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New York tightens gun laws in response to mass shootings

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) speaks at a recent event at the Brooklyn Army Terminal Annex. (Paul Frangipane/Bloomberg)

New York became the first state to pass new measures targeting gun violence following a recent wave of mass shootings, with lawmakers approving a bill to raise the minimum age to buy a semiautomatic rifle to 21.

Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) promised swift action after a gunman killed 10 people last month in a racist attack on a supermarket in her hometown of Buffalo. Ten days later, a gunman massacred 19 children and two teachers at an elementary school in Uvalde, Tex.

Authorities said the perpetrators in both shootings were 18 years old and purchased their military-style semiautomatic rifles legally.

“We cannot keep living like this,” Hochul said in a statement late Thursday. “Even as we take steps to protect New Yorkers, we recognize this is nationwide problem.” She called on Congress to seize the moment and enact substantive measures at the federal level to prevent gun violence. “We have no time to waste,” she said.

New York already has some of the nation’s strongest laws around gun ownership, but the new package of 10 different measures tackles several gaps. One will require individuals to apply for a license, with a minimum age of 21, before purchasing a semiautomatic rifle.

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That will make New York the seventh state in the nation to raise the minimum age for buying such weapons: California, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Vermont and Washington already have similar restrictions, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

In Buffalo, the gunman wore body armor that blocked shots fired by the supermarket’s security guard. The 18-year-old suspect underwent a mental health evaluation at a hospital and was briefly investigated by state police last year.

One of the bills passed Thursday by New York’s Democratic-controlled legislature will restrict the sale of bulletproof vests to people in authorized professions such as law enforcement. Another measure expands the situations in which people considered likely to harm others can be prevented from buying a weapon. Health-care professionals will be permitted to file such risk orders, while police will be required to do so when they receive a credible threat.

New York legislators also closed a loophole in the state’s definition of what is considered a firearm and required state police to conduct inspections of gun dealers every three years.

Hochul welcomed the passage of the measures and is expected to sign them into law shortly.

Hochul was already focused on reducing gun violence before the current spate of mass shootings. But after the attack in Buffalo, Hochul and state Democratic leaders moved with “lightning speed” to pass a slate of laws, some of which were already under consideration, said Rebecca Fischer, executive director of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence, an advocacy group.

“It’s a very significant moment,” Fischer said. New York has shown that “we can have hope and trust in our leaders.” There is a need for state legislatures to act quickly, she added, “because Congress keeps stalling.”

Republicans in the New York Senate this week unveiled their own plan to prevent future mass shootings. It called for increasing investments in mental health and making sure every school has a police officer on campus. It did not include any fresh restrictions on guns.

Only by acknowledging the “underlying issues which lead people to commit crime and violence can we make a difference,” said Republican state Sen. Andrew Lanza in a statement. “New Yorkers need solutions like these instead of political grandstanding from the left.”

New York’s move to raise the minimum age to purchase a semiautomatic rifle could be subject to legal challenge. Last month, a U.S. appeals court in California ruled that the state’s prohibition on the sale of semiautomatic weapons to people younger than 21 was unconstitutional.

“America would not exist without the heroism of the young adults who fought and died in our revolutionary army,” Judge Ryan Nelson wrote in his ruling. “Today we reaffirm that our Constitution still protects the right that enabled their sacrifice.”

Meanwhile, New York is bracing for a major decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in the coming weeks on a challenge to one of its oldest gun laws. For more than a century, New York has required anyone seeking to carry a concealed firearm in public to apply for a license and demonstrate a special need for self-protection. Experts believe that the conservative majority on the Supreme Court will strike down at least some of the law in its upcoming decision.

New York Mayor Eric Adams told reporters last month that he was “very concerned” about the possible fallout of the decision on the city. “In a densely populated community like New York, this ruling could have a major impact on us,” Adams said.

It’s unclear how far the Supreme Court might go in weakening New York’s licensing regime, Fischer said. “The last thing we should be doing or thinking about is making it easier to carry a gun on the subway, or in a supermarket, or around Times Square or in a crowded place like Niagara Falls,” said Fischer. She is hoping, she said, that the court’s ultimate decision would be "consistent with history and tradition, which is to protect the public safety.”