Amid a national increase in gun violence and years of federal inaction on the issue, local officials face significant challenges preventing and responding to gun violence in their communities. On the latest episode of Policy Outsider, Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan discusses the state of gun violence in Albany, NY, what the city is doing to address illegal firearms and gun violence, and what resources local governments need from federal and state governments to help ensure public safety.
Transcript was generated using AI software and may contain errors.
Alexander Morse 00:04
Welcome to Policy Outsider presented by the Rockefeller Institute of Government. I’m Alex Morse. Gun violence is up across the country. Mass shootings, such as the ones that occurred in recent weeks in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Uvalde, Texas, and Buffalo, New York, have been increasing in frequency, capturing the fears and attention of communities and policymakers. And, while mass shootings tend to dominate media coverage, they make up a small fraction of those killed and injured every year by firearms. Other forms of homicide, including gang-related violence and domestic violence, as well as firearm suicides, may not receive as much coverage but they comprise the bulk of lives lost to gun violence. With the federal government seemingly too polarized to effect real change, states, local governments and the public are grappling with how to save some of the 100+ lives that are lost to gun violence every day. On this episode, we have special guest, the Honorable Kathy Sheehan, Mayor of Albany, New York, to discuss the state of gun violence in the city, what the city is doing to address illegal firearms and gun violence, and what resources local governments need from federal and state governments to help ensure public safety. Coming up next. Today, we’re joined by a special guest, the Honorable Kathy Sheehan, Mayor of the City of Albany, the capital city of New York State. Thank you for joining us today. Mayor Sheehan.
Kathy Sheehan 01:51
Thank you so much for having me.
Alexander Morse 01:53
So we have you on here today to talk about gun violence and gun violence prevention, specifically at the local level, and what policy opportunities there are, that you have been working on with the police department with your city council with nonprofit organizations. And the reason why this is a timely topic is because there was the recent mass shooting episodes in Buffalo, New York, which is only about four hours, four and a half hours away from Albany. And then there was also the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas. And so debates around guns and gun controls are heating up. And they’re dominating many of the airwaves, advocates for gun control are calling for the restriction of guns and making it more difficult to obtain one. And gun advocates are citing the Second Amendment as providing protections for gun owners, and that guns are critical for their safety. And so wherever one falls on that spectrum, there is no debate that gun violence related incidents are up across the country, including homicides, domestic violence, suicides, mass shootings, and it’s leaving a trail. It’s living awake of victims and survivors who are trying to grapple with how to prevent these incidents of violence. And so I would like to talk to you today about what the city of Albany is doing, and what partnerships you’re trying to work on to take a local approach to preventing gun violence. So with all that said, let’s start with what’s going on in your city.
Kathy Sheehan 03:24
Sure. And, you know, I really appreciate having the opportunity to talk about this issue, because there are diverse views and divergent views on what we do to address what is a plague of gun violence, I think that you cannot look at the numbers and not at least acknowledge the fact that we have seen an exponential increase in gun violence across this country. And so when you look at why, and you start to try to unpack the why of that, I look at it from the perspective of having a demand side and a supply side. So I think that we have challenges and we need to look at policy initiatives to address both this demand side, why is somebody picking up a gun? Why does somebody feel the need to arm themselves? Why is somebody engaging in illicit and illegal activity with a gun, right? That’s the demand side, I want a gun. And then you have the supply side. Why is it and how can it be so easy in a state like New York, which has some of the strictest rules of the road around gun ownership, that we still have this flood of guns in our community? And so in the city of Albany, we’ve seen like the rest of the country, a increase in gun violence that started around the time of the pandemic, we had had actually a pretty significant reduction in the city in the year prior to the pandemic and Then we saw an exponential increase in gun violence in our city, we were able to reduce that a little bit in 2021, we’ve continued to see a slight reduction in 2022 off of those 2021 numbers. But we also continue to make an unprecedented number of arrests. Last year, we took 200 illegal guns off the street. This year, we’re running 47%, ahead of where we were last year in taking illegal guns off the street. And we’re about almost 40% of were ahead of where we were last year in making arrests for people who are in possession illegally in guns. So it’s a very large problem.
