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Cuomo Targets Guns After COVID Emergency As Critics Warn Of Power Grab

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo addresses sexual harrassment allegations against him during a March 3, 2021 briefing.
WAMC screenshot
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo addresses sexual harrassment allegations against him during a March 3, 2021 briefing.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, saying that the upsurge in gun related violence is a public health emergency equivalent to the COVID -19 pandemic, declared a new state of emergency in New York Tuesday. But critics say other approaches would be more effective, and question the governor’s political motivations in taking actions that give him more power. 

Less than two weeks after giving up the emergency powers he held for nearly 15 months during the pandemic, Cuomo says a state of emergency declaration is once again necessary as shooting incidents continue to increase and threaten public health.  

“The first state in the nation is going to declare a disaster emergency on gun violence,” Cuomo said on July 6.  

The governor says over the July 4 weekend, 51 people were the victims of gun violence, more than the 13 New Yorkers who died from the coronavirus.

“Treat it like a public health issue,” Cuomo said. “What we want to say is 'We want to do with gun violence, what we just did with COVID.' That's what we want. We want the same level of attention, the same level of energy.”

The emergency declaration sets up a new Office of Gun Violence prevention within the state’s health department. It will also will require local police departments to share details with the state on where incidences of gun violence occur, so that gun control resources can be deployed to those areas. State police will create a type of border control operation known as a Gun Trafficking Interdiction Unit to try to seize illegal guns brought in from other states before they are used to commit crimes. The emergency order also allows the governor to suspend state procurement oversight rules to funnel $138 million in state funds to gun prevention and community based service programs, like those that target at-risk youth.   

Cuomo is not proposing any bills for the Senate and Assembly to consider, to help fight gun violence. He says the legislature already did all it could in 2013, when it approved his gun control law known as the SAFE Act.

Several Democratic state lawmakers, and union leaders who attended the speech, back the actions. But others, including the state’s Republican leaders, say there’s no need for the governor to once again grant himself special powers.  

Will Barclay is the Assembly Minority Leader. He says recent criminal justice changes enacted by democrats in the legislature and signed by the governor, including bail reform, and a measure known as Raise the Age, which treats 16- and 17-year-olds who commit serious crimes as juveniles, instead of adults, were well intentioned but went too far. He says it’s better to revise those laws, to prevent career criminals from taking advantage of them.

“Review some of the soft on crime pieces of legislation that have been passed in the last few years,” said Barclay, who also blames the Defund the Police movement as a contributing factor to rising gun violence rates.

“I think the combination of all of those policies is having a big effect on this increase in violent crime we are seeing  across the state,” he said.

The governor is facing different political circumstances than in the spring of 2020, when he obtained sweeping emergency powers during the pandemic that allowed him to shut down schools and business, and even limit the number of people someone could invite to their home. Then, his executive orders, and his daily briefings on the virus as New York was the epicenter of the pandemic, brought him wide spread praise, and the highest popularity ratings among voters during his decade as governor.

Now, Cuomo is facing multiple scandals, and investigations, including allegations of sexual harassment, and whether he and his top aides hid the number of nursing home residents who died of the virus.

A recent poll by Siena College finds most New Yorkers don’t want him to seek a fourth term in office when elections are held in 2022. But the survey also found most New Yorkers largely continue to approve of Cuomo’s handling of the pandemic.

Barclay, the Assembly Republican leader, says the governor, in declaring a new state of emergency, may be trying to regain some of his lost footing.

“I can’t guess someone’s motivations or get in their heads, but there’s certainly no doubt that the governor enjoyed his time in the lime light during the COVID pandemic when he was calling all the shots,” Barclay said. “It’s not hard to draw the line from A to B.”

Cuomo’s potential GOP opponent in the race for governor, Long Island Congressman Lee Zeldin, was more blunt. He called the governor’s actions the “Cuomo Show 2.0” and said that no one wants to relive that chapter of state history. 

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