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State Legislature limits sales of semi-automatic rifles, body armor

The New York Senate Chamber during a legislative session, pictured from above.
Hans Pennink
The New York Senate Chamber is pictured during a legislative session at the state Capitol on the last scheduled day of the 2022 legislative session, Thursday, June 2, 2022, in Albany, N.Y.

Two-and-a-half weeks after a mass shooting in Buffalo killed 10 people, the New York State Legislature has acted on measures to close loopholes in the state’s gun laws and to prohibit anyone under the age of 21 from buying a semi-automatic rifle.

The bills in the Senate and the Assembly, supported by Gov. Kathy Hochul, require a permit going forward to purchase a semi-automatic rifle. No one under 21 would be granted a permit, which would require a safety course and a background check.

The alleged gunmen in Buffalo and in the school shooting in Texas were both 18 and had recently purchased AR-15s.

The bills also would make it illegal to buy bulletproof vests unless the purchaser works for law enforcement or related fields.

Debate Excerpt: Sen. Tim Kennedy, D- Buffalo, Sen. Andrew Lanza, R- Staten Island, Senate Minority GOP Leader Rob Ortt, R-North Tonawanda and Sen. Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, D- Yonkers.
The New York Senate Chamber during a legislative session, pictured from above.

Sen. Tim Kennedy, a Democrat who represents portions of Buffalo, said Aaron Salter, the security guard at the Tops supermarket where the shooting occurred, might still be alive if the alleged gunman had not been able to purchase and wear body armor.

“That body vest that he wore prevented him from taking a bullet,” Kennedy said, calling the shooter a “white supremacist, coward and a racist. Lt. Salter, who courageously fired back, and hit the perpetrator, (but) he was protected while Lieutenant Salter and nine others were murdered.”

The measures also tighten the state’s red flag law. Police and district attorneys would be required to apply for an extreme risk protection order to temporarily seize a person’s weapons if there is probable cause that they pose a threat. The red flag law was not invoked after the alleged Buffalo gunman threatened to commit a murder-suicide at his high school in 2021.

Other bills include requiring that semiautomatic pistols made or sold in the state be capable of microstamping bullets to help law enforcement better trace weapons used in the commission of crimes. And social media companies would have to more closely monitor hate speech on their platforms and set up a system for better reporting instances of hateful posts.

Several Republicans voted against the measures and offered an alternative amendment to require that every school in the state hire armed guards, known as school resource officers, to better protect schoolchildren from mass shooters.

“Requiring each school in New York state to have a school resource officer would help secure the safety of our students, teachers, administrators and school personnel,” said Sen. Fred Akshar, a Republican from the Binghamton area.

Sen. George Borrello, who represents a district south of Buffalo, linked the debate to other contentious criminal justice issues, including a movement to cut police funding, and the state’s 2019 bail reform laws, which ended cash bail for most crimes.

He blamed Democrats’ opposition to the amendment on “radical defund-the-police advocates,” who he said don’t want a “trained officer in a school with a gun.

“Even now, two years after the disaster of bail reform and the spikes in crimes that we’ve seen, they still believe that law enforcement is the enemy,” Borrello said. “You won’t do it because of politics.”

That led Sen. Todd Kaminsky, a Long Island Democrat, to chide the Republicans. Kaminsky, the sponsor of a bill approved by the Senate to create the crime of making a terroristic threat, appealed for common ground in dealing with gun violence.

“I beg us to stop talking past each other,” said Kaminsky, who added that people want to know what the future of the country is “when we can’t protect our children, when we can’t protect our supermarkets, that someone going to buy a bag of carrots doesn’t come home," he said, "and our state, at least, is stepping up.”

The bills now go to Hochul, who is expected to sign them.

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.