The Sullivan Act is a gun control law in New York State that took effect in 1911. 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. 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.
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.
In addition to handguns the Sullivan Act prohibits 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”.
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.” Sullivan’s contemporaries disagreed with this assessment and saw the law as disarming lawful citizens or a way for Sullivan to guaranteed his bodyguards could be legally armed while using the law against his political opponents.  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 (Sullivan was committed to a mental institution two years later).
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, 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.The New York Court System holds the Second Amendment as inapplicable to the states.
Many believe the act was to discriminate against immigrants in New York, particularly Italians, as 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 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”.
New York City historian George Lankevich states that the act was passed so that Sullivan could have friends in the police force plant handguns on his rivals and take them to jail.
Statistics showed that after the act passed that gun murders in New York City had risen 18 percent.
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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.
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