New York on Thursday night passed legislature to require a license to purchase a rifle, increasing the age of ownership to 21. UPI/David Becker | License Photo
June 2 (UPI) -- Democratic lawmakers in New York have passed a slew of bills to strengthen gun laws and protections for abortion and election rights in the state.
The bills were passed Thursday after shootings at a Buffalo supermarket and a Texas high school left scores dead and amid Republican efforts to restrict access to abortion and ballot boxes nationwide.
The lawmakers voted to raise the age limit for purchasing a semiautomatic rifle to 21 by requiring buyers to obtain a license that the state currently mandates for pistol and revolver ownership.
New legislation also strengthens the state's Red Flag law, restricts body vest purchases to eligible professionals and bolsters oversight of gun dealers, among other measures.
The legislature passed the bills after an 18-year-old man with legally purchased semiautomatic assault rifles shot up a predominately Black supermarket in Buffalo, killing 10 people, on May 14, and after another 18-year-old armed with a semiautomatic AR-15-style assault rifle opened fire on a Uvalde elementary school, killing 19 students and two teachers, last week.
A father consoles his children at the site of a mass shooting on Saturday afternoon at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York on Sunday, May 15 2022. Ten people were killed and three injured during a mass shooting at a supermarket on Saturday afternoon in Buffalo. Photo by Aaron Josefczyk/UPI
Democrats nationwide are calling for tighter gun restrictions but have been met with Republican pushback. Ahead of the Albany vote, U.S. President Joe Biden called on Congress to ban assault weapons in a national address.
"We have lost too many New Yorkers -- too many Americans -- to gun violence," Assembly member Kenny Burgos in a statement. "Both in Buffalo and Uvalde, Texas, 18 year-olds went out and bought semiautomatic rifles, and between the two attacks, murdered 31 people. Instituting a permit process is a logical, commonsense provision to keep New Yorkers safe."
State Senate Democratic majority leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said from the Senate floor Thursday that the purpose of the package of gun legislation is to close gaps in state laws exposed by the recent shootings.
"We need to create more roadblocks between someone having a lethal premeditated idea and them acting on it," she said.
Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, said on Twitter late Thursday that "I look forward to signing these bills into law."
A day before the vote, Nick Langworthy, the New York Republican chairman, lambasted the gun package in a statement.
"This package of bills does nothing to actually address the underlying mental health crisis at the center of the problem nor does it invest in securing our schools," he said. "If Hochul and legislative leaders care about shooting victims, they would vote today to repeal their disastrous bail laws that have turned our streets over to violent criminals."
The legislature Thursday also passed a package of laws to protect abortion providers in the state, specifically barring them from professional discipline for providing reproductive health services to patients.
The bills also protect abortion providers from arrest or extradition to other states and prohibit medical malpractice insurance companies from penalizing them.
"Here in New York, we believe reproductive healthcare decisions are to be made by a patient in consultation with their doctor -- not by the government," State Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said in a statement after the legislature passed the package. "This legislation will protect reproductive healthcare providers in New York from states looking to impose their polices on New Yorkers and punish providers beyond their borders."
The package was voted on while Republican-led states have passed bills to curb and in some cases outright ban access to the medical procedure.
Last week, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt signed legislation to ban abortion at conception, making it the nation's most restrictive law against the medical practice.
Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt signed Senate Bill 612, an anti-abortion bill, on Tuesday. Photo courtesy of the Office of the Governor/Twitter
According to the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive healthcare advocacy organization, there have been at least 541 abortion restrictions introduced in 42 state legislatures, with 42 of those restrictions having been enacted and another 38 having passed at least one chamber. Last year, 108 abortion restrictions were enacted, the institute said.
The vote also comes as the Supreme Court appears poised to overturn Roe vs. Wade, which gave federal protections to abortion. If overturned, the institute expects 26 states will likely outright ban the medical procedure.
"With the Supreme Court on the precipice of overturning Roe, it is incumbent that New York take actionable steps to become an abortion safe haven for women across this country," said Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal in a statement. "This package of bills ... will ensure that New York's heroes -- the women and men who continue to provide reproductive healthcare -- can do so without fear of persecution or prosecution."
State lawmakers also passed the John Lewis Voting Rights Act of New York to codify and strengthen federal voting rights laws, specifically to prevent state and local governments from passing discriminatory laws that deny citizens the right to vote.
A federal version of the bill previously passed the Democrat-held House but fell short of the 60 votes needed in the divided Senate.
The bills have been pushed by Democrats as Republicans have sought to pass bills to restrict voting laws since the 2020 presidential election that saw then-President Donald Trump lose to his Democratic challenger and now president, Joe Biden.
Democrats and voting rights advocates have described the Republican laws as voter suppression acts with Biden saying early this year they are "designed to suppress and subvert voting rights."
The Legal Defense Fund, which fights racial injustice, called New York's passing of bill named after the late Congressman and civil rights activist John Lewis a "historic victory for voting rights."
"The John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act of New York represents hope for New Yorkers of color who are entitled to an equal opportunity to hold local government officials accountable at the ballot box," L. Joy Williams, president of the Brooklyn NAACP, said in a statement. "This historic vote comes at a time when leadership from elected officials on voting rights is desperately needed and provides a roadmap for our colleagues in other states fighting for voting rights that change is possible."