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New York fights back on guns and abortion after Supreme Court rulings

Gov. Kathy Hochul provided an update on the New York State Legislature’s special session, in Albany on Friday, July 1, 2022. The New York State Senate passed a bill that would ban firearms in “sensitive places,” including schools, churches and even Times Square.CINDY SCHULTZ/NYT

A week after the US Supreme Court issued monumental rulings loosening restrictions on carrying guns and overturning the constitutional right to abortion, New York state enacted sweeping measures designed to blunt the decisions’ effects.

In an extraordinary session convened by Gov. Kathy Hochul that began Thursday and carried late into Friday evening, the Legislature adopted a new law placing significant restrictions on the carrying of handguns and passed an amendment that would initiate the process of enshrining the right to abortion in the state constitution.

The new legislation illustrates the growing distance between a conservative-led court that has reasserted its influence in American political life and blue states such as New York — one of the most left-leaning in the nation, where all three branches of government are controlled by Democrats and President Joe Biden easily triumphed over Donald Trump in 2020.

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As Republican-led states race rightward, the New York Legislature’s moves this week provided a preview of an intensifying clash between the court and Democratic states that will probably play out for years to come.

“We’re not going backwards,” Hochul, a Democrat, said at a news conference in Albany on Friday and who later that evening signed the gun bill into law. “They may think they can change our lives with the stroke of a pen, but we have pens, too.”

She made remarks on the coming Fourth of July holiday, asking New Yorkers to remember what was being commemorated: “the founding of a great country that cherished the rights of individuals, freedoms and liberty for all.”

“I am standing here to protect freedom and liberty here in the state of New York,” she added.

The state’s new gun law bars the carrying of handguns in many public settings such as subways and buses, parks, hospitals, stadiums and day cares. Guns will be off-limits on private property unless the property owner indicates that he or she expressly allows them. At the last minute, lawmakers added Times Square to the list of restricted sites.

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The law also requires permit applicants to undergo 16 hours of training on the handling of guns and two hours of firing-range training, as well as an in-person interview and a written exam. Applicants will also be subject to the scrutiny of local officials, who will retain some discretion in the permitting process.

Enshrining the right to abortion in the state constitution will be more onerous. Amending the state constitution is a yearslong process, which starts with passage by the Legislature. Then, after a general election, another session of the Legislature must pass the amendment before it is presented to voters in a ballot referendum.

But lawmakers took a first step Friday when the Senate passed the Equal Rights Amendment, which along with guaranteeing rights to abortion and access to contraception, prohibited the government from discriminating against anyone based on a list of qualifications including race, ethnicity, national origin, disability or sex — specifically noting sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and pregnancy on the list of protected conditions.

Some of the protected classes in the language of the measure appeared to anticipate future rulings from the court, which also indicated last week that it might overturn cases that established the right to same-sex marriage, same-sex consensual relations and contraception.

“We’re playing legislative whack-a-mole with the Supreme Court,” said state Sen. Brad Hoylman, a Manhattan Democrat. “Any time they come up with a bad idea, we’ll counter it with legislation at the state level.”

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“Civil liberties are hanging in the balance,” he added.

New York Republicans, who have little sway in either legislative chamber, split over the Equal Rights Amendment, with seven voting in favor and 13 against. But they were united in opposition against the concealed carry bill, saying Democrats had tipped the balance much too heavily in favor of restrictions.

“Instead of addressing the root of the problem and holding violent criminals accountable, Albany politicians are preventing law-abiding New Yorkers, who have undergone permit classes, background checks and a licensing process from exercising their constitutional right to keep and bear arms,” said Robert Ortt, Republican leader in the Senate, who is from western New York.

The session in Albany took place just a week after the Supreme Court — now fully in the control of right-leaning justices, three of whom were appointed by Trump — moved forward on a pair of issues that have long animated conservatives.

On June 23, it struck down New York’s century-old law that was among the strictest in the nation in regulating the public carrying of guns. The decision found that the law, which required that applicants demonstrate that they had a heightened need to carry a firearm in public, was too restrictive and allowed local officials too much discretion. The court invited states to update their laws.

The following day, the court overturned Roe v. Wade, stripping Americans of the constitutional right to abortion nearly 50 years after it was first granted.

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New York will be the first of six states directly affected by the gun ruling to pass a new law restricting the carrying of guns. Similar legislation has been proposed in New Jersey, where a top legislative leader said this week that it was possible that lawmakers could be called back into session this summer to respond.

Officials there have coordinated directly with their counterparts in New York, and the two laws are expected to share many features.

Lawmakers in Hawaii have also said that they are working on new firearm legislation, while officials in California, Maryland and Massachusetts are discussing how the court’s decision should be addressed in their states.

In an interview, Andrea Stewart-Cousins, Senate majority leader in New York, said Democratic leaders were adamant that New York “model what state legislatures all over this nation can do to reaffirm the rights of their residents.”

She defended the new concealed-carry restrictions as a common-sense safety measure that balanced Second Amendment interests laid out by the Supreme Court with concerns about legally carrying weapons into sensitive or crowded places, particularly in dense urban areas such as New York City already facing a scourge of gun violence.

“We didn’t want an open season,” Stewart-Cousins said. “In the environment that we are in, it is important to make sure that we are creating a process that respects what the Supreme Court has said but allows us to keep New Yorkers as safe as possible.”

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Republicans disagreed.

“If you look at the sensitive areas, it’s the entire state, it’s everywhere,” said state Sen. Andrew Lanza, a member of Republican leadership from Staten Island. “So much of New York is now considered a sensitive area for the purpose of this law that there is no such thing as a concealed permit anymore.”

Two other states, California and Vermont, have also moved closer to placing abortion protections in their constitutions. This week, lawmakers in California advanced a constitutional amendment enshrining the right, and in November, residents of both states will vote on whether to make the amendments law.

Republican-led states are charging hard in the other direction. So far, seven have banned abortion since the Supreme Court’s decision last week. Another half-dozen, including Texas and Tennessee, are expected to quickly follow suit. And voters in states such as Kentucky and Kansas will soon decide whether to ban the practice via referendum.

By pushing so quickly in New York to respond to both rulings, Hochul and Democratic legislative leaders have kept the state on a path set by her predecessor, Andrew Cuomo, during Trump’s presidency. Before allegations of sexual misconduct from a number of women led to his resignation, Cuomo was explicit in juxtaposing his agenda with the priorities of the Republican president, saying in late 2018 that he was declaring New York’s independence.

State Sen. Michael Gianaris of Queens, deputy majority leader, said New Yorkers should expect more of the same in the coming years.

“The Supreme Court seems intent on destroying this country one decision at a time,” he said in an interview. “Today, we made clear that New York will stand up against this rollback of rights that we’ve come to expect in the United States. You can expect we will continue doing this as the court keeps issuing horrible decisions.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.