When it comes to gun control, wily centrist Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) of New York is emerging as one of the most outspokenly partisan politicians in the country.
As one of the few chief executives in the nation to successfully champion gun control legislation in the aftermath of a domestic mass shooting, Governor Cuomo is casting himself as a leader on the issue.
Last week, after the shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Ore., which killed nine people and injured nine others, Cuomo called the growing commonplace of such shootings a “blatant failure of our political system” and “a blatant failure of the elected officials in this country.”
“I’d love to see the Democrats stand up and say we’re going to shut down the government or threaten to shut down the government if we don’t get real gun control legislation,” Cuomo told a local cable news station, repeating it later to CNN. “It should be that high a priority.”
Such displays of emotion are relatively rare for the New York governor, who has for the most part governed as a powerful centrist manager of a state divided by upstate conservatives and New York City liberals. But even before the Oregon shooting, Cuomo renewed urgent calls for gun control during a fiery and politically charged eulogy for one of his staff attorneys, Carey Gabay, who was shot and killed by a stray bullet in Brooklyn.
His call to Democrats in Washington is not likely to prompt action.
“He has an important position and a microphone,” says Jeanne Zaino, a professor of political science at Iona College in New Rochelle, N.Y. “So to that extent he has some pull, but it is limited. Effective gun control at the federal level will likely take a strong push from a coalition of Republicans and Democrats who are able to sell their policy as nonpartisan and as a public health issue.”
But as a vocal critic of partisan gridlock in Washington, Cuomo has made an art of working with Republicans – who control the state Senate with the help of a caucus of six renegade Democrats.
Weeks after the mass shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., in 2012, Cuomo secured support from the renegade caucus, and – citing poll numbers showing widespread support from New Yorkers – he succeeded in a vote on the NY SAFE Act. The new law expanded bans on assault weapons and magazines, bolstered background checks, required mental health officials to report patients with guns who may be dangerous, and instituted tougher penalties for gun crimes.
Cuomo told reporters Friday that he hoped New York’s gun laws could be a “model for the nation.”
"We passed the smartest gun control legislation in the nation in this state, and yes, it was hard, and yes, it cost me political capital, but it's probably one of the proudest things I've ever done because that law saves lives,” he said.
New York has long been one of the strictest gun-control states in the nation, with laws requiring a license to carry concealed weapons that go back to 1911. But other states, too, responded after Newtown. “Eight states made very significant and, in some cases, sweeping changes to the way [they regulate] firearms,” according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence in San Francisco, which has tracked state gun laws since 2009. Meanwhile, “four states enacted laws that have significantly weakened gun regulation."
Many of the significant new laws passed since Newtown have addressed the issues of domestic abuse and mental health. Indiana, Washington, Wisconsin, and Wyoming enacted laws to keep firearms out of the hands of domestic abusers, with more states considering such legislation. Other states are considering bills that would report mental health records to the Federal Bureau of Investigation for background checks or would bolster restrictions on the dangerously mentally ill possessing firearms, the center reported.
At a time when a many legislators in Washington fear a ballot box backlash if they vote to tighten gun laws, Cuomo’s push for reform – while likely still a long shot – might have the potential for more success behind the scenes than from the bully pulpit, Professor Zaino says.
“Cuomo is not well positioned at this point to make that case, although again perhaps working with some Republican governors he could build that type of coalition,” she says.