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Hochul takes steps to address twin crises of white nationalism and access to military grade weapons

Gov. Kathy Hochul stands at a podium that says, "COMBATING HATE PREVENTING GUN VIOLENCE," in front of the state seal and between a U.S. and state flag.
Office of the Governor
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Gov. Kathy Hochul speaks at a news conference on Wednesday, May 18, 2022, about a package to address terrorism and extremism and close loopholes in state gun laws.

Four days after the mass shooting at a supermarket in a Black neighborhood in Buffalo that killed 10 people and injured three, Gov. Kathy Hochul announced several steps to curb the growing number of extreme acts of violence motivated by racial hatred.

Hochul said the measures will counteract what she calls the intersection of two major crises in New York and the nation: the rise of white supremacist beliefs and too-easy access to military-style weapons.

“The hate has not just infected our society and how people think, it’s literally been weaponized,” Hochul said. “You can’t act on the evil thoughts that have possessed your mind and the hatred that fills your heart if you don’t have access to a weapon.”

Hochul is asking state Attorney General Tish James to investigate social media companies that she said “legitimize” replacement theory, a white supremacist belief that falsely claims immigrants and people of color are replacing white people. She said the companies use algorithms that amplify those messages and encourage more widespread sharing of the posts.

“In 2022, that’s how radicalization is occurring, through the social media echo chamber, and that’s why there are 10 fewer people in Buffalo, New York, today,” said Hochul, who added social media companies have to be held accountable for “favoring engagement over public safety.”

In a statement, James said the companies that she will probe include Twitch, which is owned by Amazon and where the alleged Buffalo shooter’s attacks were reportedly livestreamed, as well as 4chan, 8chan and Discord, sites that are chiefly used by people with extremist views.

The governor is also strengthening the state’s red flag laws, which allow law enforcement and others to petition a judge to order the confiscation of weapons of someone who is deemed a potential danger to themselves or to others.

The alleged gunman, Payton Gendron, was detained by police a year ago after he said he wanted to commit a murder-suicide at Susquehanna High School in Broome County, where he was a graduating senior.

He was given a mental health evaluation and later released. The red flag law was never invoked.

Hochul signed an executive order that will make it mandatory for State Police to file what’s known as an extreme risk order of protection whenever they encounter someone who is making violent threats.

“(Under) current law, it’s an option to do so,” Hochul said. “And now it will be a requirement.”

Listen to the Q&A portion of Gov. Kathy Hochul's news conference on Wednesday.
Gov. Kathy Hochul stands at a podium that says, "COMBATING HATE PREVENTING GUN VIOLENCE," in front of the state seal and between a U.S. and state flag.

Hochul said she’ll ask the Legislature to pass a law to extend that requirement to all police agencies in the state. The governor said she’ll also work to make sure that law enforcement, school officials, mental health professionals and employers understand the red flag laws more clearly and when they should be invoked.

The governor said she’s continuing to work on a package of bills to close loopholes in the state’s gun control laws, including making illegal a category that’s known as AOWs, or "any other weapon." She said these weapons are functionally guns, but they are deliberately designed for the purpose of evading gun control laws.

Hochul said she’s also seeking to have all semiautomatic pistols sold in the state be able to microstamp discharged bullets and cartridge cases to make it easier for police to link recovered ammunition to a weapon used in a crime.

State Senate Finance Committee Chair Liz Krueger, a Democrat who supports gun control, said she expects the Democratic-led Legislature to work with the governor to enact laws to close the loopholes and to address the crisis.

“I think the Legislature is absolutely motivated to pass the bills that the governor is proposing that will hopefully start to reverse some of this terrifying activity that is going on,” Krueger said.

Krueger said she finds it “extraordinarily disturbing” to learn that the red flag law was not invoked in the case of the Buffalo shooting suspect.

Hochul also issued an executive order creating a state domestic counterterrorism unit under the Department of Homeland Security to find out where threats of mass shootings are happening before they occur and to “start connecting the dots.”

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. WBFO listeners are accustomed to hearing DeWitt’s insightful coverage throughout the day, including expanded reports on Morning Edition.