Alexander Morse 05:43
It certainly is, and citing those numbers that you just used, it’s good that the violence related incidents are trending downward since the height in 2020. But it’s also corresponding with a greater number of arrests. What is it that you’re doing or that your administration is doing that’s related to this increase in arrests? Well, I
Kathy Sheehan 06:04
think we’re, we’re seeing more guns being carried around. And so when you when we are seeing incidents, where guns are being used, you know, it’s happening with more frequency. So just because we don’t have a victim that was actually shot by the gun, we have incidents that are taking place where people are in possession of guns, sometimes they’re firing those guns and causing property damage. And But thankfully, you know, nobody is being injured or killed. But you can only go for so long, right before a bullet does find a human target. And that is the concern that we have as policymakers is, you know, we had a tragic incident in this city many years ago, where a 10 year old girl who was just outside standing by her bike was killed Katina Thomas, we had a 14 year old who was killed last year in a homicide where it looks like it was a Facebook by gone wrong. And she just happened to be in the backseat of a car. So it is tragic when we see this and it’s shocking. When I look at a police report, and it’s a police report for shots fired. No human victims. But we will find 10 shell casings, 20 shell casings. And you think, how did that many bullets get fired, and nobody was hit. And I’m thankful for that. But it is also the reality that our police are dealing with day in and day out. And they’ve been successful and making arrests for a number of reasons. So in part, we have community cooperation, people in the community are sick and tired of people being shot, and they are sick and tired of the violence on their streets. And so we are getting community cooperation calls of we just saw somebody walked down the street and they had a gun. And whether that’s coming from a bystander who sees it, or a person who knows the individual who has the gun that is helping in the work that we’re doing. And we’re also laser focused on getting these guns off the street. And that has been a huge focus of our police department, particular detectives office.
Alexander Morse 08:31
I want to highlight this community participation just for one moment, what is the best resource for folks living in Albany to report sightings of guns or shootings.
Kathy Sheehan 08:41
So people can call our the police department directly, they can call the tips line, which is an anonymous number. So there are a number of ways that they can notify us that they are aware of a gun. Sometimes an individual is using a gun that belongs to a family member and the family member becomes aware of that when the gun has been moved or the gun is missing, which is why it is so important that people lock up their guns, if they have guns, if they legally own a gun, make sure that they understand their roles and responsibility and keeping that gun safe. But, you know, people reach out in a number of ways. Sometimes they will speak to one of our our police officers who’s just out on patrol and express a concern. And so that is how we are gathering information and people are tired. They’re tired of the violence.
Alexander Morse 09:39
gun safety protocol is critically important to preventing a lot of these preventable incidents and these preventable violence and deaths. We’ve talked kind of broadly about gun prevention policy and trying to seize weapons and get them off the street. Is there a targeted approach to different types of gun violence? So at the top of the podcast we met in homicides, suicides, domestic violence, is there. Is there like a one policy fits all approach? Or are there multiple levers?
