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N.Y. Governor Flexes Political Muscle To Pass Tough Gun Law

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a new gun control law in Albany on Tuesday. It's the nation's first gun law enacted since the December school shooting in Newtown, Conn.
Mike Groll
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a new gun control law in Albany on Tuesday. It's the nation's first gun law enacted since the December school shooting in Newtown, Conn.

On Tuesday, New York became the first state in the nation to pass a tough new gun control law. Gov. Andrew Cuomo convinced his state's Legislature to act, even before President Obama took executive action to limit access to guns.

The governor's legislative victory followed his impassioned State of the State address earlier this month, delivered the first day of the 2013 legislative session.

In the speech, the Democratic governor, who owns a hunting rifle, exhorted the Legislature to act quickly. "No one hunts with an assault rifle. No one needs 10 bullets to kill a deer," he said.

Just days later, Cuomo was signing the Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act, which he calls "common sense," into law. "No one else has to die," Cuomo said the night before Tuesday's signing ceremony. "No more innocent loss of life."

A 'Carrot And Stick Approach To Governing'

Cuomo has translated his consistently high popularity ratings into political capital, enabling him to achieve big changes in a state government that, not very many years ago, was dubbed the most dysfunctional in the nation. And in another political victory, the governor was able to pass a gay marriage bill in 2011.

A Jan. 17 poll from the Siena Research Institute at Siena College found the majority of New Yorkers — Democrats and Republicans — back the stronger assault weapons ban.

"This governor has demonstrated that he knows how to use the carrot and stick approach to governing, and to getting the Legislature to do what he wants to do," says Siena pollster Steven Greenberg. "And that's why he'd been so successful in his first two years in office."

Other observers say there's another reason: driving ambition — Cuomo wanted to be first. Fred LeBrun, a longtime writer with the Albany Times Union, describes himself as a gun-owning liberal Democrat. He says New York's previous laws were sufficient.

"We already have an assault weapons ban. We're already down to the 10 rounds that the president is seeking to get for the rest of the country," LeBrun says. "We already have these things. Why do we need to do better than that?

"Only because the governor, driven by his own ambitions on the national scene, is saying, 'I want to be fastest and "bestest," and make everybody look at me, look at me.' "

A Head Start In Governing

LeBrun says Cuomo had a head start in trying to understand the byzantine Albany culture. He's the son of Democratic icon and former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo. Andrew Cuomo managed his father's campaign, and, just out of law school, served as a $1-a-year top adviser during the elder Cuomo's early time in office.

"He was not the most pleasant person, but then again, no one should be held accountable for the way they are in their 20s," LeBrun says. "But he was forming himself, he was difficult to deal with, he could be nasty and aggressive — but he got things done."

When Andrew Cuomo finally became governor himself, he was uniquely prepared to exploit weaknesses in New York's waning Republican Party. And when creating the gun control bill, he agreed to let the GOP have some provisions they could take credit for.

New York Senate Republican leader Dean Skelos touted the new, stiffer penalties for the use of illegal guns.

"This is going to go after those who are bringing illegal guns into the state, who are slaughtering people in New York City in particular," Skelos said Monday.

But conservative Sen. Greg Ball expressed some bitterness.

"We haven't saved any lives tonight, except for one: the political life of a governor who wants to be president," Ball said Monday on the Senate floor.

But Cuomo says that for now, he's focusing on being the best governor he can be. Should he seek higher office, though, he might find that what plays in New York might be harder to sell to the rest of the nation.

Copyright 2013 WXXI News

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.