New York state gun laws prevented potential shooting at Syracuse University

NY state gun laws prevented potential SU shooting

Police believe gun shop owner's reluctance to sell student a gun may have thwarted a mass shooting.
Published: May 18, 2018

A Syracuse University student was turned away from AJ’s Archery and Gun Shop on March 12 after trying to buy a gun he said was for hunting. Since that day, store owner John Laubscher has received thousands of notes thanking him for his actions, which authorities believe may have prevented a mass shooting on the Syracuse campus.

Laubscher’s decision to contact police was prompted by several red flags, and ultimately led to the student, Xiaotang Zahn, being expelled from the university and deported from the United States.

While U.S. citizens automatically have the right to purchase guns, in New York State, non-citizens must provide cause. Zhan, who is from China, presented a hunting license as reason for purchasing the gun. But Laubscher knew it wasn’t hunting season. That, combined with Zahn’s behavior, gave him pause. Laubscher said Zhan seemed “extremely satisfied he had that piece of paper,” and that he had clearly gone out of his way to procure it.

SU student Hunter Currie described the process of getting a gun in Syracuse “very extensive.” Currie said he first handled a gun when he was 7 years old, and eventually went on to own guns himself, completing a background check that he said took about an hour. According to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, getting a hunting license requires at least a seven-hour course, homework outside of class and a 50-question exam at the end.

“I know a lot of people who decide just to not even buy guns anymore, just because they don’t want to deal with the background check,” Currie said. “It’s more so about them feeling that the government is always checking up on them and they want to avoid as much information as possible.”

When Laubscher asked Zhan why he had driven the 30 minutes to his store in Nelson, he said it had been too difficult to buy a gun in Syracuse. But Laubscher said the process for buying a gun is the same in both places.

New York state has what Gov. Andrew Cuomo has called the strictest gun laws in the nation under the SAFE Act, which was passed in the wake of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut that left 20 children and six adults dead.

The SAFE Act bans the sale of assault weapons, which Laubscher described as “semi-automatic rifles” that can shoot more rounds, from a longer distance than other guns. The SAFE Act implemented universal background checks and mandated that guns cannot be sold to felons, or those who have been involuntarily committed to a psychiatric facility.

But State Sen. John A. DeFrancisco, who represents western Onondaga County and eastern Cayuga County, said New York state gun laws didn’t play a role in preventing the potential shooting.

“Very few laws have anything to do with people acting responsibly and people doing the right thing by common sense and logic,” DeFrancisco said.

Infographic: Gun Violence in Syracuse and America.

DeFrancisco criticized the SAFE act for certain provisions that he said fail to prevent gun violence. Under a 2013 law, gun ownership is a public record unless individuals opt-out. DeFrancisco said such records are an advertisement for burglars who want to get guns illegally.

Another section of the law, which has since been suspended, limited gun owners to seven rounds of ammunition. The penalty for having more rounds is a misdemeanor.

“Tell me, what maniac who’s gonna go enter a school, is gonna give a damn that it’s a misdemeanor charge because he’s got too many bullets with him,” DeFrancisco said.

Under New York law, after a background check is conducted, the government can either approve, deny, or delay the purchase. However, if the purchase is delayed and authorities fail to respond within three days, the sale can proceed.

“I knew if I had gone to the (federal authorities), there’d be many days in that process and it just wouldn’t have quick enough action,” Laubscher said.  “The good thing is, I knew the guys that I talked to in the sheriff’s department. We never cry wolf, we only have called them with real issues, and I assumed they would take this seriously.”

Laubscher said he’s only spoken to police about customers three times before, one of which was a routine government test.

Shortly after trying to purchase a gun, Zhan went on spring break in Mexico, giving authorities time to track down his medical records and get a search warrant, according to Syracuse.com. He’d sought treatment for mental health issues before, but he did so voluntarily, so when Laubscher searched for Zhan in the database, there was no indication that he shouldn’t be sold a gun.

“It would’ve been nice if there was something in place where he could go to the … be put on a no-purchase list,” Laubscher said.

According to The New York Times, New York state already has some of the strictest laws in the U.S. regarding regarding mental illness and gun ownership. The SAFE Act calls for mental health professionals to report patients “likely to engage in conduct that would result in serious harm to self or others.” Since the law was passed, 34,500 patients have been entered into a no-gun database, the New York Times reported.

Some mental health professionals feel that reporting patients to the database is too much of a guessing game.

“The threshold for reporting is so low that it essentially advertises that psychiatrists are mandatory reporters for anybody who expresses any kind of dangerousness,” Mark J. Russ, director of acute care psychiatry at Zucker Hillside Hospital in Glen Oaks, Queens, told the New York Times

There’s also the issue of privacy—mentally ill patients may experience further stigmatization when their names and medical records are filed in a federal database.

Currie, who is from nearby Tully, New York, said that most people in his town have guns.

Currie, DeFrancisco, and Laubscher agreed that it takes a combination of government legislation and collective action among individuals to prevent gun violence.

“We don’t want anyone to have guns that are going to use them in the wrong way,” Laubscher said. “This was a good thing that happened, that this was stopped long before it became anything. And it may make some new legislation that helps it along in the future.”

Avatar for Emily Kelleher

is a contributor to The NewsHouse at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.