By Felipe De La Hoz
There’s little to say that hasn’t been said about the sheer horror of the events in Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas, over the past two weeks. In quick succession, two 18-year-old gunmen used semi-automatic rifles lightly modified from those in active military use to murder dozens of people — 10 adults outside of the Tops supermarket in the former, and 19 children and two adults in the Robb Elementary School in the latter.
Their paths and motivations were different. The Buffalo shooter was a clear an unabashed white supremacist who was radicalized by the racist great replacement theory (that elites are intentionally trying to “replace” white people with minorities for political gain) that has shamefully made its way from the extreme fringes to mainstream political and media discourse; he wanted to kill Black people, and he did. The Uvalde massacre has hazier motivations, potentially related to his having been bullied in his hometown. A throughline, though, is their access to high-caliber rifles, without which they would have been unable to carry out their atrocities.
This has created great consternation and public interest around our gun laws, here in New York as well as federally, and in particular a looming Supreme Court decision that could make things much worse. The first thing to understand is that there are various types of firearms, with handguns actually being regulated to a higher level; you have to be 21 years of age or older to purchase one in the state, while only 18 to get a so-called long gun. This comes down to a somewhat cultural question; in the more rural parts of the state, it’s traditional for families to go shooting or hunting as an activity, for which long guns are typical. Handguns are seen more as tools for defense, the province of older adults.
The distinction doesn’t make that much sense in the era of semi-auto, magazine-fed rifles, which is why in 2013, the state passed the SAFE Act, which among other things creates a sub-category of banned “assault weapons,” including all rifles with detachable magazines and additional criteria like pistol grips and folding stocks. This makes state law some of the toughest in the nation, and in theory would have prevented the Buffalo shooter from getting his XM-15 variant, except for the fact that it was modified to not accept interchangeable magazines. It was an easy modification to reverse, which the shooter promptly did.
Now, Gov. Kathy Hochul is seeking to have the age to buy rifles raised from 18 to 21, though the effort is mired in legal and legislative peril. In some positive news, a federal judge just yesterday dismissed a lawsuit challenging a law that allows New Yorkers to bring civil lawsuits against gun manufacturers and sellers for irresponsible marketing and business practices that endanger the community, modeled on a similar measure in Connecticut.
There is, however, a threat on the horizon in the form of a case pending before the Supreme Court. It relates not to state gun laws, but New York City restrictions, which are even narrower. Essentially, NYC allows citizens and residents over 21 years of age to possess handguns if they receive a proper license. If the gun is kept at a residence, no cause is needed, but if a person wants to carry a gun on their person, they must prove that there is a legitimate reason, such as some threat to their life, and the city has the discretion to deny these licenses. In New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen, the New York affiliate of the NRA is challenging this practice, claiming that the city doesn’t have the authority to discretionarily deny licenses to carry handguns.
The lawsuit is only seeking to have this provision overturned, but depending on the structure of the ultimate ruling, which could come in the very near future, it could have much broader implications. Some legal analysts are concerned that it could open the door for challenging all sorts of other city and state regulations on gun ownership and carry, for example those relating to sensitive locations. A very broad SCOTUS decision could make it so that, in theory, any adult New Yorker could claim the right to legally carry concealed handguns on streets and subways, in schools and hospitals, without regulation. Some are already calling on the state to act to legislatively preempt this ruling somehow, but it’s very difficult to predict exactly what it will say. What we know is it could signal a darker and more violent future for the city.