The twisted barrel gun sculpture, Non-violence, stands outside the UN building in New York. It mirrors the turning tide in public opinion on gun control. [Alan English]
c The twisted barrel gun sculpture, Non-violence, stands outside the UN building in New York. It mirrors the turning tide in public opinion on gun control. [Alan English]

USA: New York law marks the start of gun control

The NY SAFE legislation is the first law since the Sandy Hook shooting to tighten gun ownership, but it comes in the middle of a bitter political fight.

On the 15th January, Governor Cuomo signed the New York Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act (NY SAFE Act), making the New York State legislature the first in the nation to pass comprehensive gun safety legislation since the tragic shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. The law, which affects firearm ownership as well as mental health treatment has been praised and derided for being one of the toughest gun laws in the country.

Before the legislation, state law defined ‘assault weapons’ as firearms that accepted detachable magazines and fit at least two other features deemed characteristic of assault weapons. Now a weapon need only have one of these features, which include a folding or telescoping stock, a bayonet mount, and the ability to accept a detachable magazine, to be considered an assault weapon. The law would require all assault weapons as defined by the new one-feature test to be registered within a year.

Aside from broadening the classification of assault weapons, the NY SAFE Act also had a bevy of other requirements and restrictions. It requires that all sales of guns, including private sales, require a background check. The sale of ammunition and assault weapons on the internet will also be further regulated.

Stephen J. Aldstadt, president of the New York-based gun rights advocacy group Shooter’s Committee on Political Education (S.C.O.P.E.), believed that the most disastrous provision of the bill was the assault weapons ban that he said would “turn millions of New Yorkers into criminals overnight” and would not address the problem of homicide because of the low number of homicides attributable to rifles.

“The only positive thing in the bill that would really have done anything to affect crime and make our communities safer is some of the provisions to increase penalties for the use of a gun in commission of a crime,” Aldstadt said. “That part of the law is probably the only part that we agree with.”

On the other side, gun-safety advocates support the law, saying that it will prevent unnecessary gun deaths in the future and should be emulated on a national basis. Executive director of New Yorkers against Gun Violence (NYAGV), Jackie Hilly, said, “Every sale of every gun in the state will require the purchaser to undergo a background check. And that is critically important because according to our support of the background check system, we don’t want people who are felons, or domestic violence abusers, or drug users, or people who were adjudicated mentally ill, to have access to guns.”

Another part of the law, called the Webster provision is a response to the 24th December arson and shooting that ended with two firefighters shot dead in Webster, New York. The provision will treat the intentional murder of first responders as an aggravated murder, which holds a mandatory penalty of life without parole. The law would also limit ammunition clips sold in New York to seven bullets, and make it a misdemeanour to have eight bullets or more in any ammunition clip.

The legislation also touched on mental health, an issue Republicans usually point to as the primary problem behind the mass shootings in Arizona, Colorado, Wisconsin and most recently Connecticut. It expands outpatient services for those with serious mental illnesses and requires mental health professionals to report patients making credible threats of gun violence. Opponents of the law see the mental health aspects of the law as shortsighted and legally flawed.

“There’s definitely conflict with federal privacy statutes there,” Aldstadt said of the mental health portions of the law. “It mandates that mental health professionals have to report their patients to police and take away their rights.” He also said the provision requiring mental health professionals to report on their patients would discourage people from seeking help for mental illnesses.

Following the Newtown shootings, pushes for greater gun control laws have become the central political football that has seized the public’s attention as well as the attention of President Barack Obama. After tasking Vice President Joe Biden to come up with reasonable measures to prevent more unnecessary gun deaths, President Obama initiated 23 executive actions concerning firearms. The actions, unveiled during a press conference a day after the NY SAFE Act was signed into law, include reviewing current gun control policy, making information more accessible for the federal background check system, and launching a national dialogue on mental health.

Jackie Hilly said that of these, “one of the most important was to re-establish the Centre for Disease Control as a place where research can be done on gun violence and its impact on the health of people in our country.” She added, “There has been a kind of chill that has really stifled research for many, many years.”

President Obama also urged Congress during the same press conference to pass reforms of current firearm policy that are similar to those passed in New York, such as reinstitution of an assault weapons ban, limiting capacity of ammunition clips to ten rounds, and universal background checks for all gun sales.

The push for more laws regulating firearms has led many to protest against what they see as further encroachment on their Second Amendment rights. Last Saturday, protests were staged in state capitols around the country that attracted thousands of guns rights supporters voicing their disdain of new laws.

Those pushing for more regulation on firearms, on the contrary, believe that the reforms being suggested do not infringe on second amendment rights. Hilly points to the Supreme Court ruling in District of Columbia v Heller to give constitutional grounding for some restrictions on guns. She said, of gun rights proponents, “They should read the Heller decision because that’s the most recent Supreme Court case and Justice Scalia clearly says in that case that the right to bear arms does not mean any gun, anywhere, anytime.”

Other state governments in Virginia and Maryland have already introduced their own gun safety legislations. In addition, US Senator Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat from California, introduced legislation restricting access to firearms on Thursday. Other state governments, however, have introduced legislation that explicitly prevents federal intervention on the use and access of firearms. The New York law then seems to be the beginning of a series of gun control legislation that will become a defining and divisive issue in President Obama’s nascent second term.

Phillip Yuen (Americas Editor)


Phillip Yuen is an undergraduate student studying Political Science at Binghamton University. He is interested in Middle Eastern foreign policy, as well as US domestic policy and politics. He currently lives in New York City but hopes one day to be an on-the-ground foreign correspondent covering news around the world.

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