Kathy Sheehan 10:08
Well, I think when you think about the various types of crimes that are committed with guns, that’s when you really do go to the demand side, why does somebody have a gun? You know, we had a tragic situation, where an individual, actually a gun, accidentally one off in their house struck a child in the house. But the person had that gun, because they were showing their 14 year old son how to use it. And they were giving that gun to a 14 year old to carry in his backpack, because they felt that the 14 year old needed that gun to protect himself from bullies. So think about that, just unpacking that. It is, is really, I think, an example of how complex this problem is, in our community and in communities across the country, a parent believing that their 14 year old needed a gun to protect themselves from bullying. And so I think you look at what happens in schools, and you look at what happens on, you know, a particular street and you look at what happens within a community. And there seems to be this sense across the country, that the solution is for everyone to go out and get a gun. And, you know, I empathize with people who feel unsafe, I empathize with folks who say, Hey, I’m seeing on the news, that there are guns everywhere, and that gun violence is happening, and I’m afraid so I need to go out and get the gun and get a gun to protect myself. And the challenge with that is that when we look at the data, we have all of these guns, and we have a significant increase in homicides and shootings across the country. So, you know, from a cause and effect standpoint, at least from where I sit, I don’t know that the guns are actually making us safer. I don’t think that that’s a very compelling argument. But we have to address the underlying issues around why people do feel that they need to have a gun to protect themselves. I think the other thing that we see happening is that you have a culture of guns and a culture of gun ownership, right. And that’s the cool thing, right? If got to have a gun. And what happens when people have guns is that we know, from the studies and sociologists, and you know that when people have guns, they behave differently, people are far less likely to back down from a fight, if they have a gun, they are far less likely to avoid conflict if they have a gun. And so we have seen homicides in this city, where a person was killed over taking a selfie with the wrong person. People have been killed over being disrespectful to somebody’s significant other or family member. You know, we have seen what would have escalated into people may be shouting at each other. Maybe, you know, having a fistfight resulting in shots being fired, multiple shots fired, and, you know, the attendant loss of life. So I you know, I think that, in looking at access to guns, that piece of it, the easy access that we have to guns from at least the perspective that we’re seeing, isn’t making us safer.
Alexander Morse 14:01
Yeah, you’re right. It’s such a complex policy problem, because it stems from so many different areas of why someone might want to gun why they have a gun, what altercation are they getting into or what what set them off that day to rise to that kind of level to take out a firearm and shoot someone? So we’ve we’ve covered that Albany has been seizing more guns over the last two years. And that, from your perspective, that access to guns is contributing to that problem. And so removing the guns of the Albany police department and Albany nonprofit organizations, you know, that’s one step. But your administrator, you and your administration only have so much jurisdictional control. How do you and your administration and your police force navigate that, you know, how are we coordinating with neighboring local governments?
Kathy Sheehan 14:50
So one of the things that we are doing is we’re partnering with the federal government with ATF FBI to very quickly analyze eyes. Anytime a gun is fired, and we find shell casings, you know, what type of gun are those shell casings coming from? Do they match a crime weapon, or a weapon that was used in a crime somewhere else. So we coordinate across the departments that, you know, the cities of Albany, Schenectady, and Troy, work very closely together, because again, it’s porous borders. And, you know, we have gun crimes that occur using the same gun in multiple communities. So, so that’s just basic law enforcement piece of it. I think, on the policy side, it is an example of what happens when, even though you have common sense, gun rules of the road and ownership rules of the road in New York state. Those don’t exist in every state, and our borders are porous. So every year when we take guns off the streets, typically the breakdown is roughly 70% of those guns come from outside of New York State, if we can find the origin of them. We’re seeing a growing number of ghost guns, we often find guns that have the serial number and the identifying information that has been filed off of it, which is why there’s a lot of interest in micro stamping, so that that can’t happen that you know, there is a way to trace where a gun came from. And we also have red flag laws here in New York State, which allow law enforcement to take a gun from somebody who is engaging in behaviors that might be of concern, whether it’s because of a mental health issue, domestic violence, or some other reason that illegal gun owner should not have access to their weapons. And again, there are guidelines in place rules of the road, procedures in place that give the person the opportunity to be heard. If they do not believe that their guns should be taken away, I am cognizant of the Second Amendment rights. But I think it’s important to realize until we have federal policies in place where the gun show loophole is closed across the country, where you have national gun registry, and, and are mandating background checks for anybody who is purchasing a gun, having red flag laws across the country, that we’re going to continue to see that notwithstanding the measures that we’ve put in place in New York State, we are going to have an increase in the number of guns making their way into our city,
Alexander Morse 17:41
I find that to be pretty fascinating, the concept of you know, we have 50 states 50 different ways to operate and legislate. And so those differences allow gaps to be had. And that’s why guns might be coming into New York that otherwise would not be, unfortunately, in the current political climate. It appears like a very heavy lift to get a national gun reform to cover all 50 states. I know Governor Hogan just recently announced a legislative package that going off of what you just said, of kind of restricting access to guns, raising the age from 18 to 21, in certain situations, getting a license to obtain semi automatic rifles. But it’s a challenge when you have to kind of work from a ground up approach. And so sticking with that notion of a local approach, you know, what are some we’ve talked about the benefits of working with your neighboring cities? Troy, Schenectady? What are some of the trade offs?
