Five Years After Newtown, Anti-Gun Measures Rise and Crime Rates Fall

Dec 11, 2017

On Dec. 14, 2012, 20 first-graders and six adults were gunned down at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. In the months following the massacre, New York and Connecticut enacted some of the toughest gun laws in the nation. Here's a look at what's happened in each state:

New York
A few days after New York passed the Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act, Vincent Bono came across a news item about a small rural town in another part of the state that just passed a resolution calling for a repeal of the SAFE Act.

Like many gun owners in upstate New York, Bono was furious about the law, which passed on Jan. 15, 2013, just one week after the annual legislative session began and one month after the devastating slaughter in neighboring Connecticut.

Bono was horrified by the murderous rampage, but he thought Gov. Andrew Cuomo was exploiting the tragedy for political gain. He believed the new state law would do nothing to prevent future Sandy Hooks and would only make it harder for law-abiding citizens to get the guns and ammunition he believed they were constitutionally entitled to.

The SAFE Act has many components. It requires background checks on all gun sales, including private ones, and denies access to firearms to some mentally ill people. The legislation also limits the number of bullets that people can carry in gun magazines, and expands the state's assault weapon ban to a broader range of semi-automatic guns.

Bono, then the chairman of the Herkimer County legislature, was also concerned about the possible impact on Remington Arms, whose factory in the town of Ilion is one of the oldest in the country and by far the county’s largest employer. So he proposed an anti-SAFE Act resolution to his Herkimer colleagues. It quickly passed.

“There wasn’t much we could do, but a resolution seemed like a good idea," Bono recently said. It would send a signal of disapproval to Albany and to buck up local state legislators to keep alive the fight against the SAFE Act. Bono and his fellow county commissioners talked up their resolution to their counterparts throughout northern and central New York. The idea quickly caught on. Five years later, similar measures calling for the repeal of the SAFE Act have passed in 52 of the state’s 62 county legislatures, and in almost 300 towns and villages, according to a website spearheading the movement.

But while the law continues to provoke anger through a significant swathe of upstate New York, supporters say it’s working.

Crimes with firearms declined by almost 20 percent statewide in the last three years — and overall gun deaths, which includes both homicide and suicide, have also dropped dramatically. Even though the cause and effect of the decrease is difficult to prove, Gary Pudup, a spokesman for New Yorkers Against Gun Violence, gives much of the credit to the SAFE Act's requirement that all gun sales, including those for long guns and private transactions outside of gun shops, must be subject to background checks.

“We’ll never know how many people are discouraged, because they need to have a background check,” said Pudup, a former command officer and SWAT Team Leader in the Monroe County Sheriff’s Department. “But that’s like trying to prove a negative: we don’t know how many people are not speeding or not driving drunk, because there’s a law. We know that laws work.”

Congressman Chris Collins (R-Buffalo), an arch-enemy of Cuomo, has proposed federal legislation to supersede New York’s law. In a recent op-ed in The Buffalo News, Collins disputed the SAFE Act’s track record. He argued that gun violence was dropping even before it passed. But the fact-checking website Politifact rated Collins’ assertions “Mostly False;” while gun-related violence has remained flat or even seen an increase in some areas of New York, Politifact's survey of the available data determined the state has seen a decline overall.

Gun rights advocates aren’t persuaded.

Vincent Bono says he feels less safe, under the SAFE Act. He carries a concealed Glock or Luger, with a permit, but now state law limits him to carrying fewer than seven bullets at a time. And if a “bad guy” were to confront him, he says, “that criminal might have a 15-round clip … and if his gun’s pointed at me, and I only have six rounds, I’m at a disadvantage.” (The six-bullet maximum has proven to be unenforceable, since no manufacturer makes a seven-bullet magazine; instead, gun owners are supposed to keep four chambers of a ten-bullet magazine empty.)

Opponents like Bono haven’t gotten far with their SAFE Act repeal in Albany, but they have been able to thwart at least one major provision of the law —a new background check system for buying ammunition. Republicans in the state Senate have blocked funding for the underlying database. And with looming budget deficits facing the state, they might well continue prevailing against it.

Connecticut's law was passed three months after the SAFE Act, in April, and shares many of the same elements. It also broadened the ban on assault weapons, and required universal background checks. Connecticut's law also restricted the size of the magazine — though in a pragmatic nod, allowing up to 10 bullets in a 10-bullet magazine.

Has it made a difference? Ron Pinciaro, executive director of Connecticut Against Gun Violence, thinks so.

“If you look the homicide rate, I think it worked out that there were 92 gun homicides per year in Connecticut on average," he said. "Last year, 2016, there were 53."

That’s the lowest homicide rate ever, according to state data, and Connecticut has one of the lowest gun death rates in the nation.  

But the tightened laws don’t seem to have hurt gun sales. According to state police records, roughly 135,000 guns were sold in 2016, compared to 127,000. Nearly 30,000 gun permits were issued in 2016.  

Not all states have background checks as comprehensive as Connecticut's. Gun store owner Mike Higgins supports a federal bill that could help address that — the so-called Fix NICS Act. The bipartisan legislation aimed at strengthening the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

“To make sure that there is proper reporting through all law enforcement and mental health channels," he said. "To make sure that the NICS system is as effective as it possibly can be. And I think that would do a great deal in making truly an effective change.”