Almost 19,000 New Yorkers applied for a handgun license in 2009. The state police know who they are, the type of gun they own and where the guns were sold. But when it comes to rifles like the one used to kill 20 first-graders in Newtown, they haven’t got a clue.
Despite having some of the toughest gun laws in the country, New York State does not require any kind of license to buy a rifle or shotgun and doesn’t bother to track such weapons.
As gun control looms as a major political issue this year, advocates like Kristen Rand of the Violence Policy Center say tightening rules for these so-called long-guns should be on the table.
“Well I think at one time it made sense to focus on having permitting systems for handguns and not long guns, Rand said. “That was before the gun industry became entirely militarized so that we see these military style assault rifles becoming incredibly popular, but because they’re long-guns they would be exempt from that sort of permitting scheme.”
New York State does have an assault weapons ban in place. But the category of rifle used in Newtown and shortly after to kill two firefighters in Webster is legal. And the state doesn’t even require a permit to buy such guns.
Rand said that points to the current law’s limitations — given the increase in weapons that seemed designed to kill other humans.
“I think New York improving their assault weapons ban is incredibly important,” she said. “I think you saw the kind of damage that can be done with an assault rifle with the attack on the firefighters and it’s easy to fix.”
State figures show murders with rifles are rare. But that doesn’t mean such guns aren’t being used in crimes.
Of the almost 8,800 crime guns New York police departments asked the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to track in 2011, more than 2,100 were rifles or shotguns.
And the percentage is higher when you look at specific communities, particularly those upstate.
Jackie Hilly, executive director of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence, said that’s why it’s important to note the state doesn’t track rifles.
“I think it does matter. It certainly matters in Buffalo where 50 percent of the guns used in crime are long guns,” Hilly said.
Governor Andrew Cuomo has indicated he wants to address the issue. At a meeting Wednesday he said he’d strongly support gun control legislation.
“I think what the nation is saying now after Connecticut, what people in New York are saying is ‘Do something, please,’” Cuomo said.
He and legislators might find a model in New York City. There residents do need a permit to own a rifle or shotgun, and choices are more limited.
In the city, semiautomatic rifles with bayonet mounts, grenade launchers or pistol grips are illegal. Such features are legal in the rest of the state, so long as a gun only has one and not multiple features on the list of assault weapon characteristics.
Jacob Rieper, vice president of legislative affairs for the New York State Rifle and Pistol Association, said any changes that go after guns or legal gun owners won’t work.
“All of these ideas they’re based on the false premise that somehow guns are the problem. They’re not,” Rieper said. “You have to focus on personal behavior, on criminals especially on the mentally ill.”
New York has a chance to be a leader nationwide in terms of gun control, advocates say. But unless there are federal changes, the impact will be limited.
Statewide the majority of guns used in crimes come from outside New York, many from states with much weaker gun laws.