The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How Zeldin’s tough talk on crime in New York could lead to more of it

Republican gubernatorial candidate Lee Zeldin at a campaign rally in Hauppauge, N.Y., on Oct. 29. (Julia Nikhinson/AP)

As a former New Yorker, I understand crime’s hold over an electorate’s emotions. In 1990, the city endured 2,245 homicides. One of the slayings took place at a phone booth a half block from the Jane Street apartment I would move into six months later.

Over the next 16 years, I learned an enduring lesson: When the fear of crime sets in — even in an unflappable city and state where Democrats have a huge advantage — Republicans get elected. But for New York state this time around, electing one could make crime much worse.

Rep. Lee Zeldin (R), a staunch ally of former president Donald Trump, is uncomfortably close to ousting Democratic incumbent Kathy Hochul for governor of New York. As in past close contests, crime is to thank; Zeldin is hoping to benefit from the same fear that got Rudy Giuliani elected to the first of two terms as mayor in 1993. It’s a theme we saw, too, with George E. Pataki’s 1994 gubernatorial victory on the back of his support for the death penalty.

But a Gov. Zeldin would be awful for New Yorkers’ safety. The root of this concern is pro-gun Zeldin’s support for the Supreme Court’s decision in New York Rifle & Pistol Association Inc. v. Bruen, the case that invalidated New York City’s century-old law limiting concealed-carry permits as a violation of the Second Amendment.

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Under Zeldin, New York would not only face a possible flood of guns on its streets, but also the repercussions of additionally weakened gun laws. And if New Yorkers want a glimpse of their future with a gun-friendly governor, all they need do is look to Missouri.

In his book “Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment Is Killing America’s Heartland,” Jonathan M. Metzl chronicled what happened in Missouri when gun laws there were loosened. Gun sales, gun crimes, homicides and suicides went through the roof. “Loosening gun laws didn’t just lead to shootings. It really destroyed the social fabric of cities like Kansas City, Mo.,” Metzl told me. That’s why he has been sounding the alarm for months that Missouri’s nightmare could become New York’s, too.

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“People don’t fully realize that when the Bruen case was decided, the court made it virtually impossible for a city like New York to enact gun laws that make it safer. You would think, ‘Oh, crime is rising, gun crime is rising. Why don’t we regulate assault weapons or say that people can’t carry loaded weapons on the subway,’ ” Metzl explained. “But because of this case, any gun law has to show in court that it is commensurate with the intentions of the original framers of the Constitution. This is preposterous because there were no assault weapons when the Constitution was ratified.”

A week after the Bruen decision, New York’s state legislature passed (and Hochul signed) a package of gun-safety measures that included restrictions on carrying concealed weapons in sensitive locations. The law took effect on Sept. 1, but it’s being challenged in court. Zeldin, whose own front stoop has witnessed New York’s gun violence, also wants the measure repealed.

“It’s black and white unconstitutional,” Zeldin declared in a recent interview. “It’s far more unconstitutional than what the Supreme Court had overturned.” He decried criminals’ access to firearms but said he wants “law-abiding New Yorkers” to have firearms for self-defense.

Yet Zeldin pretty much ignored the real-world implications of his stance when his interviewer recounted the story from Florida in which road-raging drivers fired guns into each other’s cars, the bullets hitting a child in each back seat. “We have to look at this as two different types of people who are trying to acquire firearms,” Zeldin said before immediately pivoting back to criminals.

The possibility of everyday interactions turning lethal in a densely packed city such as New York is what worries Metzl about Zeldin. “You can’t really spend a lot of time in New York and think it a good idea to allow a lot of weapons in subways, Times Square or elsewhere, but that’s what’s at stake in this election,” Metzl said.

New Yorkers have borne witness to a slew of horrific crimes that strike at the heart of their collective sense of security. That’s why Zeldin’s tough talk on crime and his promise to declare a crime emergency have helped him narrow the polling gap with Hochul.

But I pray my old hometown doesn’t lose sight of the forest for the trees. That tough talk won’t mean anything if there are more guns on the street and lax laws making everyone less safe.