By Emily Johnson
The first person to be killed with a gun this year in Manhattan was a 16-year-old kid.
Raphael Ward loved baseball and was devoted to his 7-year-old brother. On the night of Jan. 4, he took a bullet to the chest after he refused to hand over his warm winter jacket to a group of thugs.
At the time, state Sen. Dan Squadron said of the crime, “We must continue to work together as a community to fight the scourge of gun violence and make our homes and our streets safer for our families. From stronger gun laws to improved safety at NYCHA developments, we are reminded far too often that the time to act is now.”
Vows of action after tragedy are common and seldom become reality, particularly where guns are concerned. But in this post-Sandy Hook era, suddenly everything that once seemed politically fraught is on the table. And New York is at the forefront of a long-dormant issue that has exploded into the national awareness since 26 people, including 20 young children, were gunned down in the Connecticut elementary school on Dec. 14.
On Tuesday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a bill that expanded a ban on assault weapons, limited the number of bullets allowed in magazines and bolstered mental health regulations surrounding gun ownership.
The response to the law, predictably, was immediate and furious. Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott invited disgruntled New York gun owners to move to the Lone Star State. The National Rifle Association cried foul on the haste with which the bill was pushed through, and together with the New York State Rifle and Pistol Association, immediately organized a legal team to review the bill.
The governor defended speed as necessary to prevent a rush to snatch up more guns before the laws went into effect. Considering that in first weeks after the Sandy Hook shooting, the mere suggestion of gun control being reopened for discussion sent people around the country into a gun-buying frenzy, he may have had a point.
Sen. Squadron, a longtime advocate of increased gun control, welcomed the new regulations and called for President Barack Obama to follow suit.
“Our work isn’t done,” he said. “Where Albany has acted, Washington must now act as well.”
Washington didn’t take long to follow suit. Last week, invoking Sandy Hook’s child victims, Obama announced a comprehensive initiative aimed at rolling back gun violence and called on Congress to reinstate the national assault weapons ban and to establish universal background checks for anyone buying a firearm. He also signed 23 executive actions, which did not require congressional approval, that implemented steps like incentives for states to share background check information and hire school resource officers. These were moderate actions, for the most part, aimed at cracking down on school shootings from every angle.
Has there ever been a sleeper issue that, when roused, was more of a lightning rod than gun control? In a polarized country where the Second Amendment is defended with well-funded and fervent zeal, the president himself didn’t go near the issue during his first term, and treated it as taboo in a reelection campaign wary of scaring off swing-state voters.
But now that the NRA has lost its chokehold on the issue, the can of worms it has opened nationwide is astonishing. As liberal activists and politicians leap at this window of opportunity, the panicked gun lobby is doubling down, arguing that more guns make us safer. Conspiracy theories have sprung up claiming that the killings at Sandy Hook were fabricated, or part of an elaborate government plot. The First Amendment was thrown under the bus in favor of the Second when a White House petition to deport CNN’s Piers Morgan for publicly urging stronger gun control received over 100,000 signatures. It has set off heated debates about race in the context of mass shootings, which are predominantly carried out by white men. It has launched a series of provocative, viral articles on mental health by people identifying with shooter Adam Lanza, or with his mother. It has prompted blistering criticism of the media’s role in creating future mass shooters by sensationalizing their actions.
Amid all of this noise, is there no factual common ground? Will this bill actually be effective in curbing gun violence like the incident that claimed Raphael Ward’s life?
New York Assembly members and state senators, a largely blue assortment of people, overwhelmingly hailed the new bill as a positive step.
“While it should not have taken the tragedy of Sandy Hook to begin the long-overdue conversation on guns that we are currently having, I am glad that New York state, which already has some of the toughest gun laws in the country, will act to make them tougher,” Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal said, while Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver said he was “very pleased that the governor said he would join the Assembly in enacting serious and meaningful gun safety legislation.”
Some mental health experts, however, had concerns about one provision of the law: namely, requiring therapists, doctors and social workers to report patients they see as dangerous—which would automatically disqualify them for gun ownership.
Dr. Paul Appelbaum, a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University, told the New York Times that the requirement “represents a major change in the presumption of confidentiality that has been inherent in mental health treatment” and warned that it could discourage people with potentially homicidal tendencies from seeking help in the first place.
Other mental health elements of the plan have been better received, such as an amendment to Kendra’s Law. The 1999 law, which requires people who have been deemed a sufficient risk to society to undergo psychiatric treatment, has been extended through 2017 and outpatient treatment will now be required for a year, up from six months.
Laila Dewan, 37, who has two young sons and lives in the same Lower East Side housing complex where Ward lived with his mother, was cautiously optimistic about the New York law.
“It’s great,” she said. “It’s important to protect kids, you know?”
“It’ll be better for everybody, if it actually does make a difference.”
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