Human Rights

Major Gun Control Push in New York Sends Gun Nuts and NRA Crowd into a Tizzy

A vocal minority of gun owners chafing at the new gun control agenda in New York state unlikely to pack much punch.

After New York Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo pushed what is arguably the strictest new state gun controls in a generation through his Legislature and signed them into law this month, it’s predictable that state’s pro-gun forces would push back using every means: p.r. campaigns, petitions, lawsuits and threaten civil disobedience.

And that is exactly what has been unfolding in the Empire State, according to a New York Times report on Wednesday that described how more than 100,000 New Yorkers have signed an online petition denouncing the new laws, how gun clubs will soon file a lawsuit to overturn them, how some gun owners have launched a campaign to impeach Cuomo, and others are saying they won’t follow the law’s requirements to register specific types of semi-automatic firearms by April 15.

But whether this political pushback will erupt into more serious blowback is an open question and one carefully worth watching. Upstate New York and New England’s gun owners have a history of occasionally being a vocal political force, but their latest bark is likely to be louder than their bite, according to Steven Greenberg of New York’s Siena University, whose recent poll of state residents finds overwhelming support for the laws.

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“This is a state of 19 million people and 11 million registered voters. You are talking about 1 percent of the registered voters of this state that signed that petition,” Greenberg said Wednesday. “Clearly it is a very vocal minority that are upset, angry, annoyed and unhappy with the decision of the governor and the Legislature to pass this new law. They are very vocal but they are a minority. The majority of New York voters support what the law does.”

After the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in neighboring Connecticut, Cuomo drafted and pushed a major gun control law through his Legislature in the opening days of the current session. New York already had some of the toughest gun controls in the country. But the new law expanded the state’s ban on semi-automatic weapons, reduced the permisable size of bullet-holding magazines, required people who now own assault weapons to register with the state, and created a new system where mental health and other medical professionals are required to tell police of anyone who might possibly be violent—so law enforcement can see if they own guns and possibly confiscate their weapons to prevent outbursts.    

Four gun clubs filed a notice in state court saying they would soon be suing to overturn the law on state and federal constitutional claims. While that litigation is no surprise and will likely take months, if not years, to unfold, what is worth watching now is how New York’s politicians and public respond to the latest protests of gun owners.

Siena College polled New York voters before and after the law was passed, Greenberg said. It found voters were mostly aligned with Cuomo and not the National Rifle Association’s positions, notably arming teachers to prevent gun violence. The poll found:   

• Voters support banning assault weapons and magazine clips of more than seven bullets 73-26 percent;

• Voters support increasing penalties purchasing illegal guns or using guns on school grounds 91-8 percent;

• Voters narrowly oppose placing armed guards in New York schools 52-46 percent;

• Voters oppose training and arming teachers in New York schools 69-30 percent.

“While this poll was conducted prior, during and after Cuomo’s gun proposal was made public and enacted, New Yorkers who view the NRA unfavorably by a 57-36 percent margin overwhelmingly support the ban on assault weapons and nearly unanimously support increasing penalties for purchasing illegal guns and using guns on school grounds,” its analysis said. “Having armed guards in schools is opposed by a narrow majority, although it is supported by a majority of Republicans, upstaters and voters under 35 years old. Strong majorities of voters from every region and party -- less strongly by Republicans and upstaters -- oppose training and arming teachers.”

The New England Journal of Medicine just published a poll-based article finding these same pro-gun control attitudes nationally.

Upstate New York and northern New England’s gun owners occasionally have tried to politically influential in statewide election in recent decades—but with mixed results.

Vermont’s U.S. Senator Bernard Sanders was first elected to the U.S. House in 1990 in a campaign where the liberal Republican incumbent, Peter Smith, became the target of an NRA bumper sticker campaign after holding a press conference and saying assault rifles should be banned. At the time, Sanders said he did not support all the proposed new gun controls before Congress; whereas Smith had broken his pledge to oppose all new laws.

However, in rural Maine that same year, Democrat Tom Andrews ran for a House seat and won after saying he supported what became the Brady Bill—imposing a waiting period on new gun purchases in 1993. Like New York’s Andrew Cuomo today, he attacked the NRA for its hyperbole and fear mongering, and was elected.

The difference between those political fights several decades ago and today is that New York’s new law is very complex and has many requirements in it that have yet to be worked out or adopted as state regulation—such as how health professionals and public employees will report possibly dangerous people to police so background checks can undertaken and their guns possibly confiscated (although the state would pay the owners some compensation).

But those legal issues and fights are one thing, while the political posturing is another. It’s possible that the genuine grassroots opponents to Cuomo will overplay their hand—by letting the NRA coordinate their tactics and campaigns—which has also happened before. Indeed, these New York–based protests also may be intended for skittish members of Congress, who might back down from supporting the latest proposed new federal gun controls. 

Steven Rosenfeld is a senior writing fellow of the Independent Media Institute, where he covers national political issues. He is the author of several books on elections, most recently Democracy Betrayed: How Superdelegates, Redistricting, Party Insiders, and the Electoral College Rigged the 2016 Election (March 2018, Hot Books).