By Michael Gormley
ALBANY— Gov. Andrew Cuomo called for closing loopholes on a state ban on assault weapons and ammunition magazines that carry more than 10 bullets as part of a wide-ranging gun control package he proposed in his State of the State speech Wednesday.
"Guns have both a noble and a tragic tradition in America and in New York state," Cuomo stated in remarks provided before his speech. "They are a sign of our nation's fiercely defended independence and self-reliance ... (but) in the wrong hands, guns are also weapons of untold destruction and heartbreak.
"The tragic events of just the last few weeks in Newtown, Conn., and West Webster, N.Y., have indelibly taught us guns can cut down small children, firefighters and policemen in a moment."
The state already has among the most restrictive gun control laws in the nation, but a deal is expected soon that could make New York one of the first states to pass gun control laws following the Dec. 14 shooting, in which 20 first-graders and six educators were gunned down with a powerful weapon at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. The shooter also killed his mother and himself.
New York's effort was hastened further by the Christmas Eve killings of two firefighters in western New York by a man who set his neighborhood on fire, lay in wait with a high-powered rifle for responders, shot them and killed himself. Webster residents related to the firefighters were honored guests at the State of State address.
"Some weapons are so dangerous and some ammunition devices so lethal that we simply cannot afford to continue selling them in our state," Cuomo said.
Cuomo would also require follow-ups for owners of handgun licenses to make sure they are still qualified to possess a gun based on criminal and other records. He would increase sentences for gun crimes including for using guns on school property and for gang activities.
Legislators were working Wednesday behind closed doors to reach agreement on the governor's demand for tighter controls on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines.
Democratic Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Republican Sen. Martin Golden agreed the closed-door talks has brought all sides to within 95 percent of a deal, which could be announced and acted on this week.
"New York leads the nation, it's time New York lead the nation in this," Silver said. His priorities are bans on assault rifles and high-capacity magazines of ammunition.
Golden, a leader in the Senate on crime-fighting measures, said in an interview that the final deal is expected to have some stiffer sentences for gun crimes, although not as severe as he hoped. Also, he said, the deal will crack down on the trafficking of illegal guns. The Brooklyn Republican, a former New York City police officer, said illegal guns are the weapons of choice in New York City crime.
The priority for Cuomo and Silver is to close what they say are loopholes that let some weapon designs escape a ban on assault weapons. They also want to outlaw the high-capacity magazines.
"I think we will come up with a reasonable definition and a reasonable closing of loopholes," Silver said.
Senate Republican leader Dean Skelos is insisting on changes to a state law that authorizes longer court-ordered mental health treatment for individuals who won't seek help but are deemed a safety threat.
Legislators are prepared to be called into session by Cuomo as early as Thursday if a deal is struck, though a Cuomo spokesman said he knows of no plan to call legislators into session that day. The Legislature isn't scheduled for regular session until Monday.
In other priorities, Cuomo proposes raising the minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $8.75 an hour, an idea he also pitched a year ago; allowing three casinos for upstate New York and none in New York City; and making possession of up to 15 ounces of marijuana seen in "open view" punishable as a violation.
In addition, the governor would eliminate the Long Island Power Authority as part of measures to better protect New York City and Long Island and would "harden" the energy network that failed for millions of New Yorkers for as many as 21 days with the Oct. 29 superstorm. The governor said the Long Island Power Authority failed during the storm.
Other proposals include a statewide volunteer network of skilled New Yorkers, such as electricians and carpenters to respond to superstorms and other disasters, Cuomo said at a conference center in Albany.
The governor and legislative leaders are also in negotiations on initiatives, including changes to schools to improve student performance that could mean longer days and academic years; and restrictions on the New York City Police Department's stop-and-frisk procedures that critics say impinge on civil rights. Another Cuomo priority is legalizing casinos off Indian land.