New York Strikes First, But Is First Good?

January 15, 2013

A month from the day of the tragedy in Newtown Connecticut, Governor Andrew Cuomo pushed through a package of gun control legislation that included tougher sentences for illegal gun possession, an attempt to use the mental health system to identify people who might be prone to use guns as well as restrictions on so-called assault weapons and the magazines used for semi-automatic weapons. Owners of “assault” rifles, which are now defined by having one feature of a military rifle, will be required to register them with the state.

One provision won approval of some legislators who voted against the final package. The Journal News, a Gannett owned daily with editions in Westchester and Rockland counties, earned the wrath of Sen. Greg Ball and others for having published the names and addresses of gun owners. The new legislation “places restricts on how that information can be made public” according to Karen DeWitt, NY Public Radio reporter.

The Empire Page is running a poll for its readers, asking them whether this legislation was needed, is balanced and/or will save lives?


Fast, Furious and Wrong: The Response to Connecticut

December 18, 2012

Sunday night I had a conversation with a couple who were planning on attending the protest the next day in Washington, D.C. at NRA headquarters. They were going despite believing incorrectly that a semi-automatic gun sprays bullets and despite not knowing that re-instating the federal assault weapons ban would not have prevented Adam Lanza’s mother from buying the guns used in Newtown. They did not know that Connecticut already has an assault weapons ban or that neither the rifle nor the pistols in Adam’s possession are classified as “assault” weapons under that law, nor did they understand that the number of bullets in the magazines used by Lanza made little difference in the outcome given the number of guns he had at his disposal.

One can excuse the ignorance of people who are outraged at the loss of so many lives, but not the behavior of politicians who leapt onto the public stage trying to be the first to go on record as saying we need more gun control. Elected officials should know the history of gun control legislation and should know that assault rifle bans and limits on magazines would not have prevented the Connecticut tragedy.

It is natural when hearing about such events to want to do something to prevent a reoccurrence, but legislation enacted in the heat of the moment is inevitably foolish legislation. Assault rifle bans are a case in point. To begin with the definition of an assault rifle is a political construct without correspondence in the world of weaponry. Second banning the manufacture and sale of certain types of guns will not prevent those who intend on doing harm to others from obtaining guns. It would take years to reduce the number of such weapons that currently exist in private hands, and it is inevitable that outlawing specific types of guns will create a black market for the import and sale of outlawed guns to those with enough cash and desire to obtain them.

Too often legislation is passed to make the legislators feel good and of course to give them something to brag about to their constituents. They pass bills without regard for whether their legislation will actually accomplish what they claim. Criminal justice legislation is the prime example of this fallacy. Increasing the penalty for a crime has zero impact on the likelihood that someone will commit that crime since most crimes are committed in moments of anger or out of drug-induced need and such criminals have no idea, nor do they care, about the length of the sentence if caught.

The hardest thing for adults to do in a world where news is immediate and constant is to admit that there is nothing we can do about a situation. We cannot prevent some children from starving in Africa. That will take place even if we donate to relief organizations. We cannot prevent some children from being sold into slavery no matter how many letters we write demanding it be stopped. We cannot prevent certain some individuals from doing terrible things to others and/or themselves.

It’s also possible that passing a law is the worst possible thing we can do because it gives people the false impression that the problem has been solved and they can go back to ignoring the world around them.

What we can do is be conscious of things happening in our own lives. We can speak out when there’s a situation that doesn’t seem right. That still might not prevent a tragedy from occurring, but we don’t know how many Adam Lanzas are brought back from the brink by a conscientious teacher or neighbor.

Keeping guns out of the hands of the wrong people cannot be prevented entirely by passing assault weapon bans. We can and should try, but there is no perfect solution. That said, we can be better citizens by reaching out to those who appear to be in trouble. Nancy Lanza needed help. The cost of someone’s not giving it to her should make all of us more vigilant in the future.

