ALBANY, NY — The top lines read like a checklist of priorities for national Democrats: Gun safety. Abortion. Voting rights.
Democratic lawmakers in Albany plunged into the national debate on Thursday, wielding supermajorities to enact protections denied elsewhere in the wake of recent mass shootings and a conservative shift in other states and on the Supreme Court.
The State Legislature passed a broad package of gun bills that will raise the minimum age to buy a semiautomatic rifle to 21, ban most civilians from purchasing bullet-resistant body vests and revise the state’s so-called red flag laws, making New York the first state to approve legislation following shootings in Buffalo and Texas that left a total of 31 dead.
Lawmakers approved bills to broaden abortion protections and bolster voting rights, using the final hours of the 2022 legislative session to deliver the most robust response yet by a state in the face of federal gridlock.
Faced with a looming Supreme Court decision that could strike down Roe v. Wade, Democratic legislative leaders were fully behind a bill package aimed at protecting abortion service providers from legal or professional backlash, among other things.
Legislators also approved new measures to combat vote suppression under the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act of New York, invoking the former congressman and civil rights leader in a nod to the voting rights bill that failed to pass in Congress.
Govt. Kathy Hochul, a fellow Democrat who has already expressed support for many of the bills, is widely expected to sign them into law.
Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the Democratic majority leader of the State Senate, declared on the Senate floor that New York would “not sit idly by,” urging other state legislatures to “follow our lead.”
The legislation comes as Republican-controlled legislatures, present in a majority of states, have moved to loosen gun restrictions, ban abortions and erode voting rights. Last week, Gov. Kevin Stitt of Oklahoma signed a law banning almost all abortions, the country’s strictest abortion law, while Republicans in Texas passed a law last year allowing virtually all adults to carry a handgun without a permit.
Liberal states have mounted a counteroffensive: In New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, is also urging lawmakers to raise the age for the purchase of rifles to 21, while Democratic leaders in California are moving to expedite gun control legislation in response to the shootings.
Indeed, in New York, other legislators were more blunt about their desire to respond to Republican-led states.
“It’s clear that in the federal level, they’re in a state of paralysis,” said Assemblywoman Linda B. Rosenthal, a Democrat from Manhattan, who sponsored bills on abortion and gun safety. “But there is still more to be done to ensure against every outlandish idea that every other state might have.”
The Senate and Assembly passed some of the bills earlier this week but were continuing to vote on others Thursday, the last scheduled day of this year’s legislative session.
Indeed, with just token opposition from Republicans in the minority, passage was all but assured in New York, a heavily Democratic state that already has one of the most restrictive gun laws and had enshrined Roe v. Wade into state law in 2019.
New York will now become the second state, following California, to pass legislation paving the way for the “microstamping” of shell cases with a unique alphanumeric code in order to trace the bullet back to the gun it was fired from. The bill, spearheaded by State Senator Brad Hoylman of Manhattan, is meant to help officials solve crimes, but some Republicans questioned the viability of the technology and argued it amounted to an unnecessary barrier for gun manufacturers.
The legislation that now makes the sale of body vests unlawful — except to police officers and other designated people — came after it was revealed that the 18-year-old gunman who killed 10 people at a Buffalo supermarket had worn body armor, an increasingly common feature in mass shootings that is typically loosely regulated.
New York — which already bans military-style assault rifles — will also join a handful of states that have raised the minimum age requirement to 21 from 18 for the purchase of some long guns, the same age as for handguns in New York. New buyers of such weapons will now be required to obtain a permit—which includes undergoing a background check and safety course—before the purchase of a semiautomatic rifle.
On the Senate floor, Daniel Stec, a Republican, argued that the bill “does nothing more than hassle lawful gun owners and does very little” to fight gun violence.
“I want it to be a hassle,” replied Senator Gustavo Rivera, a Democrat from the Bronx, adding that he was a gun owner who believed that the new law could prevent future mass shootings.
