In New York, assault weapons are banned. Purchasing a handgun is a rigorous process that involves fingerprinting, interviewing and court approval. All handguns are required to be registered with the state.
Such laws explain why New York is considered one of the strictest states in the country when it comes to gun ownership.
Last week’s mass shooting in Aurora, Colo., where 12 people were killed and 58 injured at a midnight screening of “The Dark Knight Rises,” has sparked a discussion of gun control and whether stricter laws could have prevented the attack. Some have called for a reinstatement of the federal assault weapons ban, which expired in 2004.
“The laws in New York are quite different than those in Colorado,” said Lt. Lee O. Thomas, a retired state trooper and Guilderland resident who co-authored “Gun Control In New York,” a primer on the state’s firearms and weapons laws that is updated every year.
In Colorado, assault weapons remain legal. A handgun purchase doesn’t require a license. There are no limitations on magazine capacity.
The looser gun laws typical in the West and Southeast reflect differences in culture and demographics, said Al Chapleau, an assistant professor of criminal justice at The College of St. Rose, who also served 19 years as chief assistant district attorney for Schenectady County.
“There’s a huge split in ideology on the possession of firearms in the U.S.,” Chapleau said. “In the eastern states, the political will to regulate is stronger. If we were to walk into a local Starbucks and see people with holsters on their hips, we might feel uneasy. But I’ve spent a lot of time in New Mexico, and the people there might not feel uneasy.”
A 2011 Gallup poll found that 47 percent of adult Americans say that they have a gun in their house or on their property, up from 41 percent in 2010. Gun ownership is more common in the South, where 54 percent of households own guns, and the Midwest, where 51 percent of households own guns; in the East, 36 percent own guns.
Estimates of the number of privately owned guns in the U.S. vary, but most sources suggest between 230 million and 300 million. In 2011, Small Arms Survey, a research project based in Switzerland, reported that there were approximately 270 million civilian-owned firearms in the U.S.
In every state, buyers are required to undergo a check through the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System when purchasing a gun from a federally licensed gun dealer; buyers can be denied for a number of reasons including a felony conviction or having been committed to a mental institution.
New Yorkers can purchase rifles and shotguns without a license, but must get a license to buy and possess a handgun; in upstate counties, approval rests in the hands of a county court judge, who can place restrictions on the owner’s handgun use, including whether it can be carried in public.
“A handgun license in New York is a difficult thing to get,” Thomas said. “It’s very difficult to get a handgun legally here. But you can buy one illegally on the street quite easily.”
New York’s assault weapon ban is very similar to the defunct federal law.
Under state law, an assault weapon is defined as a semiautomatic rifle that has the ability to accept a detachable magazine and has certain characteristics, such as a bayonet mount or a flash suppressor. It is also illegal to possess any “large capacity ammunition feeding device,” which is defined as “a magazine, belt, drum, feed strip, or similar device, manufactured after [September 13, 1994], that has a capacity of, or that can be readily restored or converted to accept, more than ten rounds of ammunition.”
Jackie Hilly, executive director of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence, said that the high standards for handgun ownership are one of the reasons the state is considered among the top for gun control. “We give the officer reviewing the application the opportunity to consider the applicant’s good character,” she said. This is different from most other states, where handguns can be purchased by anyone who passes the background check, without further questioning. “Here you have to get a license and explain what you want the handgun for,” she said.
According to New Yorkers Against Gun Violence, only 11 states require a license for handgun sales.
Hilly said New York has been successful at closing the “gun show loophole,” which allows people to purchase guns from private dealers, such as those at gun shows, without a background check. Since 2000, sellers at gun shows in New York have been required to conduct background checks on purchasers.
The state’s gun laws vary by county and municipality. New York City residents, for instance, must obtain a permit to purchase a rifle or shotgun.
Hilly said the state could take other steps to tighten gun control, such as limiting gun purchases to one a month or requiring semi-automatic handguns sold in New York be capable of “microstamping:” copying an alphanumeric code imprinted on the firing pin to the shell casing that is ejected when the gun is fired. The idea is that this would help police track criminals and solve crimes by matching spent cartridges to specific guns. Hilly said it might also be a good idea to limit bulk sales of ammunition to firing ranges and federally licensed dealers.
The effectiveness of gun control measures has long been a subject of debate.
Alan Lizotte, dean of the School of Criminal Justice at the University at Albany, said that gun control measures often sound good, but are not always effective.
“It sounds so easy to say, ‘You shouldn’t be able to get a 100-round magazine,’ ” Lizotte said. “But if you start to say you’re going to ban them, everybody who wants one will buy 10.”
“You want states to have a lot of flexibility, because what’s going to work in Colorado or Wyoming is not going to work in Rhode Island,” Lizotte said. “You can see why there are different laws for different states, and why you’d want to tailor those laws to the culture and layout of the place.” He noted that the Northeast is more densely populated than the West, and also more closely aligned with the Democratic party, which makes states in the region more likely to support gun control.
“There are plenty of guns out there,” said Lizotte, who teaches a course on guns and gun control. “A ban on handguns or assault weapons is going to be really hard to do. … Most guns used in crimes are stolen. I can go buy a gun that’s been stolen. A lot of people are denied firearms each year. Does that mean they don’t get guns? I don’t think so.” He said when felons are surveyed about where they acquired guns, they usually say that they stole them, or that they got them from someone who stole them.
“With 300 million guns in America, there’s no dearth of opportunities to get a gun,” Lizotte said.
Thomas echoed this.
“The use of guns in crimes is pretty much the same everywhere,” he said. “People who use guns in crimes don’t care about the law.”
Hilly said gun laws do stop and deter some people.
“At the very least, don’t we owe it to our fellow man to make it less likely that he’ll be mowed down by a weapon of war?” she said. “Why would we throw up our hands on this issue?”
The one area where lawmakers might be able to make a difference is ammunition, Lizotte said. Requiring people who buy ammunition in bulk to be licensed, or setting up a reporting mechanism to track bulk sales, might reduce gun violence, he said. But it might not. “It’s easy to say, ‘You shouldn’t be able to buy certain amounts of ammunition,’ ” he said. “But how do you make it so that people can’t get around that?”
In more recent years, both parties have left the issue of gun control alone.
After the Aurora shooting, Obama said that assault weapons such as AK-47s belong on the battlefield, but also stressed that he would not push for new gun laws.
James Holmes, who has been charged in the Aurora shooting, is alleged to have fired a 12-gauge shotgun, a semi-automatic rifle with a 100-round magazine that malfunctioned, and a .40-caliber Glock 22 handgun.
Thomas said he doubted stricter gun and ammunition control would have stopped someone like the Aurora shooter. He noted that Holmes is alleged to have spent more than $17,000 on ammunition. “I don’t think it’s possible to stop a crazy,” he said. “I don’t think you can legislate against that.”
Chapleau said gun ownership became harder to regulate after a 2008 Supreme Court ruling that held that the Second Amendment protects an individuals’ right to possess a firearm for lawful uses. He said that it’s unlikely that anyone will mount a legal challenge of New York’s firearms restrictions because of the state’s more liberal judiciary and the fact that residents tend to be more supportive of gun control.