The tragic shootings in Connecticut in December, 2012 brought gun laws in America and the eternal debate about the right to bear arms vs. gun control to the forefront once again. For many internationals, the prevalence of firearms in America is stunning; consider that the US homicide rate is 20 times that of the next 23 most developed countries combined. No wonder that the US’s continued allowance of private gun ownership goes against what many people from other countries have been brought up with.
The fact that laws vary from state-to-state is also a confusing issue for many. So what are the laws in New York? And why do so many Americans care so much about being allowed to own guns?
The “Right to Bear Arms”?
The second amendment of the United States Constitution states that citizens should be allowed to “keep and bear arms.” This amendment, written in the context of a newly formed nation eager to guarantee that the government could never become a tyrannical dictatorship, ensured that its citizens would be able to defend themselves. Modern debate within the US often divides between two opposing views: that citizens now no longer need to fear a tyrannical government – and thus have no need to “bear arms” – versus the idea that the initial freedoms set down in the constitution ought to be preserved at all costs.
Whatever side of the argument you’re on, there’s no doubt that the situation has changed drastically since the constitution was written, as have the types of guns that exist – assault weapons seem a far cry from anything a person might need for self-defense alone.
New York and Gun Laws
New York State has some of the strictest gun laws in the nation. Ownership and possession of handguns is banned except for those who own a handgun license issued by their county or city.
The handgun license application in New York state is strict and requires the applicant to include a recent photo, fingerprints, four references of good character, disclosure of mental illness or physical disability that could interfere with the proper use of the gun, and their reason for wanting to own a gun among other information. License holders must register each purchased gun individually with the Pistol Permit Bureau of New York, which holds records of every legal handgun transaction that takes place in the state. In addition, nobody who owns a gun legally is allowed to sell that gun to another individual without registering the sale with the permit bureau.
New York City has even stricter gun laws than the rest of the state, and carrying a New York state gun license does not qualify a person to buy, carry, or own a gun within New York City. A separate license must be applied for within the city and requires applicants to apply to the NYPD in person, pay a $340 application fee, and complete a 16 page license application.
The crime rate in NYC continues to fall and makes it one of the safest big cities in the US. Current NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s strict stance on guns probably has much to do with this. Bloomberg recently called for a stronger stance from the President and faster action toward gun control nationwide saying, “It’s time for the president, I think, to stand up and lead. This should be his number one agenda. He’s president of the United States, and if he does nothing during his second term, something like 48,000 Americans will be killed with illegal guns.”
Just days later, President Obama said in a speech at the prayer vigil for victims of the Newtown shooting, “In the coming weeks, I’ll use whatever power this office holds to engage my fellow citizens, from law enforcement, to mental health professionals, to parents and educators, in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this, because what choice do we have? We can’t accept events like this as routine.”
International Views on US Gun Laws
Any discussion of gun control or regulation in the US must now bring comparisons with other countries’ legal and social approach to firearms. Putting aside for a moment the innate difficulty of comparing two distinct countries – each with their own population size, political, cultural, and historic justifications for present attitudes – there’s one thing the stands out: the U.S. is among the most liberal countries in the world when it comes to ownership of guns, and consistently has one of the highest death rates.
Japan with a population of 127 million rarely sees gun related deaths in double figures within a single year – this due almost entirely to the fact that guns are essentially illegal. Only in very rare cases, requiring repeated mental and physical health checks, training, written tests, and annual visits from police, can a citizen own and operate a gun.
The United Kingdom, with a population of 57 million – a country with a culture and society similar in many aspects to that of the US – maintains strict control of firearms and currently has one of the lowest rates of gun related homicide in the world. These countries – both island nations with populations far smaller than the US – have nevertheless found that government legislation and the effective removal of firearms from public circulation has prevented the misuse of the guns.
Even when comparing just the US and Canada the picture looks dim. Despite the US having a population 10 times larger than Canada, comparisons can still be made by looking at firearm homicide rates per 100,000 people. In 2011, according to Statistics Canada, the country had a firearms homicide rate of 0.5 per 100,000. In the US however, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports the rate in 2010 was 3.2 per 100,000 – more than six times the most recent rate in Canada.
It is encouraging, however, to look at the success of John Howard’s 1996 laws banning semi-automatic weapons in Australia. This success has been raised in the American debate. The New York Times has referred to Australia’s gun laws as a “road map” for the U.S., saying that “in the 18 years before the law, Australia suffered 13 mass shootings – but not one in the 14 years after the law took full effect.” Former Australian Deputy Prime Minister Tim Fischer says he is not surprised the Australian example is being cited, saying time has shown that the strong national laws were justified.
While the level of enforcement found in many European countries would be unthinkable in the US, and the current level of gun ownership seems to make any attempt to ban gun ownership practically impossible, the Australian comparison shows that there must be a way to reform the current system.
Mayor Bloomberg recently said, “The public, when you do the polls, they want to stop this carnage, and if 20 kids isn’t enough to convince them, I don’t know what would be.”
New York International, like the mayor, are hopeful that Americans can come together and agree on stricter gun laws – especially in the context of the recent shooting in Connecticut.