ALBANY, N.Y. – New York lawmakers were preparing to approve the toughest gun control law in the nation and the first since the Newtown, Conn., school shooting, calling for a stricter assault weapons ban and provisions to try to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill who make threats.
The Democrat-led Assembly debated the measure Tuesday but was expected to easily pass it. It passed the Senate run by a Republican-dominated coalition late Monday night. Gov. Andrew Cuomo helped craft the legislation and pledged to sign it quickly.
“I am proud, as I know that others are, that New York is taking the lead on this issue because we must prevent and protect our public from the mass destruction that can now take place in literally seconds because we do allow our citizens to own weaponry,” said Assemblyman Joseph Lentol, a Brooklyn Democrat and co-sponsor. “This moves us toward that goal ... we believe it is up to us to lead the way.”
Assemblywoman Michelle Schimel, a Long Island Democrat, said there will be fewer guns in New York “because of the bold action we will take today. Now, hopefully the other states of the union and the federal government will follow.”
But Republicans said the restrictions may be good politics for Cuomo but are bad government for New Yorkers.
Republican Assemblyman Marc Butler accused Cuomo of issuing the bill “by fiat” instead of a democratic process that should have included time for public hearings and debate. Cuomo had issued an order that suspends the three days’ public review for bills required under the state constitution. Some senators said late Monday night they had seen the lengthy bill for 20 minutes before the debate and vote began.
“We’re trampling on our constitutional rights,” Butler said in Tuesday’s floor debate. “We make a sham of the legislative process. ... We reached a point in our history where government has gone too far in every aspect of our lives.”
Cuomo on Monday called assault weapons “a scourge on society” six days after making gun control a centerpiece of his agenda in his State of the State address. The bipartisan effort was fueled by the Newtown tragedy that took the lives of 20 first graders and six educators. “At what point do you say, ‘No more innocent loss of life’?”
The measure also calls for restrictions on ammunition and the sale of guns. It is expected to pass Tuesday.
“This is not about taking anyone’s rights away,” said Sen. Jeffrey Klein, a Bronx Democrat. “It’s about a safe society ... today we are setting the mark for the rest of the county to do what’s right.”
Under current state law, assault weapons are defined by having two “military rifle” features, such as folding stock, muzzle flash suppressor or bayonet mount. The proposal would reduce that to one feature, including the popular pistol grip. The language specifically targeted the military-style rifle used in the Newtown shootings.
Current owners of those guns will have to register them.
Private sales of assault weapons to someone other than an immediate family member would be subject to a background check through a dealer. New Yorkers also would be barred from buying assault weapons over the Internet, and failing to safely store a weapon could lead to a misdemeanor charge.
Ammunition magazines would be restricted to seven bullets, from the current 10, and current owners of higher-capacity magazines would have a year to sell them out of state. An owner caught at home with eight or more bullets in a magazine could face a misdemeanor charge.
Stores that sell ammunition will have to register with the state, run background checks on buyers of bullets and keep an electronic database of bullet sales.
In another provision, a therapist who believes a mental health patient made a credible threat to use a gun illegally would be required to report it to a mental health director who would have to notify the state. A patient’s gun could be taken from him or her.
The legislation also increases sentences for gun crimes including the shooting of a first responder that Cuomo called the “Webster provision.” Last month in the western New York town of Webster, two firefighters were killed after responding to a fire set by the shooter, who eventually killed himself.
The measure passed the Senate 43-18 on the strength of support from Democrats, many of whom previously sponsored bills that were once blocked by Republicans.
The governor confirmed the proposal, previously worked out in closed session, also would mandate a police registry of assault weapons, grandfathering in assault weapons already in private hands.
It was agreed upon exactly a month since the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy.
“It is well-balanced, it protects the Second Amendment,” said Senate Republican leader Dean Skelos of Long Island.
Cuomo said he wanted quick action to avoid a run on assault weapons and ammunition. He estimates there are already about 1 million assault weapons in New York state.
Assemblyman Steve Katz said legislators were being “bullied.” He said the bill is “solely for the governor’s egotistical, misguided notion.”
Republicans argued the bill wouldn’t stop mass shootings or other gun crimes but instead turns law-abiding into potential criminals.
Republican Assemblyman James Tedisco said the bill was dangerous because it would give people a “false sense of well-being.”
“You are using innocent children killed by a mad man for own political agenda,” he said. “You are actually making people less safe.”
AP Writer Michael Virtanen contributed to this report from Albany.