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.”
And so, one month after Sandy Hook, on January 15, the second day of New York’s 2013 legislative session, a vote was held. The bill passed by 104 votes to 43. At 5 p.m. the following day, the governor signed the bill. New York had a new law: the SAFE Act.
The Wall Street Journal noted politely that Cuomo was “eager” to be the first governor to act. State Senator Greg Ball put it more bluntly: Protesting against the bill late on the night of its passage, Ball said, “We haven’t saved any lives tonight, except one: the political life of a governor who wants to be president.” The senator’s understanding of Cuomo’s priorities was perceptive, but it was not simply that the governor wanted to claim credit for the “first bill.” It was also, Cuomo boasted, the “best bill.” The new legislation would allow his administration and the New York legislature “to say to people, yes, we went through terrible situations, but we saw, we learned, we responded, and we acted, and we are doing something about it.” Andrew Cuomo was proud of himself. He had succeeded in achieving all the points on his “seven-point agenda to stop the madness of gun violence” just six days after he’d announced it. New York now had “the toughest assault-weapon ban in the nation, period” — an odd yardstick, perhaps, but important to the man in Albany. “You can overpower the extremists,” he claimed ebulliently, “with intelligence and with reason and with common sense.” His bill, he told reporters, was packed full of all three.
Not everyone bought it. The reliably anti-gun New York Times described the governor’s behavior as “peculiar,” and worse:
Mr. Cuomo negotiated in secret with a few other powerful politicians on a dog’s breakfast of legislation that got no public discussion at all and was passed by state senators who had not even read it — because they were not given a chance to do so. The resulting bill is hard to judge on the merits. It’s a snarl of good ideas, strange ideas, and ideas that seem quite bad. While some items should figure into federal gun-control legislation, Washington should not take New York as an example of how to go about this difficult business.
The backlash against the SAFE Act was swift and strong. Doctors immediately slammed a provision requiring mental-health professionals to report patients whom they consider a risk to themselves or others. “The people who arguably most need to be in treatment, and most need to feel free to talk about these disturbing impulses,” may be the ones that the law makes least likely to do so, complained Dr. Paul Appelbaum of Columbia University, speaking to USA Today before the governor had even signed the bill. The consequences of the law, he continued, would probably be that at-risk gun owners “will either simply not come, or not report the thoughts that they have.” The chairman of the psychology department at the University at Buffalo, the State University of New York, Dr. Steven Dubovsky, was even harsher: “It’s pure political posturing. . . . No patient is going to tell you anything if they think you’re going to report them.” That these thoughts were poured out to a newspaper in the wake of the bill’s passage and not delivered to a committee hearing tells you all you need to know about the manner in which the law was compiled.
Police spoke up, too. The law, which among other things sought to ban all magazines that hold more than seven bullets and to prohibit the carrying of guns on school grounds, carried no loophole for police or other law-enforcement officers. “Won’t that be a problem?” a few bright sparks asked. “What if there’s a school shooting?” No, no, said Cuomo. You’re fine! We’ll fix that. Next? The entertainment industry raised its head, wondering aloud if it would be exempted from the regulations when producing movies and television in the state. Sure, said Cuomo, on the fly. You’re fine, too! We’ll fix that in the cleanup. Last week, gun owners complained, too, pointing out that it is all very well to ban the sale and use of magazines that hold more than seven rounds, but there was a small problem: There are very few magazines for sale that hold only seven rounds. Don’t worry about that, Cuomo said. That’s just a “grammatical error.” Citizens, he decreed, “you can have a magazine that can hold ten bullets, but you can only have seven bullets in the magazine unless you are at the range or in competition.”
This concession was unwelcome to the president of the Citizens Crime Commission of New York City, who told the New York Times, “We don’t want to have to tell the mother of a young man who’s just been shot and killed that he was killed with the ninth bullet.” Questions abound in response to arguments of this nature. Presumably the mother would be just as upset about her son’s demise if he were killed with the fifth bullet, so why not ban that one, too? And what evidence is there that a single criminal — who, by the logic of our brave legislators, is prepared to shoot someone dead — will follow a law determining how many rounds he may have in his gun? Alas, when adults say things like this in all seriousness, nobody laughs. At least some of the complaints, however, seem to be having an impact: In a begrudging bow to reality, the state senate, including five renegade Democrats, effectively suspended the seven-bullet limit “indefinitely,” as of this weekend. “The suspension means magazines holding up to 10 rounds will continue to be sold,” Bloomberg reported Sunday. The rest of the law remains intact.
Before the massacre at Newtown, Cuomo had an approval rating of 74–18. After he pushed the bill, it dropped to 59–28, still high but a dramatic drop. Among Republicans in the state, he moved from 68–18 to 44–43. Cuomo “was afraid of the public rising up — and the public has risen up,” New York Conservative-party chairman Mike Long says. “There are 52 counties that have introduced resolutions calling for repeal. There are 40 counties that have passed resolutions. Three weeks ago, citizens held the largest rally that ever took place in Albany: over 5,000 people.” By the time people took to the streets, a petition urging Cuomo to revisit the law had collected 83,000 signatures.
The legislation is subject to a legal challenge from the National Rifle Association’s New York affiliate, the New York State Rifle & Pistol Association. The group filed a federal lawsuit last week that challenges the constitutionality of the measure and requests an injunction. The suit claims that the limits on magazine capacity and the expansion of the “assault weapons” ban restricts the right of “law-abiding citizens to keep commonly possessed firearms in the home for defense of self and family and for other lawful purposes.” Not challenged by the lawsuit, but no less worrying to Second Amendment defenders, are the creation of a statewide gun registry (which usurps the local registries that previously obtained) and the requirement that gun owners undergo background checks through the New York NICS (National Instant Criminal Background Check System) in order to buy bullets — the first such rule in the country. Also unchallenged are the restrictions on existing weapons that prevent owners of grandfathered firearms from handing them down to their family members or selling them to neighbors or friends.
These provisions, it appears, were urgent, because the children deserved them. Provisions to secure classrooms, on the other hand, were not, and they have been delayed indefinitely, subject to the findings of a committee that has not yet been formed.
This is unsurprising. As Representative Kieran Lalor told the New York Daily News:
One of the bill’s sponsors was asked on the Assembly floor whether this law would have prevented the horrible murders of students and staff at Sandy Hook Elementary School. He answered, “No.” When some of his colleagues gasped at his honesty, he changed his answer to “Maybe.”
Practical questions remain. New York State has not yet indicated how it intends to process the 1 million guns that must be registered within the year. If the law is to be obeyed, 2,500 guns per day will need to be registered. There is currently no system in place to do this. The irony here is obvious: The state will rush to divert time, resources, and treasure in order to set up a system with which only the law-abiding will comply. More haste, less speed, the old saying has it.
Cuomo’s behavior has served primarily to illustrate the truism that a rushed law is a bad law. “Government,” as George Washington is supposed to have said, “is not reason, it is not eloquence — it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master; never for a moment should it be left to irresponsible action.” It is the role of leadership to inject as much reason as possible into the fire. The mob may call for blood — that is its prerogative — but leaders must demand that reaction be deferred. As governor, Cuomo has failed in his primary task, choosing instead to incite the crowd, and using the force of the state to indulge its clamor. New York is not safer for the passage of the SAFE Act, but it is a little more stupid. Next time we are told in urgent tones that “now is the time for action,” we might remember the fiasco in Albany — and ask politely for a hiatus.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is an editorial associate at National Review.