ALBANY – State lawmakers Tuesday banned teachers from carrying weapons on school grounds and opened a new route for school officials and family members to take legal action to force people deemed an “extreme risk” to surrender any firearms they possess.
Democrats who now control both houses of the Legislature said the five-bill gun control package is needed as a response to mass shootings and other gun violence, while Republicans lashed out at the measures as political acts designed to undermine Second Amendment rights.
“Every day, it seems, we wake up to the headlines of another mass shooting, another horrific gun crime. … The madness has to stop," said Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, a Westchester County Democrat.
But gun rights advocates said New York is heading down a legally dangerous path. “It’s just a massive assault on the Second Amendment," said Tom King, executive director of the New York State Rifle and Pistol Association and a board member of the National Rifle Association. He called the different bills a combination of either “very egregious” moves against gun rights or “just plain stupid."
The package, passed by both houses and expected to be signed into law by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, also included a ban on bump stock devices – such as those used by the Las Vegas massacre shooter in 2017 – that can turn guns into automatic weapons.
Lawmakers also easily passed a law to create a uniform, statewide gun buyback program. Assemblyman Sean Ryan, a Buffalo Democrat, told colleagues “there’s a lot of rationale behind that," while Assemblyman David DiPietro, an East Aurora Republican, questioned the political motivation behind the measure. “This is about gun confiscation," he said during floor debate.
Such sharp differences along party lines were evident throughout the day. But Democrats, who after the fall elections have added control of the Senate to their long domination of the Assembly, merely had to wait out speeches and questions by Republicans; passage of the bills was assured, as a practical matter, as soon as the bills were put on Tuesday’s agenda several days ago.
The package approved also included a bill letting the state check the mental health backgrounds of people who move to New York and want to purchase a gun, and raises to 30 days the number of days for people to obtain guns without completion of a background check. Under existing law, a gun buyer can obtain a purchased weapon if a background check is not done within three days. Most checks are done immediately.
Several items lawmakers planned to bring to the floor – including creation of a state gun violence institute – were taken out of the final package to work out technical and other snags.
Teachers gun possession at schools banned
The teacher gun ban attracted considerable debate in both houses Tuesday. It comes after President Trump and others – in the wake Florida’s Parkland school shooting that last year left 17 students and teachers dead – have pressed for teachers to be permitted to carry weapons.
Guns are already banned on school grounds except those carried by law enforcement or security guards. Districts, though, have been authorized to let teachers with appropriate licenses carry guns.
“Arming teachers is something that, to me, is ridiculous," said Linda Beigel Schulman, a Long Island resident whose son, Scott Beigel, a teacher, was among those killed in the Parkland shooting. After holding up a large photograph of her slain son at a gathering of lawmakers and other advocates of the gun package: “He never wanted to be armed."
“New York State and I cannot thank you enough because we are so much safer today," she told lawmakers.
The teacher gun ban has been supported by the teachers' unions, New Yorkers Against Gun Violence and others. Assemblywoman Judy Griffin, a Long Island Democrat and sponsor of the school gun ban, said teachers and other school workers can apply to districts to serve as security guards, for instance, after school at sports events.
“While they are teaching, they cannot have a firearm," Griffin said.
Republicans, especially from rural areas where police can be far from some schools, slammed the measure. “How many additional police officers does this bill fund?" Assemblyman Andy Goodell, a Jamestown-area Republican, asked Griffin. None, he was told.
In the Senate, teacher gun ban sponsor Sen. Todd Kaminsky, a Long Island Democrat, maintains arming teachers will just bring more guns into schools and serves as a distraction from other effective steps that could reduce gun violence. He said there is “more harm having a teacher roaming the hallways looking for an active shooter” than waiting for law enforcement to arrive. Supporters raised concerns that guns brought to school by teachers and other school personnel could fall into the wrong hands during a school day.
But some upstate Senate Republicans said Kaminsky’s bill would have the effect of also eliminating gun competition clubs at public schools, which attracts thousands of student members. The school superintendents’ group said it believes such student shooting teams use off-campus facilities so would not be affected by Tuesday’s school grounds’ gun ban.
“It’s not going to apply to those (clubs) in any way,’’ said Assemblywoman Monica Wallace, an Erie County Democrat.
Red flag bill adopted
The Legislature Tuesday approved a bill that permits certain people – school officials, family members and law enforcement – to seek a court order to issue an “extreme risk protection order” that bans those determined to be a threat to themselves or others to purchase or possess a firearm for one year. Those petitioning the court would have to file a sworn application that states the specific allegations against an individual.
The measure says to teachers, for instance, “do something, don’t wait for the inevitable tragedy," Cuomo said. “It is common sense,’’ he added of the bill.
“No one wants to take guns from legal owners who are mentally healthy. We don’t want people who are mentally ill or past felons to have guns. That’s all this is," the Democratic governor added.
But gun rights advocates say existing state gun laws that can block gun sales to individuals deemed a threat by certain health professionals have proven to be difficult and costly for people – later found not to be a threat – to get their firearms returned. “I don’t want mentally challenged individuals getting a firearm, but this red flag law lacks any sense of due process," said King, the NRA board member.
King said the overall package is an overreach, noting that bump stocks are already illegal under a 1920s state law involving machine guns and that the teacher gun ban should be left up to local school districts, not the state.
But gun control advocates, hailing the first major gun bills in New York in six years since adoption of the Safe Act, praised Cuomo and Democrats in the Legislature for Tuesday’s measures.
“This is such an important day for New York, and really the entire nation, because today New York once again is setting an example for the rest of the country to follow," said Rebecca Fischer, executive director of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence.