Sullivan Act

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. 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.


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.[1]

In addition to handguns, the Sullivan Act prohibits the possession or carrying of weapons such as brass knuckles, sandbags, blackjacks, bludgeons or bombs, as well as possessing or carrying a dagger, "dangerous knife" or razor "with intent to use the same unlawfully". Violation of any of the prohibitions is a felony.[2]

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."[3] Sullivan's contemporaries disagreed with this assessment and saw the law as disarming lawful citizens or as a way for Sullivan to guarantee his bodyguards could be legally armed while using the law against his political opponents.[4] [1] 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. [2]

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; a district attorney who regularly prosecutes dangerous criminals, etc.) 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.[5] 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 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.[6][7]


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 2008 Supreme Court case District of Columbia v. Heller affirming the decision by the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in Parker v. District of Columbia. Other critics have argued the arbitrary nature of the law violates New York State constitution protections of due process and equal justice.[8] The New York Court System holds the Second Amendment as inapplicable to the states.[9]

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".[10] 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".[11] Prior to Marino's arrest, others had been arrested under the new law but were released without charges.[12] 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.[13] The police department who granted the licenses could easily discriminate against "undesirable" elements.[13] 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".[14] After Rossi's conviction the New York Times called this "warning to the Italian community" both "timely and exemplary".[15]

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.[16]

Statistics showed that after the act passed that gun murders in New York City had risen 18 percent.[17]

See also


  1. 1 2 Helferich, Gerard (8 October 2013). Theodore Roosevelt and the Assassin: Madness, Vengeance, and the Campaign of 1912. Lyons Press. p. 68. ISBN 978-0-7627-8299-4.
  2. 1 2 DeArment, Robert K. (2013). Gunfighter in Gotham: Bat Masterson's New York City Years. University of Oklahoma Press. p. 90. ISBN 978-0-8061-8909-3.
  3. Duffy, Peter. "100 Years Ago, the Shot That Spurred New York's Gun-Control Law", New York Times (January 23, 2011)
  4. Czitrom, Dan. Underworld and Underdogs: Big Tim Sullivan and Metropolitan Politics in New York, 1889-1913. Journal of American History. 78.2. (1992)
  5. Snyder, Jeffrey R. "Fighting Back: Crime, Self-Defense, and the Right to Carry a Handgun" at
  6. Faherty, Christopher. "Concealed Pistols Permits Drop in City" New York Sun (August 29, 2007)
  7. Kates, Don B., Jr. "The battle over gun control" The Public Interest, No. 84, Summer 1986, p.42-52
  8. 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)
  9. Halbrook, Stephen P. (2013). That Every Man Be Armed: The Evolution of a Constitutional Right. Revised and Updated Edition. UNM Press. p. 208. ISBN 978-0-8263-5299-6.
  10. "FIRST CONVICTION UNDER WEAPON LAW; Judge Foster Gives Marino Rossi One Year for Arming Himself Against Black Handers". New York Times. 28 September 1911.
  11. Roberts, Sam (March 2, 1992). "METRO MATTERS; 50 Years of Crime, and Stereotypes". New York Times.
  12. Wrightington, Sydney Russell; Fuller, Horace Williams; Spencer, Arthur Weightman; Thomas Tileston Baldwin (1911). "The Sullivan Pistol Law". The Green Bag. 23. Boston Book Company. p. 608.
  13. 1 2 Ph.D., Gregg Lee Carter (2012). Guns in American Society: An Encyclopedia of History, Politics, Culture, and the Law [3 volumes]. ABC-CLIO. p. 1030. ISBN 978-0-313-38671-8.
  14. "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.
  15. "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.
  16. 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.
  17. Kelleher, Myles J. (2004). Social Problems in a Free Society: Myths, Absurdities, and Realities. University Press of America. p. 188. ISBN 978-0-7618-2924-9.
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