The Sullivan Act is a gun control law in New York State that took effect in 1911. The law required licenses for New Yorkers to possess firearms small enough to be concealed. Private possession of such firearms without a license was a misdemeanor, and carrying them in public was a felony. The act was named for its primary legislative sponsor, state senator Timothy Sullivan, a notoriously corrupt Tammany Hall politician.
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.
Sullivan introduced the legislation "partly in response to a marked increase in highly publicized violent street crime below Fourteenth Street." Sullivan and other prominent New Yorkers were under public pressure to act, 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. The law went into effect on August 31, 1911.
The law also made it a felony to own or sell other items defined as dangerous weapons, including "blackjacks, bludgeons, sandbags, sandclubs, billies, slungshots and metal knuckles."
According to Richard F. Welch, who wrote a 2009 biography of Sullivan, "all the available evidence indicates that Tim's fight to bring firearms under control sprang from heartfelt conviction." At the time, "some complained that the law would only succeed in disarming lawful citizens, while others suspected that Sullivan was just trying to rein in the thugs on his own payroll." Lawman Bat Masterson, a friend of Sullivan's, criticized the law as "obnoxious" and said that he questioned Sullivan's mental state of mind over the law.
New York City license holders
In New York State, apart from New York City, the practices for the issuance of concealed carry licenses vary from county to county.
In New York City, the licensing authority is the police department, which rarely issues carry licenses to anyone except retired police officers, or those who can describe why the nature of their employment (for example, a diamond merchant who regularly carries gemstones, or a district attorney who regularly prosecutes dangerous criminals) requires carrying a concealed handgun. Critics of the law have alleged that New Yorkers with political influence, wealth, or celebrity appear to be issued licenses more liberally. The New York Post, the New York Sun, and other newspapers have periodically obtained the list of licensees through Freedom of Information Act 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.
In the case Kachalsky v. Cacace (2012), a unanimous panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit upheld the constitutionality of the Sullivan Act, and rejected challengers' positions that New York state handgun law violates the Second and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution.
The first person convicted under the law was an Italian immigrant named Marino Rossi who was travelling to a job interview and carrying a revolver for fear of the Black Hand. At sentencing the judge declared: "It is unfortunate that this is the custom with you and your kind, and that fact, combined with your irascible nature, furnishes much of the criminal business in this country." Prior to Marino's arrest, others had been arrested under the new law but were released without charges. Whether this was part of the law's intent, it was passed on a wave of anti-immigrant and anti-Italian rhetoric as a measure to disarm an alleged criminal element. The police department who granted the licenses could easily discriminate against "undesirable" elements. Days before the law took effect The New York Times published an article saying "Low-browed foreigners bargained for weapons of every description and gloated over their good fortune in hearing of the drop in the gun market before it was too late". After Rossi's conviction The New York Times called this "warning to the Italian community" both "timely and exemplary".
According to New York City historian George Lankevich, the Act was passed so that Sullivan could have friends in the police force plant handguns on his rivals and take them to jail.
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- Kachalsky v. Cacace, 701 F.3d 81 (2d Cir. 2012).
- Michael Waldman, The Second Amendment: A Biography (Simon & Schuster, 2014), p. 147.
- Celeste Katz, Court of Appeals Panel Upholds Constitutionality of NY Restrictions on Concealed Weapon Permits, New York Daily News (November 27, 2012).
- "FIRST CONVICTION UNDER WEAPON LAW; Judge Foster Gives Marino Rossi One Year for Arming Himself Against Black Handers". New York Times. 28 September 1911.
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- "BARGAINS IN GUNS AT THE PAWNSHOPS; Rush in the Bowery and Other Quarters to Sell Off Revolvers Before Friday". New York Times. August 30, 1911.
- "The Rossi Pistol Case". New York Times. September 29, 1911.
Judge FOSTER did well in sentencing to one year in Sing Sing MARINO ROSSI, who carried a revolver because, as he said, it was the custom of himself and his hot-headed countrymen to have weapons concealed upon their persons. The Judge's warning to the Italian community was timely and exemplary.
- Lankevich, George J. (2002). "Governing the World's Greatest City". New York City: A Short History. NYU Press. p. 140. ISBN 978-0-8147-5186-2.