As Assemblyman Brian Kavanagh, D-Manhattan, stood on the steps of City Hall with other lawmakers pushing for tougher gun control legislation, he did so knowing they were unlikely to get much support from Republicans.
But Kavanagh and others who presented during the August press conference said bipartisan support is the only way New York lawmakers are likely to pass tougher gun control policies.
“They figure if they go down the road and they give in on anything and they have any reasonable measure that they let get through, then the next thing you know we’ll be rounding up all the guns in the country,” said Kavanagh. “And that’s an unfortunate point of view and a dangerous point of view, and has lead to a lot of violence in New York and certainly elsewhere as we’ve seen recently.”
Kavanagh is co-chair of the New York State Chapter of Legislators Against Illegal Guns, a bipartisan group of current and former members of the New York State legislature working to stop illegal gun violence. Although New York has some of the toughest gun laws in the nation, Kavanagh has introduced a number of bills in the Assembly to crack down on illegal guns.
“It’s unacceptable anytime anybody is shot and killed in our community,” he said.
The debate surrounding gun violence and gun control has recently thrust back into the national spotlight in the wake of the theater shooting in Colorado and the mass murder of Sikhs in Wisconsin. Additionally, gun violence is up in various communities, including New York City, which has seen a 12 percent spike in gun violence. The uptick in gun-related crimes alarms lawmakers like Kavanagh and is seen by others as a reason to push for tougher gun laws.
Kavanagh, who represents the East Side of Manhattan from Delancey Street to the United Nations, and other Democratic lawmakers like Sen. Jose Peralta, D-Elmhurst, who has also introduced tougher gun control legislation, hope to find points of compromise on gun control with their colleagues across the aisle.
“What we need is a bipartisan approach to gun violence aimed at doing what nearly nine out of 10 NRA members agree needs to be done: preventing criminals and the dangerously mentally ill from possessing guns,” said Peralta.
But bipartisan support on gun control is rare in New York.
Sen. Martin Golden, R-Brooklyn, who has authored several pieces of legislation to crack down on illegal guns, believes New York’s gun laws are adequate.
“New York already has some of the toughest gun laws in the nation,” said Golden. “In fact, when compiling their 2011 state-by-state scorecard, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence ranked New York among the top four states with the strongest gun laws in the nation.”
Gun violence is down in Kavanagh’s district and much of the city since he took office. DNAinfo.com’s 2010 “Crime and Safety Report,” which uses data from the NYPD and the U.S. Census Bureau to analyze 69 areas across New York City, found that the Lower East Side and Chinatown ranks 38th safest for violent crime. The neighborhoods have seen about a 70 percent decline in crime from 1993 to 2010. That’s a far cry from the 1980s when drug gangs overran the area.
But Kavanagh said there is still a lot of work to be done on gun violence and the problem is tracking illegal weapons.
“The simple fact is it’s very easy to get an illegal gun in many parts of the country,” he said. “Those guns typically make it to cities like New York even if they don’t originate here.”
A Cause Worth Fighting For
Gun violence is among the many issues Kavanagh has been fighting since he was elected to the State Assembly in 2006, defeating incumbent Assemblywoman Sylvia Friedman, D-Manhattan.
His work in government, law and community service in the city spans two decades. Before serving in the Assembly he served in three mayoral administrations and worked as chief of staff for a city councilwoman.
He graduated from Princeton University and received a law degree from New York University. He worked at two of New York’s top law firms enforcing antitrust laws and providing extensive pro bono representation of victims of domestic violence, immigrants and community organizations.
But Kavanagh said transitioning into politics came naturally.
“For me it was a pretty natural decision, I’ve always been interested in public service,” said Kavanagh. “I don’t think of being an elected official as the only way to pursue that interest. But I think elected officials, especially members of the state legislature, have a unique role in creating policy at the macro level on the state-wide level.”
“For me it was a pretty natural decision, I’ve always been interested in public service,” said Kavanagh.
“For me it was a pretty natural decision, I’ve always been interested in public service,” said Kavanagh.
Kavanagh comes from a family of public servants. The Staten Island native is one of six children of an Irish-immigrant police officer and a community leader who worked at a local newspaper.
His father, John, was a three-star chief in the NYC Transit Police before it merged with the New York Police Department. He developed methods to wipe out graffiti in the subways and introduced the department’s first K-9 units.
His mother, Eileen, was an assistant to the editor of the Staten Island Advance and a community activist.
While Kavanagh’s four brothers went on to work in finance, he chose a different path in politics.
Kavanagh worked on a number of issues including affordable housing, environmental laws, election reform and gun violence.
