura Cutilletta, a senior staff attorney at the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence in San Francisco.

The National Rifle Association (NRA) said it is “outraged at the draconian gun control bill” that was rushed through Albany and it said it would consider “all possible legal challenges in the near future.”

New York may be the first state to pass legislation since the Newtown violence, but other governors are also proposing new laws as well.

Among the proposals, in Delaware, Gov. Jack Markell (D) is proposing to ban all assault weapons, ban high-capacity magazines of more than 10 rounds, and require background checks for all purchases. Virginia and New Jersey are proposing mental-health screening and home inspections prior to a gun purchase. And California and Connecticut have pending legislation regulating the sale of ammunition.

“There is a lot of activity in almost half the states,” says Ms. Cutilletta. “A flurry of bills are being introduced, such as restrictions on assault weapons and strengthening background-check requirements.”

An assault weapon was used in the Newtown shootings; in the mass shootings in Aurora, Colo., that killed 12 people and wounded 58; and in the killing of two first responders in Webster, N.Y.

In New York, Cuomo was able to push the legislation through without hearings or public comment. The NRA said the legislation helped “fuel” Cuomo’s political aspirations.

However, Jamie Chandler, a political scientist at Hunter College in New York, says the swift passage is indicative of Cuomo’s political muscle. “Cuomo has gained a lot of credibility over the last 18 months and has a high approval rating,” says Mr. Chandler.

Cuomo has pushed through a gay-marriage law and received high marks for his response to superstorm Sandy, which struck the state in late October.

However, to get the legislation through the Senate in Albany, Cuomo needed the cooperation of Republicans. He won their approval with tougher stands on crime. For example, he agreed to increase the penalty for multiple crimes committed with guns. In addition, there is a provision that would mandate life sentences without parole for anyone who murders a first responder.

Chandler points out that Cuomo received encouragement from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg (Ind.), who is the co-chair of Mayors Against Illegal Guns. In 2006, Mr. Bloomberg pushed the state legislature to make carrying a loaded illegal handgun a Class C felony with a minimum of a 3-1/2 year jail sentence.

On Tuesday evening, Bloomberg praised the passage of the legislation. “The bipartisan cooperation that produced these bills sets an example for Washington to follow, and it makes clear that the Senate’s new majority coalition is capable of working with the Assembly and delivering results for New York State,” he said in a statement.

Although the New York laws are now stronger, Cutilletta says there are still holes that can be filled in the future. For example, she says, New York State has no restriction on buying multiple guns. In California, an individual has to wait a month before buying a second hand gun.

“It can be addressed at some point down the road,” she says.

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