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Abortion, gun rights the focus of special New York state legislative session

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul
WAMC screenshot/Gov. Hochul
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New York Gov. Kathy Hochul

The New York State Legislature is voting on bills to address two recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings on gun safety and abortion rights. The measures include new restrictions on carrying a concealed weapon and a constitutional amendment protecting abortion.

The Equal Rights Amendment would guarantee a pregnant person’s right to reproductive autonomy, including abortion. It also includes protections for a person’s sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression.

Governor Kathy Hochul appeared in a virtual meeting with other Democratic governors held by President Joe Biden to discuss how states are protecting abortion rights after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. She says the amendment would protect New Yorkers from anti-abortion forces that might someday seek to outlaw the procedure on the federal level.

“It is a matter of life and death for American women,” said Hochul, who added she does not want to go back to the days of illegal back-alley abortions. “This is not just hyperbole, it is real.”

In June, Hochul and the Legislature passed several measures to protect and strengthen abortion rights in New York, but the amendment stalled over differences on how to best word it.

Senate Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins says the logjam broke after the Supreme Court struck down Roe in late June.

“There was no longer a ‘let’s argue about semantics,’” Stewart-Cousins said. “It was more about ‘let’s get it done’ to send the message, not only to New Yorkers who expect to have their freedoms protected, but also to lead on the state level.”

The amendment’s passage comes on the same date, July 1, when New York’s 1970 law decriminalizing abortions took effect.

Several Republican senators voted against it, but did not speak on the floor.

The amendment does require second passage by a consecutively elected state Legislature. The earliest it could go before voters for ratification would be 2023. Backers say it more likely will be on the ballot in the next presidential election, in 2024.

The Legislature also is making changes to New York’s laws regarding the carrying of concealed weapons, after the Supreme Court struck down the state’s more than 100-year-old law that required a person must show “proper cause” before obtaining a concealed carry permit.

The new laws will allow the carrying of concealed weapons, but with numerous restrictions. Schools, hospitals, government buildings, and most public spaces and gatherings will be designated “sensitive” areas that are off-limits to guns. Private business and property owners will have to post a sign saying they welcome the weapons; otherwise, the carrying of guns will be banned in those places as well.

Those who apply for the permits will be subject to more intensive background checks, including a three-year lookback of their social media posts, and will have to undergo 15 hours of in-person firearm safety training.

Republicans, who are in the minority in the legislature, objected to the measure. Senator Pam Helming says the restrictions won’t bring down the rising crime rate and will only burden law-abiding gun owners.

“The bill before us will not in any way stop or intimate criminals,” Helming said. “Let’s face it. Criminals are not rule followers.”

Helming warned that criminals may take advantage of the restrictions to “target and terrorize” locations where firearms are banned under the legislation.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie says the new rules are fair to gun owners, and only ask that they show they will handle their weapons responsibly.

“We’re not trying to blame responsible gun owners,” Heastie said. “But remember some of these tragedies that we’ve had right here in New York were done with legally purchased guns as well. So we are just asking those who have guns legally to be responsible.”

The alleged gunman in the mass shooting in a Buffalo supermarket in May that killed 10 people had purchased his semi-automatic rifle legally.

Hochul and the legislative leaders say they believe the two measures will withstand any future court challenges.

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