After working with Kavanagh for years on a variety of these issues including gun violence, Assemblywoman Michelle Schimel, D-Great Neck, now co-chairs SLAIG NY with him.
“I met up with Brian early in my career because of his interest in it and we immediately started to work together,” said Schimel.
The two recently worked together to pass a bill requiring gun manufacturers to use bullet microstamping technology. This involves stamping ammunition so that police can trace gun cartridges back to specific weapons used in crimes.
It has gained the support of Democratic and Republican lawmakers and family members of victims of gun-related violence like Dionne Gordon, whose brother, Maurice, a federal law enforcement officer, was shot and killed in front of his parents home in Jamaica, Queens in 2010.
“We fully support legislation that will aid our protectors in apprehending and, above all, preventing others from having to experience the untold sadness felt by the grieving family members of those stolen by gun violence,” Gordon said in a recent press release issued by Kavanagh’s office.
Kavanagh said one of the hardest parts of being an elected official is trying to advance positive change in such a partisan political environment.
“Making sure that…the broad interest of people, of ordinary New Yorkers, are represented rather than special interests,” he said.
Battle Lines and White Flags
Like many of his colleagues, Kavanagh has encountered much opposition on gun control. He believes the gun lobby has a stronghold on the issue of gun violence in New York.
“The NRA is a membership organization and it has a whole lot of members,” said Kavanagh. “But it spends a great deal of money that comes mostly from checks from gun manufactures pushing a point of view that even most members of the NRA don’t support and even most members of the public don’t support.”
He blames the members of the gun lobby — and the Republican-controlled Senate — for recently blocking the microstamping bill.
“When you solve one of those crimes, you are preventing future crimes and this is a simple, common sense tool,” said Kavanagh.
Tom King, president of the New York State Pistol and Rifle Association, said lawmakers should focus on enforcing current laws to put more criminals guilty of gun crimes behind bars.
“For instance, two or three years ago in New York City, the New York Times reported that 1,900 people were arrested in New York City for gun offenses and only 300 of those were prosecuted,” said King. “That’s where I think there is a need for enforcing the laws and putting the people in prison who deserve to be there.”
Although New York State is the fourth toughest in the nation when it comes to gun control, democratic lawmakers, including Sen. Michael Gianaris, D-Astoria, are seizing on the uptick in violence across the nation and in New York to push for tighter gun laws in the state.
One measure would require background checks of anyone buying ammunition. Another would limit the purchase of firearms to one person per month. Supporters of the proposals said they would fill gaps in New York’s gun laws.
“Quite simply, the proposed legislation will help make New York a safer state for all of its citizens,” said Dan Gross, president of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
But King said democratic lawmakers are trying to stifle gun owner’s rights.
“The current spate of bills that are being introduced by Senator Gianaris and some of the other people are in response to their opportunistic use of some of the shootings that have happened recently. I don’t see any compromise on those because those are a flat-out attack on our second amendment rights,” said King.
Kavanagh has also introduced a bill that would require the employees of gun stores to undergo background checks.
Supporters like Jackie Hilly, executive director of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence, said something like that should bring both sides to the table. But that hasn’t happened.
“We had hoped all along it would be a point of compromise,” said Hilly. “And we have worked on the bill for years and amended the bill in ways they said they would support it and they did not support it.”
Efforts to strengthen gun laws face an uphill battle. A recent CNN/ORC International poll shows Americans attitudes on gun control have basically remained unchanged in the wake of the mass shootings in Colorado and Wisconsin.
The public remains divided on the issue with 50 percent saying they favor no restrictions or only minor restrictions on gun ownership and 48 percent supporting major restrictions on a complete ban on ownership by individuals except authorized personnel.
The numbers have remained in that range for more than a decade.
“I think nationally many people live in communities where they feel a greater separation between themselves and gun violence,” said Kavanagh. “They think of gun violence as something that happens in some other part of town.”
Kavanagh said improving gun control must also happen at the local level in communities facing these problems.
The Lower East Side experienced a 24 percent upswing in drug gang activity in 2010. In the past year there has been an increase in teen crime reportedly involving mostly crimes of geographically (turf) based incidents. Nonprofits and government agencies including the NYPD, the New York City Housing Authority and the District Attorney’s office are working to combat the problem.
Kavanagh is working with city officials and social service providers to combat the problem of violence and provide youth prone to violent activities better alternatives like joining local basketball leagues and other community groups.
“We think that we might be able to make it so that it’s more difficult to recruit kids who otherwise don’t feel like they have any sort of sense of belonging or hope.”