Cuomo to Press for Wider Curbs on Gun Access
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, pushing New York to become the first state to enact major new gun laws in the wake of the massacre in Newtown, Conn., plans on Wednesday to propose one of the country's most restrictive bans on assault weapons.
New York is one of seven states that already ban at least some assault weapons. But Mr. Cuomo has described the existing law as having "more holes than Swiss cheese," and he wants to broaden the number of guns and magazines covered by the law while also making it harder for gun makers to tweak their products to get around the ban.
Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat, will outline his proposal in his State of the State address, but even before he speaks, he has incited anxiety among gun owners by acknowledging in a radio interview that "confiscation could be an option" for assault weapons owned by New Yorkers. Since that interview, Mr. Cuomo has not mentioned the idea, and his aides have acknowledged that it would be impractical.
But gun rights groups have seized on the comment, even promoting a petition on the Web site of the White House that declares, "We do not live in Nazi Germany," and asks the Obama administration to block any effort at confiscation by Mr. Cuomo.
Since the shootings in Newtown, Mr. Cuomo has been trying to negotiate an agreement on gun laws with legislative leaders in Albany — he even contemplated calling them back into special session last month — and the talks continued into Tuesday, as the governor sought an agreement before his speech.
According to people briefed on the talks, the governor is considering not only rewriting the state's assault weapons ban, but also proposing more expansive use of mental health records in background checks of gun buyers, lower limits on the capacity of magazines sold legally in New York and a new requirement that gun permits be subject to periodic recertification.
New York already has some of the toughest gun laws in the country, and the debate over new restrictions here reflects a significant change in the national conversation over guns, as states and the federal government grapple with whether and how to limit the possession of weapons that have been used in multiple mass killings in recent years.
Mr. Cuomo, a shotgun owner, has long spoken in favor of tougher gun control but has not used his considerable political muscle to make the issue a priority over his two years as governor. Now, citing the recent killings, he is seeking to strike a deal that could be used as a model in other statehouses.
"I think what the nation is saying now after Connecticut, what people in New York are saying is 'Do something, please,' " Mr. Cuomo told reporters recently.
New York's existing assault weapons ban was approved in the aftermath of another mass shooting, at Columbine High School in 1999. The next year, Gov. George E. Pataki surprised his fellow Republicans by pushing through the Legislature a package of tough new gun laws, including the measure to outlaw assault weapons. But many high-powered rifles now in production are exempt from the ban because, advocacy groups say, manufacturers have altered their products to circumvent the law.
"This is a singular moment in the history of the gun control movement," said Richard M. Aborn, the president of the Citizens Crime Commission of New York City. "The governor has the opportunity to set the high-water mark and continue New York's leadership position in having the most effective gun control laws in the country."
The state's District Attorneys Association sent a letter to the governor and legislative leaders on Tuesday calling for, among other things, the elimination of a grandfather clause that allows some high-capacity magazines. And nearly 100 lawmakers have endorsed a set of proposals that includes limiting handgun purchases to one per month, requiring a new form of ballistics identification and putting in place universal background checks.
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But Mr. Cuomo faces a complicated political landscape in Albany. The Assembly is controlled by Democrats who are eager for more gun restrictions, while the Senate this year is to be controlled by an unusual coalition of Republicans, who have largely resisted new gun laws, and dissident Democrats, who support more gun control.
Mr. Cuomo, during his first half of his term, assiduously courted Senate Republicans, even persuading them to allow the vote that legalized same-sex marriage, but he has indicated that he is now willing to challenge the Republicans over the gun issue.
On Saturday, after the Senate Republicans called for stiffening penalties for violations of existing gun laws, but not tightening the assault weapons ban, Mr. Cuomo's spokesman said the Republican proposal "insults the common sense of New Yorkers."
Gun rights advocates argue that Mr. Cuomo is wrong to focus his attention on assault weapons; of 769 homicides in New York State in 2011, only five were committed with rifles of any kind, according to the State Division of Criminal Justice Services.
"This issue is not about guns, and the reason they are pushing the gun issue is because it's much easier for them to say, 'Look what we did; we're going to make people safer in New York. We passed more gun laws,' " said Thomas H. King, the president of the New York State Rifle and Pistol Association. Mr. King, echoing the recommendation of the National Rifle Association, said that instead of banning certain guns, New York should require armed security at all schools.
Senator Catharine Young, Republican of Olean, in western New York, said she had been receiving calls from constituents who were worried about what action the Legislature might take.
"The vast majority of people who own firearms in my district are law-abiding and extremely responsible," Ms. Young said. "They aren't the problem; it's illegal guns and untreated mental illness that are the problems."
Cracking down on high-powered weapons has long been a priority for many urban Democrats in the Legislature; to draw attention to the issue, one senator even went to a gun shop near Albany to buy ammunition for an AK-47 while the transaction was recorded with a hidden camera.
"A lot of people look at this as a battle between people who want to take away all the guns and people who want to have no restrictions on guns; but most members of the public and most members of the Legislature understand that reasonable restrictions on guns make sense," said Assemblyman Brian Kavanagh, a Manhattan Democrat. Last weekend, he said, brought another reminder of the urgency at hand: a 16-year-old from Mr. Kavanagh's district was shot dead on Friday.