How do New York’s gun laws measure up?

Protestors at the “Walk In Solidarity With Survivors” to end gun violence in New York City.
Protestors at the “Walk In Solidarity With Survivors” to end gun violence in New York City.
Whitney Welshimer/Shutterstock
Protestors at the “Walk In Solidarity With Survivors” to end gun violence in New York City.

How do New York’s gun laws measure up?

A panel of experts considers what New York is doing to reduce gun violence.
August 14, 2019

Back-to-back mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, have reignited pleas for stricter gun control policies across the country. Last month, the issue hit home in Brooklyn when a gunman killed one and injured 11 others at a block party in Brownsville. In New York, responses to recent mass shootings and other instances of gun violence have included a call by Gov. Andrew Cuomo for Democratic presidential candidates to adopt a slate of gun control policies, including a ban on high capacity magazines, universal background checks and the creation of a mental health database to prevent those who pose a danger to themselves or others from purchasing guns.

Compared with other states, New York has relatively low levels of gun violence. Data on firearm mortality for 2017 from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that New York’s death rate – deaths per 100,000 people – is 3.7. The only states with equivalent or lower death rates that year were Massachusetts and Hawaii. Additionally, the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence gives New York an “A-” and ranks the state sixth in the nation for the strength of its gun laws. 

The state’s Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement (SAFE) Act passed the state Legislature in 2013, and additional measures passed earlier this year, including a ban on bump stocks and a move to allow people to seek a court order to ban dangerous people from having guns. Last month, Cuomo signed a law banning weapons that can’t be detected by a metal detector, including 3D-printed guns.

In this week’s “Ask the Experts” feature, we took a look at just how well New York is doing, and what work is left to do on gun violence prevention. We asked four experts to weigh in: Rukmani Bhatia, policy analyst for gun violence prevention at the Center for American Progress; Rafael Mangual, fellow and deputy director of legal policy at the Manhattan Institute; David Kennedy, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City and the director of the National Network for Safe Communities at John Jay; and Philip Cook, professor at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University.

Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Why does New York have a relatively low rate of gun violence compared with the rest of the country?

Philip Cook: It was not always so. New York City had very high rates of homicide, robbery and other violence in 1990, just as did many other large cities during that “crack era.” Then the New York miracle occurred. Franklin Zimring, a law professor, wrote a book about the city’s extraordinary transformation called “The City That Became Safe.” In 20 years, violent crime dropped to a small fraction (1/6th) of what it had been. The rate of gun violence dropped lockstep with the rate of non-gun violence. Other large cities across the nation enjoyed a reduction in violence during the same period, but only half that of New York’s. So what was unique about the New York City experience? The investment in more police and smarter policing tactics get some of the credit, but to a large extent, as Zimring documents, the great crime drop remains a mystery. 

Rukmani Bhatia: The state of New York has strong gun laws, which contributes to the lower rates of gun violence in the state. For example, state law mandates background checks for all gun sales, including those from private sellers, and requires a license, including passing a background check, to buy or possess a handgun. These laws work to limit the availability of firearms from people prohibited under law from firearm possession. The state also bans the possession of assault weapons and high capacity magazines holding more than seven rounds of ammunition; this legislation reduces civilian access to firearms modelled after military-grade weapons of war that are known to substantially increase the lethality of shootings.

The state also has invested in violence interruption programs like Cure Violence, which is implemented in nine different cities with high rates of gun violence. The goal is to use a public health approach to stop the spread of gun violence by training community outreach workers to peacefully mediate conflicts, connecting people at high-risk of violence to social services and supports, and changing community norms around violence.

David Kennedy: What we know about gun violence is that for the most part, the more restrictive state level gun laws are, and the fewer guns there are in private hands, in general, the less gun violence we'll get. New York state is on the more restrictive side for overall gun laws. 

We know that New York City is disproportionately responsible for either increases or decreases in gun violence in the state, and for the overall level of gun violence in the state. There was a time during the big New York City crime decline when violence reductions in New York City were so great, and New York City was itself so important, that the reductions in New York City were driving national declines in violent crime. And that's obviously even more pronounced at the state level. 

Serious violent crime, overall crime, and especially gun crime in New York City, has been coming down for over 20 years. And I think that's been driven by even more restrictive gun laws within the city, and then by policing and non-law enforcement violence prevention strategies that have been very focused, very consistent and very effective.

Rafael Mangual: New York City is currently benefiting from one of the most successful crime-fighting efforts in urban-American history. To be sure, the crime decline that New York City has been able to sustain is multi-faceted, but there are two things I think are fair to describe as main drivers of that decline: policing and incarceration.