Kathy Sheehan 18:38
Well, I mean, I don’t really think that there are necessarily trade offs in working and collaborating together. I think that the, the frustration is with the this pipeline of guns that continue to come into our community. And there are those who say, you know, if somebody really wants to get their hands on a gun, they’re going to find a way to get their hands on the gun. You know, again, I think that that’s such a defeatist attitude. We can still work together to advocate and we do advocate as mayors together, we just circulated a sign on letter from mayors across the country through the US Conference of Mayors asking Congress to pass universal background checks. We want to see a cohesive, comprehensive approach that allows states the right to make their own decisions with respect to how they are going to deal with gun ownership in their states, but with a floor right below with which nobody can go yet can’t in your state have laws that allow somebody to buy a gun without getting a background check. And I think that that’s something that most Americans agree on and want to see happen. If somebody is experiencing mental health issues, if Somebody has threatened to kill a spouse, there should be the opportunity for law enforcement to step in and say, to a person in that state who owns a weapon, we’re going to hold on to your gun. Until we get through this crisis, right? We need to do some things here to make sure that it’s okay and you will be safe. And those around you will be safe. If you continue to possess a gun, I think you, you know, when we look at weighing the balance of individuals rights, under the Constitution, to own a gun, against what we are seeing in the carnage across this country, that we have to hit a pause button and come together and have our policymakers come together in our communities come together, and do all that we can to protect human life. And that’s the frustration that I see both on the part of those of us in local government, who, you know, notwithstanding taking 200 guns off the street, and you know, last year and taking even more this year, I still get those phone calls, right? That the phone is still going to ring about a homicide that occurs in the city of gun homicide that occurs in the city. And we all look at Mayor Brown and Buffalo. And as mayors, we say, I don’t ever want to have to do what he has to do, which is to try to help a community heal from a mass shooting. And when I think about what happened in Texas, as a mother as a grandmother, I think it’s time to hit the pause button and to work together, instead of posturing and scaring people and diving into this rhetoric about on both sides, right, that we have to come together and figure out what we can do to help preserve lives, we are losing far too many lives to guns. It’s a crisis.
Alexander Morse 22:12
It certainly is a crisis. Now, when you mentioned that there needs to be a sort of ground floor, there needs to be something that’s a national policy that can at least show direction to all states. What advice do you have for local governments working with those policies? You know, if, say, for example, in New York, that ground floor approach isn’t high enough? What can local governments do? What can your administration do to address gun violence in the policy realm,
Kathy Sheehan 22:46
so in the city of Albany, we did pass an ordinance around safe storage. So we do have safe storage, and a requirement that guns have a safety lock on them. So you know, I think that is something that you can do at the local level that we can do here in New York State, I have colleagues who are mayors in other states, where they are prohibited by their state constitutions from passing any restrictions or any laws around guns. So in New York State, we do have more flexibility than that. So I would encourage that, at least by passing those types of ordinances, you’re bringing attention to the importance of gun safety, and the importance of recognizing that with gun ownership comes responsibility, and that you can’t, under the Second Amendment, say I don’t have a responsibility to keep this gun out of the hands of people who might use it for illegal purposes, or I don’t have to worry about keeping it out of the hands of children. You know, those are things that we we say in New York State, you do have responsibility. And you need to recognize that you own a weapon that has the ability to kill people. And so with that comes some responsibility. So I would encourage policymakers across New York to look at the opportunity to pass those types of ordinances and regulations. And while it’s not going to end gun violence, again, it brings attention to the importance of being a responsible gun owner. I also think in New York State, for example, one of the things that is under attack is concealed carry. In New York State we say that in order to walk around with a weapon to be able to conceal a weapon and carry it with you. You have to meet a higher bar than just owning a gun. And we believe that that helps to keep people safe. And it does when you look at per capita in New York state we are one of the safest states when it comes to guns, because I believe we have some of the strictest To gun measures to try to keep people protected. So those are things that matter, and they do make a difference. And if in other states, they want to choose to have a different bar for being able to concealed carry Well, that’s a decision for that state to make. But New York has made a decision that I think helps to save lives and keep people safe.
