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How to keep the deadliest guns out of dangerous hands: States show the way

Did you know that in New York State you can report an unsafe driver? Anyone who witnesses a driver “who appears to be unable to drive safely” can fill out a two-page form, called a “Request for Driver Review,” and report the person to the state Department of Motor Vehicles to initiate an inquiry as to the fitness of the driver. The same idea can, and in a few states has, been applied to gun owners.

As is well known, the man who shot up the high school in Parkland, Fla., was a bundle of warning signals, well known to the people who knew him, all pointing to his dangerous and deadly intentions. But when he bought his AR-15-type assault rifle legally in Florida at Sunrise Tactical Supply, he had no felony convictions, nor had he been ruled mentally incompetent by a judge. Those, plus a few other minor qualifiers, constitute the minimal federal background check standard.

Despite the clamor for action on gun laws at the federal and state level, the U.S. Congress will do nothing (aside perhaps from a couple of minor NRA-approved measures) — even if there are 100 mass shootings next week. The reason is simple: Most congressional Republicans are bonded to the gun-rights community, welcoming their money and fearing their reprisal for any deviation from the NRA line. Following the political lead of President Trump, they seek only to appease their base, with not even a nod to the overwhelming majority of Americans who support stronger gun laws.

The states, however, are a different matter. Already at least a dozen states are now considering stronger gun laws. Here in New York, the Legislature is considering a measure like the DMV unsafe drivers report — one that could be genuinely helpful and effective — called a “red flag” law, also known as a gun-violence restraining law. It would allow those close to a person who shows signs of violence, and who owns guns, to go before a judge and seek an order to temporarily take guns away from the person to then decide whether the guns should be restored.

So far, only five states (California, Connecticut, Indiana, Oregon and Washington State) have such a law. New York would do well to adopt this measure.

On another count, however, New York is ahead of the pack. Had the Florida shooter sought a rifle with the firepower of the one he bought, he would have been out of luck. Under state law, a purchaser seeking a weapon with the configuration of an assault rifle must buy one that has a fixed bullet magazine, and that magazine can hold no more than ten rounds.

So what, you say? One of the chief features of the type of weapon used to kill at least 173 people in mass shootings since 2007 is the ability of such weapons to receive bullet magazines that can then be ejected when depleted and replaced rapidly. The Florida shooter’s weapon had such a capability: After firing numerous rounds from 10-bullet magazines, police report he left many magazines containing 150 rounds behind him when he fled. (Magazines holding from 30 to 100 bullets are legal in most places.)

By contrast, a New York-compliant weapon can only hold 10 rounds, and reloading must be accomplished by opening the weapon up in some way to manually insert new rounds. That time-consuming action would provide the opportunity to stop a shooter.

To return to the DMV reporting procedure, one might argue that there is no constitutional right to drive, and that’s true. But as the Supreme Court said in 2008 and as 300 years of gun laws in America show, gun ownership and rights may be regulated in a variety of ways. Chief among them is the obligation of the government to protect its population against murderous gun-expressed rage.

Spitzer is distinguished service professor and chair of the political science department at SUNY Cortland and the author of five books on gun policy, including “Guns Across America.”