New York Bans Assault Weapons

Lawmakers in New York are getting tough on guns. They passed a new law expanding the state's ban on assault weapons. It's also meant to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill. Host Michel Martin speaks to Thomas Kaplan of The New York Times about the legislation.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, getting a loan from a big bank to start a small business is no easy task. We'll hear how some people are taking a different route to find funding in this difficult environment.

But, first, we return to the issue of gun control or gun safety, as many would prefer. As we heard earlier, the Obama Administration is suggesting ways it hopes will curb gun violence, but New York State has decided to move ahead on its own.

On Tuesday, New York State passed changes to its gun laws, which will expand the state's ban on so-called assault weapons and include new measures to keep guns away from the mentally ill. To learn more about this, I'm joined now by Thomas Kaplan. He is a reporter for The New York Times and he covers politics in the Albany bureau, the state capital.

Thomas, welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

THOMAS KAPLAN: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: What's the headline here? What's the most significant change to the law, in your view?

KAPLAN: Well, the assault weapons ban - expanding the assault weapons ban in New York is sort of the centerpiece of the deal, but it's a very sort of sweeping package of laws. It deals with everything from high capacity magazines to background checks to mental health to tougher penalties for using a gun to commit crime. So it's tough to pick out one thing. It really has a kind of across-the-board number of measures.

MARTIN: How did this happen? I mean, we keep hearing about how we are just in stasis on these issues and, in New York, you know, Governor Cuomo is a Democrat. The Senate, which passed the bill first, is actually dominated by Republicans and then it was taken up by the Democratic-led state assembly, which passed it on Tuesday. So how did that actually happen? How did it all come together?

KAPLAN: Well, the political dynamics in New York are somewhat unique. Democrats in the state assembly have pushed for tougher gun laws for years and, now, keep in mind, New York already has some of the strictest laws in the country.

Governor Cuomo saw an opening here. He had campaigned on a platform of pushing for new gun laws, but traditionally, the state senate, which has been controlled by Republicans, has blocked efforts to pass new measures in that area. I think the shooting in Aurora and then Newtown and then Webster, New York, where firefighters were ambushed and two firefighters were killed on Christmas Eve, sort of, provided an opening. And he saw, you know, a way to reach a deal here where, really, the crux of the matter was figuring out how you could get a bill through the senate and it ended up being a coalition of Democrats and then Republicans from the New York City area, from Long Island, who joined together to pass this and the Republicans chose not to block it from coming to the floor, as they have done on gun measures in past years.

MARTIN: And why do you think that is?

KAPLAN: I think there was a feeling, a momentum, a kind of an outrage - I mean, Newtown, obviously not far from New York - that something needed to happen. Now, another thing that can't be denied - Governor Cuomo is incredibly popular in New York State. His favorability ratings are over 70 percent, not just with Democrats, but with Republicans. A lot of Republicans ran for reelection, stressing how well they work with the governor, so he certainly was in a position to expend some political capital on this and he made it sort of the headline point of his State of the State address just a week ago, and really pushed for it.

MARTIN: The governor has repeatedly said that the bill is not looking to demonize gun owners, but one of the main features of the bill is that it expands measures to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill. How do they - how does the bill define mentally ill and was there any concern that these measures would, kind of, counter-intuitively demonize people with, you know, a broad spectrum of mental disorders and concerns?

KAPLAN: Well, that's certainly one of the things that people are talking about now and I asked the governor about this yesterday and he said, well, it's a very, you know, difficult balancing act that we try to strike. The major provision in the bill in that area essentially will require therapists to report to local authorities patients who they deem likely to engage in violent behavior and then that could lead to the authorities taking their guns away.

No one, sort of, disputes the goal here, which is to keep firearms out of the hands of people with mental - you know, who are mentally ill. But I think how you determine that - and, also, one thing that was raised in some of the debate on this bill yesterday was - well, what is sort of the due process here? You know, what is a way for, you know, someone to try to protest this? And I think a lot of those details - we will have to see how this plays out.

One of the sort of controversies in the passage of these new laws in New York is that no one really got to examine them. Certainly, the public did not. Even a lot of the lawmakers who approved them only had the - you know, the bill on their desk for a few minutes before the vote, so people are still reading through this and, kind of, seeing the fine print about how this will all work.

MARTIN: Well, what's been the reaction so far? You know, as we mentioned, some of these regulations are quite tough and hit all kinds of gun owners. For example, the - any magazine clips that have more than seven bullets will have to be replaced or turned in and sold outside of the state and, you know, that's noteworthy because, you know, sports shooters use magazines with, like, 10 bullets, for example. I mean, just some...

KAPLAN: Right.

MARTIN: So even the sporting industry, people are affected by this. So how are people reacting to this, so far?

KAPLAN: Well, you have sort of two different segments of the population here. You have a lot of - especially in the New York City area and downstate - Democrats, liberals who have pushed for measures like these for years and years and years. I mean, Democrats have been pushing for an assault weapons ban, to expand New York's ban, for a decade now. So they're overjoyed. I mean, some of these measures seemed impossible to advance politically, even months ago.

But upstate, where there is a strong gun culture, a lot of people hunt. A lot of people own guns. There certainly is outrage. I think a lot of people were taken aback just by how quickly this all came to pass.

I interviewed competitive pistol shooters in the Buffalo area on Friday night who were - just couldn't even understand how these things were being talked about. As you said, they use 10 round magazines in their guns and just could not understand why. They expressed horror at, you know, the shooting in Newtown, for instance, but said, what will limiting the number of rounds in my pistol that I use in my target, you know, shooting - how will that deter, you know, acts of mass violence?

MARTIN: Thomas Kaplan is a reporter for The New York Times. He is based in the Albany bureau. He reports on politics, especially focusing on New York state politics and he was kind enough to join us today from The Times studio, which is in New York City.

Thomas Kaplan, thanks so much for joining us.

KAPLAN: Thanks so much.

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