The build-up lasted a full four months.
From the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School to the State of the Union and rallies afterward, tougher laws on gun control were debated and pored over until U.S. Senators finally voted 54-46 in favor of an amendment to strengthen background checks at gun shows and online.
However, the Safe Communities, Safe Schools Act of 2013 needed 60 “aye” votes to pass.
In New York, many state officials were deeply disappointed when the news came out of Washington on Wednesday, April 17.
“I was embarrassed,” said State Senator Michael Gianaris. “Our New York delegation did terrific work, but I was embarrassed by the U.S. Senate. They couldn’t even do the simplest reform which itself was a far cry from what we really needed.”
City Councilmember Donovan Richards echoed the sentiment.
“It’s a crying shame. I would urge these individuals who voted down the bill to come visit the parents of the countless lives that were lost. Blood is on their hands.”
U.S. Senators Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand voted in favor of the amendment.
Gianaris was one of the first state senators to push for tougher gun laws last year when he put forth legislation expanding background checks and banning assault rifles.
Background checks were eventually incorporated into the New York Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement (SAFE) Act of 2013.
In January, the New York State Legislature passed the SAFE Act, which includes some of the toughest gun laws in the country. The bill initially limited magazine capacity to seven bullets, banned assault rifles and tightened background checks. Critics viewed it as a radical, knee-jerk reaction by Governor Andrew Cuomo to the Sandy Hook shooting while legislators were chastised for the rush to pass the bill.
Cuomo later backtracked on the magazine limit as a compromise to reach this year’s budget on time.
Federal background checks under the Safe Communities, Safe Schools Act of 2013 would have been lighter than checks outlined in New York’s SAFE Act.
The New York bill allows mental health professionals to alert the state if a patient has the potential to be violent. If the threat is deemed viable, the state can revoke the patient’s gun license.
While New York is traditionally viewed as a liberal state, Gianaris said the National Rifle Association’s (NRA) lobby here is as prominent as in Washington. However, he said New Yorkers generally supported the SAFE Act despite the NRA presence.
Assemblymember Nily Rozic, a co-sponsor of the SAFE Act, traveled to the nation’s capital last month as part of the Assembly’s Black, Latino and Asian caucus to lobby for the Safe Communities, Safe Schools Act.
She and Assembly colleagues from across the state pushed for a wide package of gun control bills, which she described as the first step in better nationwide gun laws.
Rozic said she was disappointed the Senate could not get the amendment to pass, but is hopeful looking forward.
“We had some great conversations,” she said. “I’d be happy to go back to D.C. and continue the fight.”
Richards, a proponent of gun buyback programs, said the goal is to take away criminals’ opportunities to get their hands on weapons.
“If we’re not doing what we can to ensure that these individuals don’t have gun access,” he said, “we’re doing a disservice to our children, to our community.”
All New York legislators, however, have not been in favor of the SAFE Act and gun legislation.
State Senator Greg Ball, who represents parts of Duchess and Putnam Counties, has actively opposed the bill, citing the loss of rights to people who legally purchased assault rifles.
Addressing the senate debate on the bill in January, Ball said making assault rifles illegal did not compensate for the help mentally ill people in the state really need. To make his point, he described a constituent with a bipolar, schizophrenic son who Ball said did not get proper state care.
“She fears for her life and the lives of her neighbors every day,” he told his fellow Senators. “And the mental health system in the state of New York has failed her repeatedly. It’s a kangaroo system where that child will be treated like a number, and a ticking time bomb to go off. And that single mom doesn’t have the support of the state, or that system, to care for that child.”
Instead, the Republican alleged the SAFE Act was a ploy to help Cuomo one day become president, and that it and would make criminals out of otherwise law-abiding gun owners.
Ball was not available for comment by press time.
In Richards’ southeast Queens district, gun safety is of utmost concern. He mentioned several individuals among his constituency who lost their lives due to gun violence, including his friend Darnell Patterson. Patterson was murdered in South Jamaica.
“The list goes on and on,” he said. “As government officials, we’re supposed to [...] do as much as we can to protect everyday citizens.”
-BY TERENCE M. CULLEN & MAGGIE HAYES