Albany used to be the laughingstock of state capitals, but since Gov. Cuomo’s inauguration, things just seem to get done here now — even if you don’t like all of it. Which is why when Cuomo redoubled his commitment to accomplishing some gun control in the wake of Sandy Hook, it became a commitment we should take seriously — and a debate we should all take part in.
I wrote several months ago about what we should do on gun control — have a broad approach that focuses on the most dangerous weapons, encourages gun safety, mandates background checks, phases in microstamping, invests in education, reforms our prison system and passes other legislation.
We should still tackle all of those things. What we shouldn’t do is focus on the circumstances of specific massacres, but craft a solution to the day-to-day gun violence that doesn’t make the news.
However, it will be very hard to pass much of anything without true bipartisan support. The vast majority of people that believe we should have reasonable gun control are not in the driver’s seat. The people who hold the real power in government today are party stalwarts who hang the threat of a primary challenge over their representatives’ heads. And because they hold the power, Cuomo will have to speak to them, rather than the broader public.
This means his Dec. 20 appearance on WGDJ-AM might have presented a bit of a stumbling block. In suggesting possible elements of the gun-control bill he’s expected to outline in the Jan. 9 State of the State address, he said “Confiscation could be an option. Mandatory sale to the state could be an option. Permitting could be an option — keep your gun but permit it.”
Pro tip for the governor: Tossing around the worst fears of your political adversaries is no way to win them over — though I assume the governor is simply trying to “expand the window” of acceptable debate to move the conversation (and eventual compromise) in a favorable direction. Comparatively speaking, doesn’t mandatory permitting sound better than confiscation and mandatory buybacks?
Expanding the window of debate won’t be the magic wand to passage. Rather, the way to get a bipartisan bill through could be a carrot-and-stick approach — with heavy emphasis on one particular carrot and one particular stick.
Let’s start with the carrot. It’s high time to consider an aggressive — but voluntary — state buyback program for handguns and assault weapons (once we’ve accurately defined what they are in the law).
Why should this be voluntary? It’s difficult to legislate culture, especially through prohibition — as we know from the days of speakeasies and bootleggers. You have to win people over with honey (read: money). And while you win people over with money, it’s a perfect opportunity to have them consider whether owning an assault weapon or handgun is worth it — especially when there’s cash on the line. Through the framework of a buyback, you can force a conversation and possibly change culture on the merits.
Proving that it works
Australia — which I’d argue is more like the U.S. than “Old Europe” — proved that buybacks can work after a 1996 mass shooting in Port Arthur that left 35 people dead. Lawmakers in Canberra banned most semi-automatic and automatic weapons, and instituted a mandatory gun purchasing program; it cost just 500 million Australian dollars and got 631,000 guns off the streets — no questions asked.
Since then, Australia has had no mass shootings, compared with 11 in the decade before. Firearm homicides have dropped by 59 percent, and firearm suicides by 65 percent.
Tellingly, there was no accompanying increase in non-firearm related homicides or suicides. This would seem to undercut the idea that criminals will find a way to commit crimes using whatever weapon they have available — or that they’ll do so just as effectively.
Note that a key difference is that Australia’s buyback was mandatory, but it at least proves that such programs can work, and we don’t need to go door-to-door.
Now, the stick. Republicans in the state Senate have signaled they may be willing to agree to a deal on the condition that penalties are increased for crimes committed with illegal weapons — possibly including cases in which legally purchased weapons are used by someone who can’t legally own them (as was the case in the shooting of two firefighters in Webster, outside of Rochester).
Though this is something that has been traditionally opposed by Democrats, it’s time to drop this opposition and take Republicans up on it. Such a regulation would encourage responsible gun owners to be more responsible and keep their guns away from those who could illegally hold and use them. It might make criminals think twice about owning or using an illegal gun, and keep those who don’t think twice off the streets a little longer.
Any deal will have to require compromise — and it should. Neither of the proposed items will wholly lift the threat of gun violence from our state. But they might facilitate passage of a bill, and allow lawmakers to point to illegal guns and voluntary buyback participation rather than dystopian weapons confiscation as the spearhead of the solution. And because of that, some lives might be saved.
Steve Keller lives in Averill Park and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.