The Sullivan Act, also known as the Sullivan Law, is a gun control law in New York State. Upon first passage, the Sullivan Act required licenses for New Yorkers to possess firearms small enough to be concealed. Possession of such firearms without a license was a misdemeanor, and carrying them was a felony. The possession or carrying of weapons such as brass knuckles, sandbags, blackjacks, bludgeons or bombs was a felony, as was possessing or carrying a dagger, "dangerous knife" or razor "with intent to use the same unlawfully". Named for its primary legislative sponsor, state senator Timothy Sullivan, a notoriously corrupt Tammany Hall politician, it dates to 1911, and is still in force, making it one of the older existing gun control laws in the United States.
The law went into effect on August 31, 1911, and resulted from political pressure upon prominent New Yorkers, including Sullivan, in the form of letters and recommendations from George Petit le Brun, who worked in the city's coroner's office, after a "brazen early afternoon" murder-suicide near Gramercy Park. He "reasoned that the time had come to have legislation passed that would prevent the sale of pistols to irresponsible persons." Only five state Senators voted against it. According to Richard F. Welch who wrote a 2009 biography of Sullivan, "If there were political benefits from doing the right thing, what was the problem? But all the available evidence indicates that Tim's fight to bring firearms under control sprang from heartfelt conviction."
For handguns, the Sullivan Act qualifies as a may issue act, meaning the local police have discretion to issue a concealed carry license, as opposed to a shall issue act, in which state authorities must give a concealed handgun license to any person who satisfies specific criteria, often a background check and a safety class.
New York City license holders
Outside of New York City, the practices for the issuance of concealed carry licenses vary from county to county within New York State. In New York City, the licensing authority is the police department, which rarely issues carry licenses to anyone except retired police officers, celebrities, or others with political connections. Critics of the law have alleged that New Yorkers with political influence, wealth, or celebrity appear to be issued licenses more liberally. In recent years, the New York Post, the New York Sun, and other newspapers have periodically obtained the list of licensees through Freedom of Information Law requests and have published the names of individuals they consider to be wealthy, famous, or politically connected that have been issued carry licenses by the city police department.
Some question the constitutionality of the act, due to the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. While the Supreme Court has only recently ruled that the Second Amendment prevents localities from enacting outright handgun bans, (See: Incorporation), the question of whether the Second Amendment provides grounds to invalidate local gun control laws like the Sullivan Act may be addressed given the recent decision by the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in Parker v. District of Columbia, which was affirmed by the Supreme Court in the case District of Columbia v. Heller. Other critics have argued the arbitrary nature of the law violates New York State constitution protections of due process and equal justice.
Many believe the act was to discriminate against immigrants in New York, particularly Italians, as the first person arrested under the law was mobster Giuseppe Costabile. Whether this was part of the law's intent, it was passed on a wave of anti-immigrant rhetoric as a measure to disarm an alleged criminal element. The police granted the licenses, and could easily discriminate against "undesirable" elements.
Statistics showed that gun murders in New York had risen 50 percent from 1910–1911; indeed, in 1910, mayor William Jay Gaynor was shot and seriously wounded (he later died from the wound; see Timeline of New York City crimes and disasters), and there were public calls for regulation of handguns.
- Duffy, Peter. "100 Years Ago, the Shot That Spurred New York's Gun-Control Law", New York Times (January 23, 2011)
- Snyder, Jeffrey R. "Fighting Back: Crime, Self-Defense, and the Right to Carry a Handgun" at Cato.org
- Faherty, Christopher. "Concealed Pistols Permits Drop in City" New York Sun (August 29, 2007)
- Kates, Don B., Jr. "The battle over gun control" The Public Interest, No. 84, Summer 1986, p.42-52
- Novak, Suzanne. "Why the New York State System for Obtaining a License to Carry a Concealed Weapon is Unconstitutional", Fordham Urban Law Journal (November, 1998)