By retaking control over public spaces, New York City cops helped pave the way for further investment in the city. They also pushed more of the drug trade indoors, which meant fewer targets of violence and other crime on the street. The uptick in misdemeanor enforcement and focus on order maintenance throughout the nineties were very clearly associated with a drop-off in violent crime. Conversely, when you look at cities that have been struggling with crime as of late – namely, Chicago and Baltimore – you see a significant drop-off in the number of police-initiated stops and arrests, which have most definitely contributed to the crime problem in those cities.

New York state responded to the high-crime era in part by increasing the amount of time convicted criminals spent behind bars, providing their communities significant incapacitation benefits through the removal of bad actors. As of 2009, prisoners in New York were serving terms longer than the national average by seven months. Violent offenders were serving terms a full year longer than the national average – which represented a 24 percent increase from what they would have served in 1990, the peak year for murders in New York City. In addition, New York has resisted calls for rapid, large-scale decarceration in the way that other states and locales have not. 

What can the rest of the country learn from New York to reduce gun violence?

Rafael Mangual: New York’s commitment to better, more precise, and in some cases more aggressive policing and incarceration practices helped fortify the city over time (in part because the commitment to those things didn’t lapse) such that it is now less vulnerable to a crime uptick than it otherwise would have been had the city not done those things so well for so long. The main lesson to be learned, I think, is that public order and public spaces matter, and that when you give people a real sense of security, investment and growth follow.

Rukmani Bhatia: New York is an example of how strong gun laws do work to reduce gun violence and how investing in local violence intervention programs helps build healthy communities.

However, it is important to note that while New York has strong gun laws that address gun sales and possession within the state, the state does still suffer from gun violence. Recently, Brownsville, Brooklyn, experienced a mass shooting that illustrates how some communities, even in states with strong laws, continue to be impacted by gun violence on a regular basis. The state also suffers with the issue of firearm-related suicide, with roughly one suicide by firearm occurring every 19 hours. 

One factor driving gun violence in a state like New York with strong laws is the problem of gun trafficking across state borders. States with weaker gun laws are source states for firearms, which are trafficked to New York and used to perpetrate crimes in that state. The New York State Office of the Attorney General has reported that most of the guns used to perpetrate gun violence in New York come from other states. This reality illustrates why there is a need for federal laws mandating background checks for all firearm sales as well as federal restrictions on the sales of assault weapons and high capacity magazines. Unless there are strong federal laws, communities across the nation will continue to be vulnerable to the threat of gun violence, including those in states with strong laws.

Philip Cook: The first lesson is to remind us that gun violence rates are (logically speaking) the product of overall violence and the fraction of violent crimes involving crimes. That “gun fraction” matters, since assaults and robberies with guns are much more likely than those with other weapons to result in death – which is to say, homicide. Guns in New York state, and especially New York City, are not readily available to criminals, both because of a very low rate of gun ownership, and relatively strong regulations. The other lesson is that the best way to reduce gun violence is to reduce overall violence. New York City did that, and is prospering as a result.

David Kennedy: Reduce guns and do effective violence prevention work. Let's just leave it at that, because those are the big lessons.

Some commentators say mental health issues are a factor in gun violence. What, if anything, what should be done on that front?

David Kennedy: Mental health as a way of thinking about addressing gun violence is almost entirely a distraction. And the fact is that there's essentially no correlation between mental health issues and violence as a larger issue, and no connection between mental health issues and gun violence in particular. Most people who commit gun violence are not mentally ill, and most people who are mentally ill will never commit gun violence. And the focus on mental health is largely a way of avoiding focusing on guns.

Rafael Mangual: While serious mental illness is most certainly a factor in some instances of gun violence, it doesn’t seem to be a main driver of gun violence nationally, which is still largely driven by street beefs and gang-related/adjacent conflicts.

Rukmani Bhatia: The conflation of mental health and gun violence in the wake of mass shootings is deeply problematic. The reality is that people with mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence, including gun violence, than commit acts of violence against others. The pivot to a conversation about mental health or mental illness is often just an effort to avoid focusing attention on guns and the need to reform our nation’s gun laws. While there are certainly improvements that need to be made in the provision of mental health care services and treatment in this country, those efforts should not be mistaken as a direct response to gun violence in this country. To reduce gun violence, we need to have a serious, focused and comprehensive conversation about our nation’s gun laws. 

Philip Cook: The most encouraging trend in gun policy these days is the movement by states to enact “red flag” laws. They provide family members and law enforcement the chance to make a quick intervention when an individual is threatening to harm himself or others, and has ready access to a gun. If a judge so orders, guns can be removed from the home until such time as the crisis has passed. In states that have made use of these laws, the primary benefit has been to reduce impulsive suicides, but there is also the possibility that mass shootings will occasionally be prevented.

Annie McDonough
Annie McDonough
is a tech and policy reporter at City & State.