ALBANY — New York lawmakers agreed to pass 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 keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill who make threats.
“This is a scourge on society,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Monday night, 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.
“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 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 two West Webster 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 Democrat-led Assembly gaveled out before midnight and took up the issue Tuesday morning.
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.
Republican Sen. Greg Ball called that political opportunism in a rare criticism of the popular and powerful governor seen by his supporters as a possible candidate for president in 2016.
“We haven’t saved any lives tonight, except one: the political life of a governor who wants to be president,” said Ball who represents part of the Hudson Valley. “We have taken an entire category of firearms that are currently legal that are in the homes of law-abiding, tax paying citizens. … We are now turning those law-abiding citizens into criminals.”
In the gun debate, one concern for New York is its major gun manufacturer upstate.
Remington Arms Co. makes the Bushmaster semi-automatic rifle that was used in the Connecticut shootings and again on Christmas Eve in connection with the Webster shooting. The two-century-old Remington factory in Ilion in central New York employs 1,000 workers in a Republican Senate district.
The bill was the first test of the new coalition in control of the Senate, which has long been run by Republicans opposed to gun control measures. The chamber is now in the hands of Republicans and five breakaway Democrats led by Klein, an arrangement expected to result in more progressive legislation.
Former Republican Sen. Michael Balboni said that for legislators from the more conservative upstate region of New York, gun control “has the intensity of the gay marriage issue.” In 2011, three of four Republicans who crossed the aisle to vote for same-sex marriage ended up losing their jobs because of their votes.