Gun violence: A balance between rights and regulation

By New York State Assembly Majority Leader Joseph Morelle ’86


Joseph Morelle ’86 is majority leader of the New York State Assembly and has authored more than 200 laws since he was first elected in 1990. He represents the 136th Assembly District, which includes portions of the City of Rochester and the towns of Irondequoit and Brighton. Morelle has been outspoken about gun-related issues and was a vocal proponent of New York state’s most recent gun law, which is considered one of the toughest in the United States.

You can also view a PDF of the story in the Geneseo Scene.

The final days of 2012 brought acts of violence that shocked New Yorkers and all of America. The Christmas Eve murders of two firefighters in Webster, N.Y., by a resident who shot
them as they responded to a fire call at his home, and the rampage in Newtown, Conn., that left 26 dead, 20 of them school children, have forced the subject of gun safety into the national spotlight to a degree not seen in well over a decade, and rightly so

In Albany, many other state capitals and Washington, D.C., citizens and their elected leaders are once again considering the question of how to strike the correctbalance between gun regulation and constitutional rights.

This is a necessary and important conversation for Americans to have, but it also is a difficult and painful one. Advocates on all sides are passionate, from the law-abiding member of the
National Rifle Association to the grieving parent whose child’s life has been cut short by a bullet.

If we are to reach an accommodation that promotes and preserves both individual liberty and public safety, we must respect opposing opinions and not question the motives of those with whom we disagree. Consensus on guns is possible, and we must not stop until we have it.

gun illustrationAs an assemblyman and majority leader, I supported New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act (SAFE), a vote consistent with my record and my conscience. I have sponsored and supported legislation making it harder to buy assault weapons and prohibiting loaded firearms near schools, for instance, because I strongly believe that there is no inherent contradiction between reasonable restrictions and the Second Amendment guarantee of the right to keep and bear arms.

I am supported in this by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who wrote the following as part of the majority opinion in District of Columbia v. Heller, in which the Court struck down D.C.’s handgun ban:

“Like most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited. From Blackstone through the 19th-century cases, commentators and courts routinely explained that the right was not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose … Although we do not undertake an exhaustive historical analysis today of the full scope of the Second Amendment, nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications onthe commercial sale of arms.”

In other words, even as they removed a gun law from the books, the justices made it clear that certain laws “imposing conditions and qualifications” on gun sales may pass constitutional muster.

This is not to deny the valid criticisms of the SAFE Act. The Legislature recently exempted qualified former law enforcement officers from assault weapon prohibitions, and there may be future modifications.

As Assembly majority leader, I would be the last to argue that all state laws are perfect and beyond the need for amendment, and the SAFE Act is no exception.

Mindful as I am of these legitimate objections and constitutional concerns, I am equally aware of the terrible price of gunfire. Isolated mass shootings at malls, in school yards and on college campuses understandably draw the most media attention, but these tragic events are only a small part of the overall story.

Gun deaths may outstrip highway fatalities in the United States within two years, with more than 33,000 Americans dying annually as a result of homicide, suicide or accident in connection with a firearm. That’s equal to the number of U.S. battle deaths in the Korean War.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, this translated to a staggering $37 billion drain on our economy and health care system in 2005, the last year for which these numbers are available.

In the face of such loss and cost, a failure to act would simply be unconscionable.

In memory of the brave first responders of Webster, as well as the children of Newtown and their families, we are obligated to conduct a sober and serious discourse on the place of guns in American life. We owe nothing less, also, to responsiblegun owners who have been wrongly tarnished by the bad acts of others.

It is my hope that the terrible events of 2012 — and of many years before, and of the days since — will result in a new national understanding on an issue that for far too long has needlessly divided Americans of good faith and good intention.