In the wake of two fatal shootings of New York City police officers in the space of less than two weeks, the New York State Legislature sprang to action so that it could, well, appear to be springing to action.
At the end of the special legislative session, they had passed two new laws. The first increases penalties for those caught with illegal guns, while the second increases penalties for those who kill or threaten police officers. It was an impressive exercise for a legislature that routinely struggles with such tasks as passing a budget, and which has failed in its attempts to pass similar bills for several years running.
However, the more important question is whether the new laws will lead to less gun crime and fewer attacks against police officers, and that question is still an open one.
Police Shootings and the Tabloid Crusade
In the early morning hours of December 10th, off duty New York City police officer Daniel Enchautegui was shot and killed as he investigated an ongoing burglary in a neighbor’s home. According to news reports, Enchautegui identified himself as a police officer before one of the suspects shot him. Though injured, the officer apparently returned fire at least six times, hitting both suspects. Officer Enchautegui was taken to the hospital, where he died less than an hour later.
Police officers responding to Enchautegui’s call for backup arrested the two wounded suspects. The suspects were identified as 48-year old Steven Armento, and 29-year old Lillo Brancato Jr., an actor who had starred in 1993 in "A Bronx Tale," directed by Robert DeNiro, and had gone on to a recurring role in The Sopranos and minor parts in other movies. Armento and Brancato were arraigned several days later in the Bronx hospital where they were being treated, on charges including murder.
Enchautegui was the second New York City police officer killed in 2005. The first, Dillon Stewart , was killed less than two weeks earlier, on November 28th.
While the tabloids initially played up the Sopranos link, their reaction quickly turned to rage. Both the New York Daily News and the New York Post ran a series of editorials demanding that the state legislature convene a special session to increase penalties for gun crimes. An guest essay in the Daily News called for the reinstatement of the death penalty.
The Special Legislative Session
At least partly in response to these calls, on December 16th Governor George Pataki called a special session of the state legislature to consider his proposals to fight violence against police officers and trafficking of illegal firearms. Pataki’s proposed bills included authorizing the death penalty for the killing of a police officer. The Post, uncharacteristically, opposed the governor’s move as an inappropriate attempt to reinstate the death penalty through the back door, and Pataki and Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno eventually agreed to drop the provision. Democrats in the State Assembly were pursuing new regulations on gun dealers that would have required better record-keeping and training of employees, which they said would prevent illegal sales and assist in investigating gun crimes. The Republican-controlled State Senate opposed such measures, however, and Assembly leader Sheldon Silver agreed to drop the provision.
The Senate and Assembly reached a compromise on December 21st, passing two new bills, which Governor Pataki signed into law that evening. The bills enhance punishments for the sale and possession of illegal firearms, including making it a felony to possess three or more firearms illegally (it was previously only a felony to possess twenty or more). The bills also increase the maximum penalty for the murder of a police officer to a life sentence without the possibility of parole, and enhancing punishments for other crimes against police officers, peace officers, and corrections officers.
Will the New Laws Do Any Good?
It is easy and perhaps unfair to question the motives behind the special legislative session. Had the deaths of Officers Stewart and Enchautegui not come so close to each other, it is unlikely that these new laws would have been passed. The fatal shooting of two New York City police officers is two too many, but it is worth remembering that four officers were killed in the line of duty in 2004, unaccompanied by fevered editorial campaigns by the city’s newspapers.
But what of the merits of the laws? Will they prevent gun trafficking and violence against cops?
Supporters of the new legislation contend that the new law will send a “tough on crime” message, and deter illegal gun trafficking by increasing the penalties for those who possess and sell illegal guns in New York.
But surely enhanced penalties are not a panacea. New York already had programs in place to provide greater penalties for gun crimes. Specialized gun courts in Brooklyn and Queens, for example, have been operating for several years, and have resulted in jail time for a number of defendants who otherwise would have been given probation. In addition, many gun possession cases, especially when the defendant has a criminal record, are passed up to federal prosecutors, since penalties for gun possession are much harsher under federal law.
Moreover, studies have suggested that the certainty of punishment deters crime more effectively than the severity of punishment . With this in mind, Governor Pataki’s recent pledge to commit one hundred state police officers to work with federal Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents to track illegal guns is a welcome one. According to the governor, the officers will also be deputized to make arrests in other states.
The general consensus seems to be that the new laws are a necessary first step. State legislators on both sides of the aisle have pledged to revisit the issue in the next session. In the end, however, it is likely to take more than action by the state legislature to make a real dent in the problem of illegal gun trafficking. As Mayor Michael Bloomberg argued on his weekly radio show, after the passage of the new legislation, lax gun control laws in other states fuel much of the illegal trafficking of guns that end up on New York’s streets.
David Dean, a student at New York University School of Law, worked as a policy analyst in the Mayor's Office of the Criminal Justice Coordinator.Â