By Amanda Wyatt
One month after the fatal shooting of 26 students and teachers at a Connecticut elementary school, New York State legislators — including Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele, Jr. and State Senator Kenneth P. LaValle — moved swiftly this week to pass what are being called the toughest gun control laws in the country.
The New York State Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act of 2013, also known as the NY SAFE Act, was signed into law by Governor Andrew Cuomo on Tuesday following passage by the State Assembly, 104-43. The legislation had been passed by the State Senate, 43-18, on Monday evening, just hours after being introduced by the governor.
The NY SAFE Act represents the first state legislation addressing gun control following the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. And according to Assemblyman Thiele, who voted in favor of the act, it is “a step in the right direction.”
While he knew it would be “difficult and controversial,” Thiele said on Wednesday that he believed the act “struck the right balance between the needs that we have to protect our children and families from gun violence, while still respecting the constitutional mandates of the second amendment.”
“I just see it as common sense, sane regulation of guns,” he added.
In a written statement, Senator LaValle explained several important provisions in the act.
“The New York Safe Act of 2013 closed several loopholes in New York State’s gun laws that have been on the books since 1994 that included a ban on assault weapons,” he said.
“The legislation, now law, maintains citizens’ rights to bear arms and gave the legislature an important opportunity to stiffen penalties for gun crimes — something the city-centric Assembly has resisted — addresses mental health issues, protects first responders and shields the identities of legal handgun owners from broad public disclosure,” LaValle pointed out.
“No one’s gun is being confiscated,” he added.
Specifically, the act tightens the ban on assault weapons, and reduces the minimum magazine capacity of guns from 10 to seven bullets. There will be universal background checks on all gun purchases, as well as instant background checks at ammunition purchases. And safe storage of guns will be required in any homes where a convicted felon or individual who has been involuntarily committed resides.
The NY SAFE Act also mandates the recertification of all handguns, and existing assault weapons must be grandfathered into a new statewide gun database. There will be increased penalties for having a firearm on school grounds and for crimes committed with illegal guns, as well.
“This legislation has some provisions in it to help local school districts improve school security, including an increase in building aid for modifications that school districts make to their district as far as security, and also allowing retired police officers to be hired without any loss of pension rights,” said Thiele.
The act has a strong focus on mental health, requiring healthcare providers to report potentially dangerous patients to the authorities so they can crosscheck whether these individuals are registered gun owners. It also expands Kendra’s Law, which forces certain individuals to receive psychiatric care.
But how this legislation will affect the East End — and Sag Harbor, in particular — remains to be seen. As Sag Harbor Police Chief Tom Fabiano noted, “it’s very, very rare” that the Sag Harbor Village Police Department encounters individuals with weapons.
Still, he said, “just because it’s a nice, quiet village doesn’t mean things couldn’t happen here. [Newtown is] a nice little area similar to Sag Harbor, they say.”
In fact, shortly after the Newtown shooting, the police received a couple of different phone calls regarding “suspicious people” around Sag Harbor schools — all of whom turned out to be parents and employees.
And while Fabiano did not think the NY SAFE Act was a “cure-all” for the malady of gun violence, he suggested that it was a good start.
“What they passed, is that going to work and make it all better? I think it’s going to take a very, very long time for things to start working, because there are so many weapons out there…And we’re just talking about New York State. If the whole country did something like this, maybe we’d have a better chance,” he said.
While the NY SAFE Act has its share of supporters, it has also ignited a firestorm of controversy from gun rights groups, like the National Rifle Association (NRA). In a press release, the NRA said that they were “outraged at the draconian gun control bill.”
Cuomo and New York state legislators “orchestrated a secretive end-run around the legislative and democratic process and passed sweeping anti-gun measures with no committee hearings and no public input,” they declared.
“These gun control schemes have failed in the past and will have no impact on public safety and crime,” continues the NRA’s statement. “Sadly, the New York Legislature gave no consideration to that reality. While lawmakers could have taken a step toward strengthening mental health reporting and focusing on criminals, they opted for trampling the rights of law-abiding gun owners in New York, and they did it under a veil of secrecy in the dark of night.”
And while Assemblyman Thiele’s office had received a flood of correspondence asking for more gun regulation immediately after the Newtown shooting, he said most of his mail in the past week to 10 days had been from pro-gun groups.
“You’re always balancing public welfare versus individual rights…It is a balancing test, and I think we’re kind of restating where that balance is,” he said.