Gene Lopez, Francesco Catarisano, Oleg Chernyavsky, Steve Wasserman, George A. Grasso, Michael Nussbaum, Larry Cunningham, Dozier Hasty, Brian Brown. Photos by Andy Katz
BY NATHAN DUKE
Experts from various legal backgrounds discussed the relevance of the Second Amendment and gun-related violence during a forum held on Jan. 24 by the PRESS of Southeast Queens at St. John’s University.
The event was inspired by the mass shooting in Las Vegas on Oct. 1 and an editorial that followed by the PRESS of Southeast Queen that addressed gun violence in the United States. The forum was co-sponsored by St. John’s, the Brooklyn Eagle and Queens Bar Association.
The panel at the event—which was held at St. John’s Little Theatre—included the Hon. George Grasso, a supervising judge in the Criminal Court of the City of New York; Hon. Gene Lopez, a supervising judge in Queens County’s Criminal Term; Assistant Queens District Attorney Francesco Catarisano; Steve Wasserman, Esq., of the Legal Aid Society; and Oleg Chernyavsky, Esq., who is in the city Police Department’s Legislative Affairs.
Larry Cunningham—a professor of legal writing and director for the Center for Trial and Appellate Advocacy at St. John’s University School of Law—was the moderator for the panel.
Panelists discussed a variety of topics, including the relevance of the Second Amendment in modern society, gun violence statistics, laws from other states that affect New York’s gun laws, crime statistics relating to guns in the five boroughs and courts’ modern interpretation of the Second Amendment’s usage of the term “well-regulated militia.”
“Gun violence in the United States is a major, major problem,” Grasso said. “As of Jan. 24, we’ve had 11 separate shootings at schools in this country. This is not normal, nor should it be accepted as normal. But I think [the Second Amendment] is relevant because it is part of the Constitution, whether people agree or disagree with it.”
Lopez said he has noticed that jurors in cases over which he has presided typically favor the right to bear arms, although they vary in regards to gun control.
“Largely, jurors have a deep respect for the Second Amendment [and] recognize it as a right of Americans, but also that it needs to be regulated,” Lopez said.
Catarisano said that the Second Amendment is still relevant to most Americans, but that gun control is necessary—albeit in a manner that is not too intrusive.
“I think the NRA loves it when people say we don’t need the Second Amendment—then, they get on their high horse,” he said. “We need to control through regulation that is meaningful without being overbearing. You’ll never see guns disappear in this country.”
All of the panelists pointed out that New York State is among a handful of states that have the strictest gun laws in the nation. They also pointed to the decrease in violent crimes in New York City in recent years, attributing at least part of the drop to lesser guns being on its streets.
In the early 1990s, panelists pointed out, New York City frequently saw anywhere from 2,000 to 2,500 homicides per year.
In 2015, there were 352 murders in the five boroughs, of which 67 percent involved firearms, Chernyavsky said. A total of 335 homicides were recorded for 2016, of which 60 percent were carried out with guns. Last year, there were 292 homicides in New York City and 52 percent of them involved handguns.
“We’re seeing a reduction in homicides and a reduction of firearms,” Chernyavsky said.
Chernyavsky pointed out that New York City was bucking a national trend that has seen an increase in gun violence, with approximately 73 percent of homicides in 2016 nationwide involving handguns.
However, Chernyavsky said he feared that the city’s drop in gun violence could be challenged by legislation that has been proposed by members of congress—for example, a bill that would allow individuals who are licensed to own a gun to be able to carry a concealed weapon in any state.
“Thirteen states are called ‘constitutional carry states’ because you don’t need a permit,” he said. “They’ll be allowed to come to New York City and would only need to carry a license. It would be an operational nightmare for the Police Department.”
Chernyavsky also pointed out another law that allows people to travel through the state with a weapon as long as it is securely kept in their vehicle. He added that new laws are being proposed that would enable such people to stay overnight in the state, rather than just merely pass through.
“The rate of gratuitous violence is worse where loaded guns are carried in public,” Wasserman said. “There’s a clamor in the Supreme Court to carry guns in restrictive states. We might find ourselves in a battle to hold on to restrictive laws.”
Members of the panel said that legislators should also focus on proposing bills that would ban such things as high-capacity magazines, silencers or bump stocks, which can turn a gun into an automatic weapon.
“Why would any citizen need a silencer?” asked Catarisano. “This could turn New York City back to the bad old days of the 1980s, when there were 2,500 homicides a year. As an assistant district attorney, I once responded to 15 homicides in one night.”
One of the questions from the forum’s attendees was whether the original language in the Second Amendment regarding a “well-regulated militia”—which was originally written in the wake of the Revolutionary War—still applied. Catarisano said that he was unaware of any states having a militia, but that the Second Amendment otherwise remained relevant.
A student from St. John’s in the audience asked whether the panelists were being too “New York-centric” in their approach to the topic, especially considering that the state has some of the nation’s most restrictive gun laws. The questioner asked how the evening’s topic could be applied to another city—such as Chicago—that was surrounded by gun-friendly states.
“You can compare New York to Chicago—we were Chicago,” Catarisano said. “At one time, we were in the top five most dangerous. Now, we’re not in the top 30. In cities over a million people, we’re the safest.”
Grasso added that the panel was taking a “New York-centric” approach because they believed the state’s laws should be emulated by others.
“I think New York, over the last 25 years, has shown a constitutional model,” he said. “We’ve put a tremendous amount of resources into public safety.”