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State Assembly advances broad gun measures in wake of Senate action

State Assembly advances broad gun measures in wake of Senate action

Discussion turns to mental health solution
State Assembly advances broad gun measures in wake of Senate action
The state Capitol Building in Albany.
Photographer: PETER R. BARBER

The Democrat-led state Assembly advanced a series of gun control bills Tuesday, focusing more on broad gun restrictions than the raft of school-focused measures passed by the Senate on Monday.

Democrats looked to expand the debate beyond school resource officers and other school safety measures that have drawn attention since a school shooting in Florida last month. Instead, they focused on measures they argued will keep guns out of the hands of people who pose a public safety risk.

Democrats argued that the focus Senate Republicans took Monday night expanding who qualifies to serve as school resource officers, as well as other measures that touched on mental health services and how districts could fund other safety improvements, was a diversion from the types of broader gun measures needed to prevent future massacres in and out of schools.

“Just because these incidents happened recently in schools doesn’t mean this is a school-only problem,” Assemblyman Phil Steck, D-Colonie, said Tuesday. “This is a societal problem.”

The gun control measures approved Tuesday included legislation to expand the waiting period for certain gun buyers, ban so-called bump stocks, which expand a gun’s firing capacity, and allow judges to set protective orders that prevent people deemed a danger to society from possessing or purchasing guns.

While some school districts already have school resource officers stationed in schools, and others have expressed interest in moving that direction, Democratic lawmakers opposed efforts to radically expand the presence of armed officers in schools across the state. Speaker Carl Heastie said Tuesday that increasing the number of guns in schools is not the way to make schools safer; it “gives a false sense of security,” he said.

Steck said he didn’t oppose districts deciding for themselves to have school resource officers but said it was wrong for the Legislature to set a statewide policy of expanding the use of armed officers in schools.

“I think the day that we have to have armed officers in school, I think we have to ask a serious question about what is happening in our society,” Steck said.

He said none of the school district superintendents and other educators he has met with in recent days raised school safety as a top priority.

“I think most people in education will tell you that they need to have people in schools that can identify and address students with mental health needs,” Steck said. “I don’t see where hiring retired police or military personnel is really a correct answer; it’s more symbolic than a real solution.”

Assemblywoman Mary Beth Walsh, R-Ballston Spa, voted in favor of bills that would ban bump stocks and increase wait times for gun buyers flagged as needing more time to vet through mandatory background checks. But she said the bill to give judges the authority to prohibit people deemed a danger to possess or purchase firearms goes too far. She said she was concerned that too many people would be eligible to file a petition asking for the protective order against someone considered a threat to themselves or others.

Walsh said she thinks lawmakers should focus on school safety measures, suggesting broader gun restrictions inflamed passions on the subject and made it harder to advance ideas to make schools safer.

“School safety needs to be improved,” Walsh said. “If the dialogue the country is having is just about gun control, I don’t think our communities are going to come together … but I think we can all agree that when our students and staff go to school, they need to be safe.”

Walsh said she supports a call from the Assembly’s Republican minority last week asking the governor to establish a commission of experts to study school safety issues.

“I think it’s really important we bring the real experts together to make recommendations,” she said, also highlighting the importance of improving mental health services in schools as a long-term solution to school violence.

Bob Lowry, of the State Council of School Superintendents, said the association isn’t prepared to take a position on gun control measures that don’t touch on school security specifically, like the Assembly bills. But he said he was heartened that the Senate included measures beyond just an expansion of school resource officers, including grants to create mental health coordinators in districts and an expedited process for using Smart School money on safety improvements.

The group is asking lawmakers to provide districts the flexibility to pursue safety improvements that best fit the needs of different communities.

“Allow local leaders to lead,” Lowry said. “Provide some flexibility in the resources that are [already] available and how they are used.”

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