For the second time in little more than a week, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul stepped to a podium to take a stand on the uniquely American epidemic of mass shootings.
“How does an 18-year-old purchase an AR-15 in the state of New York? The state of Texas? That person’s not old enough to buy a legal drink,” Hochul said at a news conference outside Albany Wednesday.
“I want to work with the Legislature to change that. I want it to be 21. I think that’s just common sense,” the Buffalo Democrat added, signaling her intention to raise the state age to buy certain semi-automatic weapons.
Hochul’s remarks came less than 24 hours after an 18-year-old gunman opened fire at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, killing 19 children and two teachers and 11 days after another 18-year-old murdered 10 Black people at a grocery store in Buffalo in a racist attack.
But raising the age to purchase AR-15s and similar weapons is easier said than done.
While both houses of the state Legislature are eager to address gun violence, there’s limited time to do so, with only three legislative session days remaining before Albany lawmakers head home for the year.
But even more worrisome are court battles in other states that passed laws raising the age to purchase firearms — including semi-automatic weapons — to 21.
Just two weeks ago, a panel of federal judges in California struck down a law that banned the sale of semi-automatic weapons for those under 21, calling it unconstitutional. In a 2-to-1 ruling, a Trump-appointed majority argued that the 2019 law infringed on the Second Amendment rights of young people.
“America would not exist without the heroism of the young adults who fought and died in our revolutionary army. Today we reaffirm that our Constitution still protects the right that enabled their sacrifice: the right of young adults to keep and bear arms,” wrote Judge Ryan Nelson of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.
A similar Florida law enacted in the wake of the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland had survived an initial court challenge by the National Rifle Association, which as part of its ongoing appeal filed a document last week citing the decision in California.
And last year, a federal appeals court in Virginia ruled that a minimum age of 21 to purchase a handgun at federally licensed dealers is unconstitutional.
Despite the uncertain legal terrain, Hochul — who is running for election in a Democratic primary next month — plans to take her chances with the proposal anyway.
“I’m not going to let my fear of losing a court case stop me from what I think is correct for New Yorkers and will protect them,” Hochul said Wednesday morning, arguing that she could luck out and have a lawsuit go before a “good judge” that “actually cares and has common sense.”
“These are laws that take into consideration the rights under the Second Amendment. We understand that, but don’t tie our hands when it comes to our desire to stop the scourge of gun violence, whether it’s in the streets of New York or in a grocery store in Buffalo, we have the right to protect people as well,” she added.
Supreme Court Case Looms
Some Second Amendment experts THE CITY spoke to did not share Hochul’s optimism.
There is “some possibility” that the federal courts covering New York could uphold such a law, but “generally asking people the same question a second time doesn’t yield too much different of an answer,” said Warren Eller, the chair of the Department of Public Management at John Jay College who’s written extensively about gun violence.
“My gut instinct is to say that no, she’s not likely to be successful,” Eller said of Hochul’s proposal. “I’m not sure how much good that would do anyhow. Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different outcomes, that’s kind of the position that I see us in in dealing with this.”
Last week, in the days after the Buffalo shooting, the governor unveiled plans to close other gun loopholes in New York, including expanding the ban on assault weapons and requiring “microstamping” of semi-automatic pistols, which could facilitate law enforcement tracing of bullets recovered at crime scenes.
Looming over all such efforts is a Supreme Court case seeking to strike down New York City’s rigorous permitting process for a license to carry a firearm, which requires applicants to demonstrate a “special need for self-protection.”
A decision in that case, which will be made by a Court stacked with conservative Trump appointees, is expected imminently.
If the Supreme Court relaxes the rules, Hochul said she’s prepared to call lawmakers back to Albany for a rare special session to approve new laws that enforce stricter concealed-carry provisions that comply with the court’s decision.
New York already has some of the strictest gun laws in the country — many of which were passed in January 2013, in response to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn. Passing a law raising the age for certain gun purchases is a Band-Aid that’s unlikely to make a difference, some experts say.
Even if New York were successful, technological advancements — such as 3D printing and computer-operated CNC machines that can be programmed to make guns — means that people can easily get or make alterations to firearms that make them more deadly and harder to track.
In March, Queens prosecutors charged a Maryland man in the “largest bust” of ghost guns in state history after investigators discovered dozens of gun kits with enough parts to build 74 firearms.
So far this year, law enforcement authorities across the state have seized at least 250 so-called ghost guns, according to the governor’s office. In New York City, 1,905 firearms have been seized in the last five months.
“The genie has really run out of the box at high speed as of late and I’m not sure there’s much of a way to put it back,” said Eller.
New York already bars anyone under the age of 21 from purchasing or possessing a handgun unless they were honorably discharged from the armed services. And while the state requires that those 21 or older to obtain a license to get a handgun, that same age restriction doesn’t apply to so-called long guns, like shotguns or rifles. Outside of New York City, children as young as 16 can own a shotgun or rifle and anyone 18 or older can buy them without a permit.
Within the five boroughs, gun laws are stricter. Under the current law, only adults at least 21 years old can purchase or own a firearm and have to possess an NYPD-issued permit, which is almost impossible to get.
Mike Murphy, a spokesperson for Democratic Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, offered full-throated support of raising the age for buying certain guns to 21, saying in a statement: “This is something we have been discussing and we have always been supportive of this idea and would certainly be in favor of moving forward.”
Meanwhile in the state Assembly, Democrats are discussing a slew of different gun-related bills, said spokesperson Mike Whyland.