By Tessa Raebeck
A year after the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut took the lives of 20 first graders and six school employees, New York State has some of the toughest laws on gun control in the country.
But with no legislative action yet taken on the federal level, groups advocating for gun control are continuing their fight for safety laws.
Chanting “We will not forget!” members of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence, States United Against Gun Violence and Organizing for Action, an advocacy group supporting President Obama’s legislative agenda, held a Sandy Hook Remembrance Rally outside Congressman Tim Bishop’s Southampton office Saturday afternoon.
Decked in hats, gloves and posters, a group of 17 advocates for gun control braved the snow to honor the victims, survivors and families of the Sandy Hook tragedy, commemorate the actions of Governor Andrew Cuomo and Congressman Bishop in the past year and call on legislators — particularly at the federal level — to do more.
Sue Hornik from States United Against Gun Violence and Sag Harbor’s Jackie Hilly, of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence, spoke at the rally. They called for closing background check “loopholes,” banning military-style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, making schools safer and increasing access to mental health services.
“While sadness can be unbearable,” Hilly told the crowd, “it should also serve to embolden us to speak out against gun violence.”
The event marked the one-year anniversary of the school shooting at Sandy Hook. After Hilly and Hornik spoke, those in attendance read the names of the 26 victims, along with personal anecdotes, and rang a bell after each reading.
Ann Howard from Cutchogue read the name of Dylan Hockley, a six-year-old killed in his classroom who had “beautiful eyes and a mischievous grin” and “a love of bouncing on trampolines.”
Hilly thanked Governor Cuomo for making New York the first state to take decisive action after Newtown. The AR-15, the assault weapon used at Sandy Hook, can no longer legally be purchased in New York. Banning such weapons was one of the provisions of the New York SAFE Act, which was proposed by Governor Cuomo and adopted by the state legislature in January, less than a month after the tragedy.
“Now with the new regulations that were adopted in New York State,” explained Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele, Jr., “if we don’t have the most stringent gun control measures, we’re in the top two.”
State Senator Kenneth LaValle agreed New York has some of the strongest gun control laws in the nation.
“Right after Sandy Hook I think there was a sense of purpose, because young people were killed — senseless murder — in an elementary school by an individual who had mental health issues,” said LaValle, “ and indeed in every one of these mass shootings, the shooter has a mental health issue.”
The SAFE Act established provisions to help identify individuals with mental illnesses and correlate reporting of such illnesses with reporting of firearm ownership. Under the new law, a gun owner living with someone who has been diagnosed with a mental illness has a responsibility to make sure his or her guns are not available to that person.
“That’s kind of a good balancing, we believe, between rights and responsibilities,” said Hilly, “because you know, the other side is always talking about rights and rarely are they mentioning responsibilities.”
Additionally, mental health professionals are now required by law to alert police if they believe one of their patients is likely to hurt themselves or others — and that patient has a gun permit.
The SAFE Act also standardized the time period for renewal of permits across the state. Previously, Long Island and Westchester required gun owners to renew their permits every five years and New York City had a three-year requirement. Now, all of New York — including areas upstate that required renewal less frequently — has a maximum five-year permit renewal requirement (New York City can keep their three-year restriction). This sanction requires permit holders to reaffirm the facts of their permit, for example that they have not been convicted of a felony or diagnosed with a mental illness.
The SAFE Act enhanced the breadth and prevalence of background checks, limited the capacity of magazines from 10 rounds to seven and expanded the definition of assault weapons, such as the AR-15.
The law also aims to end the anonymous purchasing of large stocks of ammunition on the Internet. Rather than going online and having weapons delivered to your home with no regulation, ammunition must now be delivered to a gun dealer, who will then ask for identification (a permit is not required for ammunition).
Although the SAFE Act is a huge victory for gun control advocates, proponents say the state measures are limited by the lack of similar federal legislation. Although criminals are faced with these restrictions in New York, they can easily travel across state lines to purchase weapons and ammunition.
Since Sandy Hook, according to Congressman Bishop, on the federal level, “the short answer is nothing has happened.”
Of a number of bills introduced in the House of Representatives to help provide for gun safety, “none of them have moved at all,” said Bishop, who sponsored most of them.
In the Senate, an effort to bring up a bipartisan bill to expand background checks for people who wish to purchase firearms failed to garner the 60 votes necessary for it to be considered.
“You can still go on the Internet and buy firearms,” Bishop said Monday, “you can still go on the Internet and buy mass quantities of ammunition, you can still purchase a gun at a gun show without undergoing a background check, so basic things that ought to be put in place are not being put in place.”
“It pretty much breaks down on party lines,” added the Democratic congressman, “Democrats want to pass gun safety legislation, Republicans refuse to.”
Bishop said much of the proposed legislation has bipartisan support, “but the leadership of the House of Representatives refuses to move any of them.”
“I don’t want to say that there’s no hope,” he said, “but I do think that the track record of the house thus far does not give cause for optimism.”