Can New NY State Laws Really Halt Gun Runners?

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman shows off guns that were sold at gun shows in New York without running required background checks. New legislation introduced by State Senator Michael Gianaris would make it much more difficult to acquire guns in New York, but the question remain whether it would curb the shipments of illegal guns coming from other states. Ap/Mike Groll

After the fatal shootings at a theater in Aurora, CO, this July, New York State Senator Michael Gianaris (D-Queens) unveiled a package of five bills designed to make New York the toughest gun control state in the nation, according to the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence‘s standards. This was only days before the fatal shooting at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin

“There’s been a well documented recent increase in gun violence not only throughout the nation, but also in New York City where we’ve seen an over 12 percent increase in gun violence in the past year,” said Gianaris.

The problem with using local or state law to prevent gun violence in New York City is that 68 percent of the illegal guns recovered by the NYPD weren’t purchased in New York; they were trafficked from states where it’s easier to buy a gun — or as is usually the case, to buy a lot of guns at once. Could Gianaris’ legislation really be effective?

On the Brady Center’s scorecard for best gun control practices, New York State currently ranks fourth behind New Jersey, California and Massachusetts. Gianaris’ bills would give the state a perfect score and bring it to first place by requiring a 10-day wait period for all gun purchases; making weapons dealers report all sales to the Division of Criminal Justice Services within 24 hours; allowing only dealers with permits to sell ammunition; making all gun purchasers take a safety class; requiring background checks for gun sales between two private citizens; and limiting New Yorkers to purchasing one gun per month.

It’s those last two requirements that might have the strongest impact on keeping guns from coming into the state.

“I think they’re all good bills. They’re kind of known areas of the law where progress has been made in reducing illegal gun trafficking,” said Jackie Hilly, executive director of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence. She added that the one gun a month rule is especially useful for preventing people from purchasing multiple firearms at gun shows.

“The one gun a month bill is a really good place to start. Other states with that law have demonstrated that there have fewer guns going through the illegal gun trafficking pipeline.”

New York State Senator Michael Gianaris has proposed a new package of gun control bills that would give New York the toughest gun control laws in the country. Photo courtesy of New York State Senate

Still, these requirements only do so much to keep illegal gun shipments from entering the state.

Virginia, the source of the most illegal guns trafficked to New York City in 2011, according to recent Federal Bureau of of Alcohol, Firearms and Tobacco (ATF) figures, had a one gun a month law, but Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell (R) repealed it this past February.

“You’ll probably see a sharp spike in guns trafficked to New York from Virginia,” said Hilly.

Gianaris said that due to the ease with which illegal guns can be purchased in other states, it’s really up to Congress to act, but that isn’t likely to happen anytime soon.

“They’re running into the buzzsaw of the NRA and the right-wing political ideology that’s stymying them,” said Gianaris.

After the Aurora shootings, longtime gun-control advocate Mayor Michael Bloomberg took to the airwaves, calling on both presidential candidates to take a stand on gun control. Given that 45 percent of Americans believe gun rights are more important than gun control, according to a Pew Research poll conducted after the Aurora tragedy, Bloomberg might have a hard time convincing either President Barack Obama or contender Mitt Romney to take a stand in an election year. Meanwhile, the mayor has continued to defend the NYPD’s controversial stop and frisk policy as a deterrent to gun crimes, although the NYCLU points out that frisks only resulted in a gun seizure 1.9 percent of the time in 2011.

In 2005, New York significantly stiffened the penalties for gun runners, creating three different felony counts for trafficking and reducing the number of guns that could land someone with a trafficking charge.

Gun traffickers do pay attention to the rules. “Because gun traffickers conform to the numbers, they specifically design their shipments around those numbers. So if you make the numbers higher, like 20, they’ll have 19 guns. You need to make the numbers low enough that it won’t be profitable for them,” said Hilly.

The ATF’s records only go back to 2006, so it’s difficult to gauge what impact those changes had. Hilly also said that although the legislative changes reserved the harshest sentences for gun trafficking kingpins, it’s very difficult to bring those at the top of the food chain into a courtroom. It is the lower level, usually young players who end up incarcerated.

While city and state politicians can only do so much to prevent criminals from obtaining guns in New York City, Hilly said that Gianaris’ bills would have a stronger impact in many upstate areas.

“Thirty percent of guns used to commit crimes in New York State were purchased here. But in other areas of the state like Syracuse and Buffalo, the percentage of guns purchased in-state is much higher. In places like Newburgh it’s more like 60 or 70 percent. New York City has such a large number of guns coming from other states that it kind of skews the rest of the state’s data,” said Hilly.

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