Book Review: Tales from the Sausage Factory

January 28, 2011

Tales from the Sausage Factory; Making Laws in New York State
by Daniel L. Feldman and Gerald Benjamin
Excelsior Editions (State University of New York Press), 2010

A unique collaboration between a pol and a prof, the authors deliver what the title –Tales from the Sausage Factory – suggests: an expose into the messy world of law-making by the NYS Legislature. Feldman delivers the experience – detailed descriptions of his attempts to write or influence legislation over nearly 2 decades (1981-1998) – while Professor Benjamin adds the perspective of the detached observer.

This book somewhat reminds me of what happened to Upton Sinclair when he wrote The Jungle in 1905. He aimed for the mind, hoping to convert people to socialism, but instead hit them in the stomach. Feldman and Benjamin aim to show us a process that works, but many readers will come away convinced that things are even worse than they originally thought.

Certainly people will come away disappointed if they hope to learn that representative government is capable of producing laws that do not allow interest groups to prevail at the expense of the common good. To the contrary, we learn that legislative outcomes are a reflection of a continuous war between a thousand interests filtered through a political system that favors the resourced and the disciplined.

Case in point is Feldman’s attempt to reform the Rockefeller Drug Laws. Feldman’s views on the topic were changed by first-hand exposure as chairman of the Assembly Corrections Committee. In that role he realized that the net that was supposed to catch and punish drug pushers was hauling in thousands of low-level users instead. The result was a dramatic rise in New York’s prison population taking money away from education and other needed programs. Yet the push to reform lacked advocates with sufficient clout to change the system for more than two decades. In fact the interest groups like the District Attorney’s Association and the political players including former Governor Pataki found it advantageous to advocate reform while withholding a commitment to actual change. Words sometimes do speak louder than actions.

Tales is largely Dan Feldman’s story. It is unique perhaps in the sense that Feldman came to the Legislature more focused on doing a good job than holding onto his office. That cannot be said of some of his colleagues for whom a long career in the Legislature is the pinnacle of their life’s achievements. As a result Feldman was more engaged and more principled, which also explains why he is no longer there.

As a writer Feldman often tries to pack more than is necessary in a single sentence. In his final chapter he writes: “Sustained passion for change, harnessed and focused, can overcome the ordinary tendency of those with shared beliefs in an issue to leave the work to others, and prevail against more easily mobilized economic interests.” (p. 302). In other words the more people care the more likely they will succeed. However, on the whole Feldman offers a nuanced picture of the process of give and take, of walking the fine lines of the political matrix, and of how individuals affect outcomes.

Professor Benjamin’s role in the project was to provide the historical and institutional perspective, which he does admirably. He helps the reader understand the evolution of the Legislature’s arcane procedures in the context of New York’s demographics and political alignment. His discussion of how the Tom DiNapoli was chosen to replace Alan Hevesi is a gem, reminding us why the Legislature is able so often to get away with doing things in the face of opposition no matter the source.

The book will offer encouragement to those who are or hope to be participants in the political process. Change is possible, but it takes persistence and luck, and it rarely comes quickly. Tales also serves as a reminder that politics is a tricky business. Laws often have unintended consequences and change doesn’t always take place in the way one expects. Case in point is that DAs around the state changed their behavior to modify the impact of the Rockefeller Drug Laws thus lessening the need for reform, which ironically helped make it possible for the formal legal change to take place.

The authors provide detailed references, which is another reason that Tales deserves to be read by public officials, journalists, students, political activists and citizens alike.

Mid-Week Poll Question

June 18, 2010

Comptroller DiNapoli put an end to the discussion about borrowing from the state pension funds to solve the budget crisis — a decision supported wholeheartedly by Empire Page readers 86 percent of whom voted against the concept versus 12 percent who supported the idea so we closed that poll and started a new one.

The issue of microstamping as a means of identifying a weapon used in a crime has gotten a lot of discussion this past week. Mayor Bloomberg and other government officials lobbied hard in Albany for passage of legislation that would have required gun manufacturers to microstamp a number on the firing pin of every gun so that police could identify the weapon by examining the shell cartridge. Opponents include the gun manufacturers who don’t want the added cost and gun owners who are suspicious of the motives of those who support the measure. The bill in the NYS Senate was withdrawn in the middle of a floor vote this past week, but may come up again in the future. So what do you think — should this technology be used to help catch people who use guns in crimes? Vote at