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Hochul to propose closing loopholes in NY's gun laws

 New York Gov. Kathy Hochul speaking during a COVID-19 briefing on Sept. 30, 2021.
WAMC screenshot
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul speaking during a COVID-19 briefing on Sept. 30, 2021.

Correction: The original version of this story described an AR-15 as an automatic rifle. It is semi-automatic.

New York Governor Kathy Hochul plans to introduce gun control legislation Tuesday, three days after a shooter in Buffalo killed 10 people in a grocery store and injured three others.

Hochul had scheduled the gun control announcement before the Buffalo shooting. The governor, speaking at a briefing over the weekend in Buffalo, says Saturday’s incident makes it more important than ever to close loopholes in New York’s laws.

“We are doing everything we can to ensure that our laws are tight, they're ironclad, to ensure that our law enforcement have the resources they need,” Hochul said.

Hochul told reporters that she wants to expand the state’s existing ban on some assault weapons to include what are called AOWs, or "any other weapon." She says some of these guns are functionally assault weapons.

Hochul in October closed another loophole in the laws when she signed a bill that would outlaw so-called “ghost guns.” The guns are assembled after their components are ordered separately online in what are known as “buy, build and shoot” kits.

New York’s gun control laws, known collectively as the SAFE Act, are among the strictest in the nation. The gun used by the suspect, a semi-automatic rifle known as an AR-15, is sold legally in New York. But the gun was modified with a high-capacity magazine that allows 30 shots per round.

Hochul speculates that the gunman could have legally purchased the magazine across the border in Pennsylvania, a 10-minute drive from where he lived. She says if that’s the case, national action is needed.

“What was used was not able to be purchased legally in the state of New York,” Hochul said. “The basic gun was, but the high-capacity magazine associated with it had to come from another state, because it is illegal in the state of New York.”

New York also has what’s known as a "red flag law," which allows a judge to issue an order to confiscate the weapons of a person who is deemed a threat to themselves or others. The suspect in the Buffalo shooting, Payton Gendron, was detained by police a year ago after he said he wanted to commit a murder-suicide at his high school, where he was a graduating senior. State Police confirm that they did take a 17-year-old student at Susquehanna High School in Conklin, New York, into custody last June. He was given a mental health evaluation and later released. The red flag law was never invoked.

Hochul was asked about that during an appearance Monday morning on WPIX television.

“When there’s early warning signs that someone could do harm to themselves or others, there has to be an examination as to whether or not there are guns in the house that this person has access to,” Hochul said.

The suspect did not purchase the weapon used in the attack until he turned 18.

Hochul says Tuesday’s announcement will also include changes that could be made to New York’s laws to address an expected ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that could strike down New York’s restrictions on carrying a concealed weapon. The state requires that anyone who wants a license to carry a concealed handgun to show “proper cause.” A federal lawsuit filed by the New York State Rifle and Pistol Association says those rules violate the Second Amendment, and the right to carry a gun for self-defense.

And Hochul says she’s also working on cracking down on social media, and making them more accountable for hate speech on their platforms. The suspect is believed to have published a 180-page statement expressing white supremacist beliefs online, and livestreamed the attack. The governor, speaking on NPR on Sunday, says she wants social media companies to install better early warning systems to detect potentially dangerous and hateful speech.

“A system that would immediately alert individuals when racist content or if any manifesto-type materials that shows a propensity or desire to harm others, to kill them, to maim them, to have, mass casualties,” Hochul said.

There is already a bill in the legislature, sponsored by Patricia Fahy in the Assembly and Anna Kaplan in the Senate, that would require social media companies to maintain rigorous reporting mechanisms and standards for hateful speech, especially if it could lead to potential extremism and violence.

Congressman Lee Zeldin, who is the Republican nominee for governor, also is proposing changes in the wake of the shooting. He says New York’s death penalty should be reinstated. Zeldin says eligible crimes should include mass shootings and other homicides motivated by hate, as well as murdering a police officer or a first responder.

On Monday, members of the New York State Senate put partisan differences aside to condemn the shooting.

Democratic Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the first African-American woman to lead the Senate, called out the “white supremacy, and racism” that motivated the shooting, and blamed some politicians in America today that she says want to score wins by promoting hate and fear. She says that talk can only lead to more violence.

“We will find that each and every one of us will have incidents like this,” Stewart-Cousins said. “And suddenly, this American dream inspired by an enlightened constitution, that brought all of us as far as we’ve come, will mean nothing.”

Senate Republican Minority Leader Robert Ortt represents regions surrounding Buffalo, including the home of one of the victims, retired police officer, Aaron Salter, who fired his gun in an attempt to stop the shooter. Ortt and Assembly GOP Minority Leader William Barclay introduced a bill Monday to restore the state’s death penalty for mass murders, and homicides motivated by hate or acts of terrorism. Ortt, in his remarks on the floor, says it’s too soon though to debate politics, and which policies could help stem violent hate crimes.

“I’m not going to have it here, because this is a somber event,” Ortt said. “We’re trying to remember the ten people who did not come out of that store. The ten people whose lives ended because they went grocery shopping.”

Members then held a moment of silence for the victims.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.