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Liz Benjamin: Gun control battle is joined

Liz Benjamin
YNN, Capital Tonight

Gov. Andrew Cuomo will deliver his third annual State of the State address Wednesday in the Empire State Plaza Convention Center.

A tip for first-time attendees: Don’t check your coat. The governor likes to keep things cold. 

Cuomo has declined to keep up the tradition of official pre-speech leaks. But he has dropped hints about the topics he'll be discussing, including responses to the two highest-profile tragedies of recent months: Superstorm Sandy and the Sandy Hook massacre.

The gun control debate is already well underway. The governor and Assembly and Senate Democrats have not been shy about blaming the Senate Republicans for the lack of progress.

Now Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos is – forgive the pun - firing back.

Over the weekend, Skelos released a package of what he deemed "tough, commonsense gun safety measures."

He called for stiffer penalties and sentences for illegal weapon sale, possession and use; a statewide registry of violent felons; increased penalties for anyone caught with a gun on the ground of a school or on a school bus; and a push to end gang violence.

Missing from Skelos' proposals was any mention of either a ban on assault weapons or limits on high-capacity magazines - both of which are priorities for the governor.The Senate Republicans have been New York's top beneficiaries of the NRA's political cash in recent years. But that's not all that's motivating the conference on this controversial issue.

After seeing three members fall victim to conservative backlash this past election cycle for voting "yes" on same-sex marriage, Republicans in Albany's upper house are understandably wary of angering the grassroots.

That's especially true given their slim hold on the majority that could come down to a shaky power-sharing deal with five renegade Democrats.

And gun control is shaping up to be an even bigger headache for the Republicans than same-sex marriage.

Just consider the backlash The Journal News is weathering after its decision to publish on-line the names and addresses of gun permit holders in Westchester and Rockland counties. 

Skelos' proposals won him praise from state Conservative Party Chairman Mike Long, who, as you'll recall, withdrew support for senators who voted "yes" on gay marriage and played a role in the GOP losses this past November.
Long praised Skelos for putting forward a “tough plan addresses the problem without undermining the 2nd Amendment."

After two years of playing nice with the Senate Republicans - to the benefit of both parties - Cuomo is signaling he's ready to play hardball.

In what was clearly a move designed to box in Skelos, the governor met privately with the five-member Independent Democratic Conference last Friday, which has struck a yet-to-be-codified power-sharing agreement with the GOP.

Sen. Jeff Klein, the IDC's leader, emerged from that meeting pledging to help Cuomo pass "the strongest assault weapons ban in the country."

Just how he plans to get that onto the Senate floor when his deal with Skelos calls for the two of them to agree on everything before it comes up for a vote, remains to be seen.

Skelos responded to Cuomo's IDC meeting by saying any talk of stricter gun control must be accompanied by strengthening Kendra's Law, which allows the courts to order mentally ill people with a history of violence into outpatient treatment.

But a Kendra's Law amendment has been bottled up in the Assembly Mental Health Committee. And, generally speaking, the Assembly Democrats are opposed to increasing sentences for gun-related crimes.

Cuomo reacted swiftly and negatively to Skelos' weekend trial balloon, saying through a spokesman: "Any gun policy that doesn't ban assault weapons ignores the reality of gun violence and insults the common sense of New Yorkers."

And the Daily News reports this morning that Cuomo, with the help of state and national gun control advocacy organizations, is prepared to launch a major PR blitz against the Senate Republicans if they defy him on this issue.

Barring any eleventh-hour agreements, expect some tough talk from Cuomo directed at Skelos and company during his State of the State speech.

On second thought, you might not need those coats after all. It could get pretty hot in the convention center Wednesday afternoon.

Liz Benjamin is host of Capital Tonight on YNN. You can follow Capital Tonight all day long at capitaltonight.com.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not reflect the views of this station or its management.