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New Yorkers sharply divided over President's gun speech

The NY SAFE Act was signed into law in Jan. 2013, following the mass shooting in Newtown, Conn.

President Barack Obama announced yesterday that he plans to tighten gun control measures using his executive authority. That move drew mixed reviews here in New York, a state with some of the toughest gun regulations in the country.

Some activists said government officials were infringing on their right to own and carry firearms, but others said New York should go even further to restrict access to guns and ammunition.

The shooting that changed the debate

The first man to speak at yesterday’s White House gathering was Mark Barden, who over the last three years has become one of the country’s leading gun control activists.

“On the morning of Friday, December 14, 2012, my sweet little boy, my seven year old son Daniel, was among twenty first graders and six brave educators who were shot to death at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut," Barden said.

Obama said again yesterday that the Sandy Hook shooting changed the way he looks at gun violence.

“I still remember the first time we met, the time we spent together and the conversation we had about Daniel," Mr. Obama said.  "And that changed me that day. My hope earnestly has been that it would change the country.”


Enter the controversial SAFE Act

The Sandy Hook mass shooting did change the gun control landscape here in New York state, where Gov. Andrew Cuomo pushed through the SAFE Act, which curbed access to military- and assault-style rifles and magazines.

The Republican congress rejected similar measures in Washington, so Obama has announced new executive actions designed to tighten existing regulations on gun dealers, while also beefing up law enforcement and background checks.

“From what I’ve seen, it’s a load of nothing," said Jacob Rieper from Pine Plains, New York.  He’s vice president of the New York State Rifle and Pistol Association, a group that has filed a lawsuit hoping to roll back the SAFE Act.

He said there’s no tie between the wide availability of firearms in the US and the recent spate of mass-shootings. He thinks Obama is trying to hoodwink the country.

“Specifically, the last shooting out in California, the president was trying to talk about guns because he didn’t want to talk about Islamic terrorists,” Reiper said.

This is a common argument among gun rights activists—that President Obama and Governor Cuomo are focusing on guns rather than on problem areas like terrorism and urban violence in black neighborhoods.

The president was trying to talk about guns because he did not want to talk about Islamic terrorists. “Chicago, New York City, LA, the gangs, the bad guys.  You take away those cities, you’ll see a big drop [in gun violence]," said Ralf Hartman, treasurer of the Saranac Lake Fish and Game Club.

Hartman said many gun owners simply no longer trust this president to enact gun control that doesn’t violate their constitutional rights. “What they’re afraid of us that our government or our president are going to continue to whittle away and go the way Australia went where they confiscated all the guns,” he said.

There’s no evidence to date that Obama has embraced an agenda to confiscate guns, and his measures are in fact often tested by the Supreme Court.  His latest round of executive actions is widely expected to be challenged with lawsuits.

Call for more gun control regulation

Credit National Rifle Association
Two Democratic state lawmakers who support additional gun control measures were featured in this ad distributed by the NRA online and on social media

Meanwhile, others in New York state heard the president’s speech very differently — as a common sense call to action.

“It’s clear from the President’s remarks that state and local legislatures need to act as well," said Jo Anne Simon, a Democratic state Assemblywoman who represents neighborhoods in Brooklyn.

This week, the NRA posted an image of Simon and another lawmaker that showed bullets next to their photographs – a response to their call for new restrictions in New York on the purchase of ammunition.

“I think it’s disturbing.  You know, it’s designed to be intimidating,” said Simon.

But it's unlikely that New York’s Republican-controlled state Senate will back any new gun regulations. The SAFE Act, New York’s tough gun control law, still faces legal hurdles that might go all the way to the Supreme Court.