Ms. Hochul vocally lobbied for the legislation, but it could face legal challenges from the gun industry just as the Supreme Court is expected to issue a ruling this month that could strike down a New York law that sharply limits a person’s ability to carry a weapon outside the home, a potential win for gun-rights groups.
“Overall, I still think a real call to action by the federal government has to happen as well,” Carl Heastie, the Assembly speaker, said in an interview. “We can do all these wonderful things here in New York that we’re trying to do, but we need assistance on the federal side.”
The bills, which cemented New York’s standing as one of the most Democratic statehouses in the country, came as President Biden delivered remarks on Thursday night urging Congress to pass a federal ban on assault weapons and new “red flag” laws.
But some lawmakers privately gripped that the focus on national headline-grabbing issues had overshadowed conversation around more New York-centric concerns in the waning days of the legislative session.
Indeed, many in the party’s left wing were disappointed that some left-leaning legislation was not prioritized, from beefed-up protections against evictions to environmentally conscious legislation like the one that would allow the New York Power Authority to build publicly-owned renewable energy projects , which passed in the Senate but stalled in the Assembly.
Also uncertain was the fate of a criminal justice reform bill that would seal most criminal records after formerly incarcerated individuals have completed their sentences. The bill — known as the Clean Slate Act — passed the Senate, but has been held up in the Assembly. The measure received an unexpected boost Thursday night, however, with the news that the New York State Education Department had come on board, stoking rumors of a last minute push.
Legislators were also bound to let expire a highly debated real estate tax incentive, known as 421-a, that has for decades fueled residential construction in New York City, but has been described by progressives as a giveaway for developers.
Mayor Eric Adams, who supported extending the 421-a program, began the year with a long wish list of priorities he wanted to secure from state lawmaker, but will emerge with somewhat of a mixed bag.
Lawmakers on Thursday were expected to approve legislation extending New York City’s authority over its schools another two years, a shorter term than the four-year extension that Mr. Adams had requested. The extension is tied to companion legislation that would require the city to reduce its class sizes.
On Wednesday, the mayor attributed opposition to some of his legislative agenda to a small group of “professional naysayers” that he said were “not on Team New York.”
Other contentious legislative issues failed to gather enough traction as lawmakers prepared to depart Albany, including a bill that passed the Assembly but has stalled in the Senate to impose a two-year moratorium on cryptocurrency mining at fossil fuel plants.
There was a far broader consensus on abortion rights, as New York State leaders vowed to make the state a national leader on the issue following news reports that indicated the Supreme Court was poised to overturn the landmark decision from 1973 that made abortion legal across the country .
Lawmakers followed through on that pledge this week with bills aimed at strengthening New York’s existing laws and preparing the state for a surge of people seeking abortions from elsewhere.
One bill passed by both houses will sharply limit the ability of law enforcement from cooperating with criminal or civil cases in states where abortion is restricted. others, if passed, would ensure doctors have access to malpractice insurance, and aren’t hit with professional misconduct charges for serving patients from states where abortion is a crime.
Still others aim to use the conversation around abortion rights to solidify other liberties under attack. One measure which has been passed by both houses protects the rights of individuals traveling to New York seeking reproductive care as well as transgender or nonbinary people seeking gender-affirming care.
An amendment to the State Constitution that would forbid discrimination based on pregnancy outcomes — or race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or gender expression — was being hashed out well into the final week of the session, with lawmakers struggling to balance civil liberties with religious ones . As of Thursday, a compromise had yet to emerge.
The John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which passed both the Senate and the Assembly, invokes a similarly named bill in Congress that would restore parts of the Voting Rights Acts of 1965 recently gutted by the Supreme Court. That bill passed the House of Representatives in 2021, but has twice failed in the Senate, where Democrats hold a slim majority.
The bill requires localities with demonstrated histories of discrimination to prove that any proposed changes to their election process will not result in voter suppression. It would also require more election materials to be translated for non-English speakers and offer voters legal protections in instances of obstruction or bullying.
“Here again, in the face of inaction by the federal government, New York is stepping up to lead the way,” said State Senator Zellnor Myrie, a Democrat from Brooklyn who sponsored the bill.