Alexander Morse 25:23
Well, Mayor Sheehan, I don’t have any more questions for you really, thank you for your time, we’ve learned a lot about what the city of Albany is doing in terms of its approach to getting guns off the streets, and thus reducing gun violence and gun related incidents. And what policymakers can be doing to do a state level or a federal level policy that can help raise the bar and the ground floor for not restricting access to guns, but reducing the number of preventable deaths, preventable injuries, and making sure that it’s responsible gun owners that have guns, not those who may be a danger to themselves or to others. So if you have anything else that you’d like to part with,
Kathy Sheehan 26:01
well, I think that this is just such an important issue. It is literally tearing apart families across our country. And we need to do better, we need to do more, we can’t just say this is the price of the Second Amendment. This has not been the price of the Second Amendment, historically, the number of mass shootings is on the increase the number of shootings is on the increase. And I for one, know that we are better than this. This is not the norm. And I remind people all the time, you know, back in 2014, and 2015, we went nearly 18 months in the city of Albany without a single homicide. This is not normal. And we if we think that it is and we normalize the numbers of shootings and the use of guns to solve petty disputes, I think that we, you know, it, that’s a cynical approach. And I think that if we come together as a community, and deal with the demand side, and work on that within our community, but then also call on our policy leaders at the federal level, to deal with the supply side, and to address this issue of the proliferation of guns coming into our community that we can be hopeful about the future.
Alexander Morse 27:22
Thanks again to Mayor Sheehan, for taking the time to join the podcast to discuss the state of gun violence in the city of Albany and what her administration is doing to mitigate the harm that stems from the illicit use of firearms, and what policy directions are needed to help local governments combat illegal firearm activity. If you suspect someone may have an illegal firearm or is using or planning to use a firearm illegally, there are multiple resources available to report it to law enforcement, including ReportIt, which directs tips to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and Crimestoppers which has local chapters throughout the country. Both of these services provide anonymity for those submitting tips. Please also visit your local law enforcement website and see if there are resources to report illegal firearm activity. As Mayor Sheehan mentioned, community involvement is a huge part of solving the gun violence crisis. It is important for policymakers and communities to work collaboratively to develop and implement both top down and ground up policies to help secure public safety. If you’re interested in learning more about gun policy and gun violence prevention, please check out our website and research. The Rockefeller Institute is the home of the Regional Gun Violence Research Consortium, a coalition of gun violence researchers and practitioners from eight states and territories, including Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Puerto Rico. The consortium aims to inform policymakers and the public by providing evidence-based data driven policy recommendations to disrupt the cycle of firearm-involved homicides, suicides, and injuries. You can check out these resources by visiting our website at rockinst.org/gun-violence. If you liked this episode, please rate subscribe and share. It will help others find the podcast and help us deliver the latest in public policy research. All of our episodes are available for free wherever you stream your podcasts. Special thanks to Rockefeller Institute staff, Joel Tirado, Heather Trela, and Laura Schultz for their contributions to this episode. Thanks for listening. I’m Alex Morse. Until next time.
Policy Outsider is presented by the Rockefeller Institute of Government, the public policy research arm of the State University of New York. The Institute conducts cutting-edge nonpartisan public policy research and analysis to inform lasting solutions to the challenges facing New York state and the nation to learn more at rockinst.org or by following RockefellerInst, that’s I-N-S-T on social media. Have a question, comment or idea? Email us at [email protected]
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