New York lawmakers passed measures this week to strengthen the state’s already muscular gun laws, responding to last month’s heartbreaking mass shootings and long-running federal paralysis on firearms.
It was a dramatic split-screen: As Democrats in the evenly split US Senate grasped for modest changes to the nation’s gun laws that would earn rare Republican votes, the ruling Democrats in Albany charged ahead with stringent legislation.
By the end of the year’s legislative session, lawmakers had passed a package of bills that would raise the minimum age to buy semiautomatic rifles, expand the net of people who can flag potentially dangerous New Yorkers under the state’s so-called red flag laws and mandate microstamping technology in guns.
Govt. Hochul was expected to soon sign the legislation into law. In a statement released late Thursday, the Democratic governor said, “We cannot be satisfied by New York’s already tough gun laws.”
“Shooting after shooting makes it clear that they must be even stronger to keep New Yorkers safe,” she said in the statement. “This comprehensive package will close loopholes, give law enforcement the tools they need to prevent easy access to guns, and stop the sale of dangerous weapons to 18-year-olds.”
But even as lawmakers worked to layer on new firearm laws, a century-old New York gun law may have been approaching its demise.
The US Supreme Court is expected to render a ruling this month — perhaps as soon as next week — on a challenge to a New York law that limits concealed carry handgun licenses to adults over the age of 21 with specific defense needs.
President Donald Trump remade the nation’s top court, and it now has a 6-to-3 conservative tilt. Democrats have fretted that the court’s majority may gut the gun law.
“This is the case that gun rights advocates have been waiting for,” said Darrell Miller, a constitutional law professor at Duke University. “They have placed a lot of their bets on this particular case.”
Oral arguments suggested the New York law will fall, Miller said, though the exact reach and contours of the ruling remained large question marks.
The court could go so far as finding that all licensing laws for concealed carry are unconstitutional, Miller said, though he described such a ruling as unlikely. (Miller filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, on behalf of neither party.)
New York’s top Democrats see storm clouds gathering. Hochul said the case “scares” her. Mayor Adams said New Yorkers “should be very afraid.”
“In a densely populated community like New York, this ruling could have a major impact on us,” Adams said at a news conference last month. “We are now looking with our legal experts to see what we can do.”
Further, the case underscores the uncertain future of the new legislation. The bill raising the age for semiautomatic rifle purchases—the jewel of the bunch for Democrats—built on the handgun law, and seemed a likely target for challenges from conservatives and the gun lobby.
That bill came together in about a week, said Sen. Kevin Thomas (D-Nassau), who sponsored the legislation. Authorities attributed both the Buffalo grocery store massacre on May 14 and the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, on May 24 to twisted 18-year-olds armed with semiautomatic rifles.
Thomas, a Levittown Democrat, said an extension of New York’s age minimum from handguns to semiautomatic rifles seemed “like a no brainer” after the tragedies. “We kept on seeing the federal government just sitting there bickering and not taking action,” he said. “So New York State has to step up.”
But he acknowledged the measure does not seem secure from legal challenges.
“We’ve got ample protections here in New York, but the Supreme Court can undo all of that,” Thomas said by phone on Friday after returning from Albany. “We’re well aware of it.”
Thomas received a grilling from Republicans during the debate in the Senate on Thursday. Sen. Daniel Stec, a Queensbury Republican, said in impassioned remarks that the bill “does nothing more than hassle lawful gun owners.”
“This is: Do the pistol permit process all over again for millions of New Yorkers that have not had a problem owning or possessing a gun,” Stec said. “This bill will do very little — in a practical sense — to stop gun violence.”
Minority Leader Rob Ortt, at Lockport Republican, said he was sickened by recent mass shootings. But he added, “Not every shooter is under 21 — bad news for you.”
“A lot of people who commit mass shootings are over 21,” Ortt said from the Senate floor. “Because it’s the shooter — that’s the problem!”
In turn, Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, a Yonkers Democrat, said Republicans have displayed resistance to “any action” on guns even as they engaged in “fearmongering” about crime.
“On a federal level, we have Republican obstruction, the threat of the Supreme Court,” Stewart-Cousins said. “New York cannot stand idly by. And that’s why we’re here. We’re taking action.”
Whether that action would withstand the whims of the courts remained to be seen.
Hochul said last month that she would consider calling lawmakers back to the state capitol if the court strikes down the New York concealed carry law.
“We will have to figure it out,” she told reporters. “I’ll do whatever I have to do to protect the people of this state.”
With Denis Slattery