All things being equal, New York State’s infamous new gun laws will go down in history as a prime example of the folly of hysterical calls to action; and Governor Andrew Cuomo, who led the chase for the measures, will join them in disgrace. After 20 children were killed in Newtown, Conn., last December, progressives saw a golden opportunity to reverse the liberalizing tide of recent firearms law and leverage the national outrage in favor of long-desired gun-control codes. Freed by his reelection, the president declared, in an increasingly tiresome formulation, “Now is the time to do the right thing for our children, our communities, and the country we love.” In Albany, it appears that the governor took him literally.
Legislation cast in the wake of tragedy invariably carries with it the stench of the mob, and when it’s contrived in haste to protect “the children,” this is doubly so. Parliaments and institutions might protect us from the sight of angry, rash, pitchfork-wielding villagers in search of blood, but, however sanitized our politics have become, the impulse of rabble-rousing politicos is the same: Something must be done, it must be done right this second, and all naysayers are on the side of the monster. Wise men understand this, and they act to cool passions. Andrew Cuomo, we have learned in recent months, is not a wise man. His signature now adorns a law that has proven unworkable from start to finish. Next time we are told that we cannot wait for democracy or reflection to soothe passions, we might remember the course that New York has taken.
In Newtown’s aftermath, reacting became synonymous with fixing the problem; expressing support for change was treated as if it were the same thing as preventing tragedy; and those who urged patience or reason were seen as siding with the devil — or, worse, the Second Amendment. These tendencies were widespread, but Cuomo’s rhetoric stood out in particular, ranging as it quickly did into the extreme. So grave was the new threat, Cuomo warned, that New York State should consider “confiscation” of “assault weapons,” or, if that was too drastic, it should enforce “mandatory sales to the state.” There had been, we were told, a “sea change” in America. From now on, everything would be different.
Shouting his way through his State of the State speech on January 9, 2013, the governor outlined his thinking. “Guns impose huge economic costs, as well as [a cost in] lives,” he bellowed. “Fear of gun violence invades neighborhoods, causing disruptions in the normal rhythms of life, work, and school. That threat depresses property values and puts a drag on economic development.” This being so, and legislation being inescapable, there would be time for neither public input nor committee hearings. In a startling move, Cuomo issued a “Message of Necessity,” using a provision in the state’s constitution designed to permit expedited state action in a case of emergency. This gave Cuomo the power to suspend the usual democratic rules and charge forward.
He couldn’t allow public debate, he argued, lest it “cause a rush on the market of people who wanted to buy assault weapons.” He couldn’t allow the usual three-day waiting period between a bill’s being introduced and a vote’s being held, in case legislators asked difficult questions or tried to stall the measure. In a move that would have made Nancy Pelosi proud, Cuomo allotted state lawmakers mere minutes to read the bill before voting on it. Indeed, so aggressive were Cuomo’s tactics that the Albany Times Union, which was supportive of the basic thrust of the legislation, editorialized that he behaved like a man possessed of “a truncated view of the legislative process and a cynical view of representative government.” The governor disagreed: “If there is an issue that fits the definition of necessity,” Cuomo shot back, “I believe it’s gun violence.”