Criminal Justice

Recent shootings test Kathy Hochul’s cooperative approach to governing

The governor is leaning on a new task force on out-of-state guns to reduce crime and avoid conflict with fellow Democrats.

NYPD officers at a crime scene in Astoria.

NYPD officers at a crime scene in Astoria. Ron Adar/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Gov. Kathy Hochul has built her political persona on the idea that a cooperative attitude with other elected officials will yield better results than using a heavy hand. An ongoing surge of shootings – some involving guns from other states – is now testing how effective this approach can be on matters of life and death.

A task force including officials from local governments, neighboring states and federal agencies met for the first time Wednesday to identify how illegal guns from other states are contributing to the increase in violent crimes following years of record lows. The task force helps her avoid conflict with fellow Democrats as calls grow for her and the state Legislature to change criminal justice reforms passed in recent years. New ideas to reduce shootings will also come out of the new panel in the short term, according to Hochul. “I'm going to be judging the results very quickly,” Hochul said at a morning press conference at the New York State Intelligence Center in Rensselaer County. “I asked them to identify what success looks like (and) how will they know that this has been a successful endeavor so we can replicate this elsewhere.” 

The task force – whose findings Hochul hinted Wednesday might become public – could add to the public understanding of how looser gun laws in other states might be contributing to recent violence. “Let’s find out what is happening,” Hochul said Wednesday. “Why are more guns coming? Do people have more money? Is something going on in those states? Are people looking to have the flow of guns come into New York state to make more money? Is it related to gang activity?” Past research has shown how the so-called “Iron Pipeline” has brought firearms from states like Georgia and Pennsylvania to New York. A 2016 study by the Office of the state Attorney General for instance traced the vast majority of guns used in known shootings to just six states. A recently enacted state law signed by former Gov. Andrew Cuomo requires the state to publish quarterly reports on the known guns used in crimes.

One key way that the task force could make a difference in the short term is by enabling better information sharing between state, federal and local agencies. “We learned so much after the World Trade Center attacks in 2001,” New York City Mayor Eric Adams said in a virtual appearance at the press conference. “We produced information sharing. That's what this consortium is going to do.” Members of the task force – in addition to Hochul, Adams and Lt. Gov. Brian Benjamin – include representatives from the NYPD, state police, the federal Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms as well as agencies from Rhode Island, Connecticut, Vermont, Ohio, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New Hampshire.

The task force is part of a larger effort by New York officials against the surge in violent crimes. Hochul’s proposed state budget features a litany of ideas like more funding for supportive services and money for a new Office of Gun Violence Prevention. Additional actions might become part of upcoming budget negotiations, but Hochul and legislative leaders at this point appear unwilling to accommodate Adams on key parts of his recently unveiled public safety plan that would require changes to state laws on bail and when juvenile offenders might be tried as adults. Some suburban lawmakers are also not so keen on how Adams’ idea of requiring NYPD officers to live in New York City would affect their constituents in places like Long Island. Illegal guns from other states, however, are one place where Democrats like Hochul, Adams and others have common ground.

There is a long record in New York of task forces and blue ribbon panels that were more about political show than substance. Years of preparation and good intentions did not result in bipartisan consensus on redistricting. Some political observers criticized Cuomo a few years ago for stacking a panel tasked with reducing Medicaid costs with political allies to help him make cuts he already wanted to do. Hochul already appears keen on blaming illegal guns from outside New York rather than existing state laws for the ongoing scourge of shootings.“We're proud of the gun laws we have here in the state of New York, and that is why we know that our problems are caused from out-of-state guns,” Hochul told reporters. The task force will give her additional time and ideas on dealing with a problem that is also testing whether her cooperative approach to governance is as effective as she hopes.