April 12, 2000
TEEN RAPPING: But it's starting with the youth get out of the dark see the light. We've got to stop all these guns being sold on the streets...
BETTY ANN BOWSER: New Yorkers against gun violence recently brought teenagers to the state capitol to rally for new gun control laws.
TEEN: Dear Governor Pataki, I am writing this letter to express my feelings on gun violence.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: The kids wrote essays to Governor George Pataki, asking him to make it harder for young people to get their hands on guns and use them against other children. But they didn't have to do much to get Pataki's attention, because only days before, the Republican governor had laid out his own gun control agenda.
GOV. GEORGE PATAKI, (R) New York: We have five commonsense changes that will make our streets safer -- first of all, having trigger locks sold with every gun. This will help in the home, where if a gun is inadvertently stored in a way that creates a risk, at least the gun will be locked so that a child or someone not fit to use that gun won't be able to. We're going to have a state law banning assault weapons. They have no place in our society.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Pataki also wants: to require every gun purchaser to undergo a mandatory background check at gun show; raise the age for gun ownership from 18 to 21; and the governor wants to keep ballistics records of every new gun manufactured so they can be traced by police. Like most Republicans, Pataki has never been a big control advocate. In fact, he didn't even mention this plan three months ago in his State of the State Address. But some political observers think he's using this issue to position himself for higher office, something the governor adamantly denies. Instead, Pataki says it's the rash of killings in public schools that's made him embrace gun control. And he thinks the time is right now to put angry rhetoric coming from both sides of the issue aside.
GOV. GEORGE PATAKI: There is a willingness of the public and a willingness of elected officials to take a look and not listen to rhetoric that might try to frighten people, but look at policies that might make people safer. I think now there is a reasonable chance that intelligent gun control, anti- gun violence legislation, can pass in New York State.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Pataki thinks he has enough votes in the Democratically controlled New York assembly to get his gun control measures passed. But he faces a road full of political potholes in the Senate, controlled by his own Republican Party. Republican State Senator Joe Bruno is the Senate Majority Leader. Like every member of the state legislature, he's also up for reelection this fall.
SPOKESMAN: We're going to Senator Bruno's office. He's the Senate majority leader. He's the one we need to put pressure on.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Bruno is feeling a lot of heat right now from those on both sides of the gun debate. On a recent afternoon, pro-gun control teenagers presented his office with thousands of petitions asking him to support Pataki's five-point plan.
SPOKESPERSON: I'll give Senator Bruno the message that you stopped in, and I will make sure he gets these.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: And although Bruno says he favors some kind of reasonable approach to gun control, his Republican colleagues are all over the landscape on the issue.
JOE BRUNO, (R) New York State Senator: It's very pressurized because it's an issue that people get emotional about. Is it controversial? Yes, it is. Is it very, very difficult? Yes it is. Our conference is split several different ways: Those that would like to do very little; those that would like to do everything, and then some... and those that are somewhere in between.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: If Bruno sides with Pataki, he could face the wrath of the state's 200,000-member conservative party, which has made the difference in close elections in the past. Party chairman Mike Long is dead set against any new gun laws.
MIKE LONG, Conservative Party of New York: We're going to fight against it. We're going to lobby against it. We're going to keep talking to our leaders, and ask them to call their legislators, and tell them to vote against it. And if they don't vote against it, what we will do is rate them, and they have to bear the brunt of that. We're not a single-issue party, but we are a party that takes in consideration all the issues. And eventually some of these candidates will have opponents, and we will choose the other opponents.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: The state's 3.5 million hunters and sports shooters are also angry with Pataki, and threatening not to support legislators who side with him on the issue. Tom King is the legislative director of the New York Rifle and Pistol Association.
TOM KING: Our response is going to be in the voting booths rather than through the media, rather than through any other methods. If the need be, we will support third-party candidates.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Pataki's gun control plan comes at a time when other prominent GOP leaders are also moving to the center on the issue for the first time. They include three other Republican governors, and presidential candidate George W. Bush. Last month at one of the Republican debates, Bush was asked whether he supports trigger locks.
GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH: (March 2) I have no problem. 80% of the guns sold today have trigger locks with them, and I think that's fine. I think there needs to be laws that say that if a parent is irresponsible and a child ends up with a weapon, the parent ought to be held accountable.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Pollster John Zogby says Republicans are talking about gun control because they want to appeal to women, who are overwhelmingly for it and who, in a close election, could determine the winner.
JOHN ZOGBY, Pollster: They need the women's vote. They sense for the first time in a while they can capture the women's vote because George W. Bush is particularly popular for a Republican among women. But add to that the sharpened rhetoric by the NRA, and you see a lot of Republican leaders running away from that because they're afraid that could blow it, the gains they've made with women.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Robert Spitzer, who's written a book on the politics of gun control, agrees, saying gun control is no longer an issue owned exclusively owned by the Democrats.
ROBERT SPITZER: It is becoming more of a bipartisan issue, and the Republican party itself seems to be edging a little more towards embracing an explicit, even if modest, gun control agenda. And it is no longer the sort of third rail, the rail that political candidates would rather not touch at the national level, because there is an increasing sense that gun control has become a mainstream issue, clearly an issue most Americans support and now more Americans are interested in, and that it may be a winning issue for national candidates for office, and also for state leaders around the country.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Republican State Senator Nick Spano is strongly in favor of Pataki's gun control measures. He sees the governor's move to the center on the issue in political terms.
NICK SPANO, (R) New York State Senator: We went through an era... of the Newt Gingrich era, of the extremists being in control of the Republican Party. And they frankly put us back decades: Decades on women's rights, decades on issues of gay rights, and on issues of gun control. And what we need is policies like George Pataki's policies to say, "wake up, America." It's the Republican Party who represents the middle-income, middle-class people all across the nation who want to send their kids to get a quality education, who want to take care of the seniors who need health care, who want to protect our young children from walking into classes with loaded weapons. And those are the issues that we're speaking out on.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: But opponents of new gun control measures are dismayed by this sudden shift by Republicans; they say politicians are showing a real lack of leadership proposing new laws when current ones aren't even enforced.
MIKE LONG: I think we're running government by polls today. We are long past seeing the day when people stick to their principles, core values, and have the courage to promote what they believe in as legislators. I submit to the legislatures, not just here in New York but across the nation, to stop looking at polls and start doing what is right and what they believe in. (Bell tolls)
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Governor Pataki's gun plan is expected to be voted on in the next several weeks.