New York leads on gun control

  • Article by: EDITORIAL , New York Times
  • Updated: January 16, 2013 - 11:28 AM

The bill signed Tuesday strengthens the state's gun control laws, but also contains troubling provisions involving mental health and public access to important records.

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New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, center, speaks during a news conference announcing an agreement with legislative leaders on New York's Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act on Monday, Jan. 14, 2013, in Albany, N.Y. Also pictured are Secretary to the Governor Larry Schwartz, left, and Lt. Gov. Robert Duffy.

Photo: Mike Groll, Associated Press

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The broad gun control bill approved Tuesday by the New York Legislature substantially strengthens the state's gun control laws and, if vigorously enforced, could make New York one of the toughest places in the country to buy, sell or own dangerous weapons. But the bill also contains troubling provisions involving mental health and public access to important records that should be revisited and reworked.

The bill was muscled through with disturbing speed after days of secret negotiations and a late-night vote Monday by state senators who had barely read the complicated measure before passing it. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who signed it into law Tuesday, obviously calculated that it was necessary to move quickly before gun advocates could marshal serious opposition. Even so, Albany's customarily top-down and largely undemocratic legislative methods were inappropriate for such a complex bill.

The law has several strong provisions. It expands the current ban on assault weapons to include any semiautomatic weapon with a detachable magazine and one military-style feature (instead of two). It limits magazine clips to seven rounds of ammunition instead of the current 10.

The law will require most gun licenses to be renewed every five years; in some counties, a single license can last a lifetime. Background checks will be required at all gun sales, including most private ones, with an exception for immediate members of a gun owner's family. There will be a new electronic database for gun permits, and a new registry for ammunition sales that will allow the authorities to track people who are buying cartridges in unusually high volumes.

Some sections of the law, however, were not fully vetted in the rush. One provision asks health care professionals — physicians, psychologists, registered nurses or licensed clinical social workers — to report to local health care officials when they have reason to believe that patients could harm themselves or others. Such a report, after wending its way through other bureaucratic layers, and after crosschecking against a database of gun owners, could eventually authorize police to confiscate firearms owned by a dangerous patient.

The provision would seem to raise significant legal questions. It is not clear who has the final authority to order the seizure, or at what point in the process the gun owner can appeal. The concept would also threaten established norms about doctor-patient relationships.

In addition, the law unwisely restricts public access to gun license records, an overreaction to a suburban newspaper's recent publication of names and addresses of licensees in Westchester and Rockland Counties. And the law requires safe storage of guns only if the house is being shared with a convicted criminal or someone else not authorized to have a gun license. Safe storage of guns should be a requirement for everyone.

Cuomo's law is an important and timely step toward sane gun control. But it needs a few fixes before it can become a national model.

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