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Taking Aim at Illegal Guns

by Courtney Gross, Jul 11, 2007
 

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On many nights Shaun Cheeseboro is awakened at 1 a.m., 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. by the cacophony of gunfire.

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A 22-year-old resident of a New York City Housing Authority project on the Lower East Side, Cheeseboro, who just graduated from college with a degree in anthropology, vows to move out of the neighborhood by November. The gunfire and violence that saturate the streets where he grew up, Cheeseboro said, are far from welcoming.

"I'll go about my day as long as I'm home by 10 p.m., because I'm afraid I'll get shot," said Cheeseboro at a recent town hall meeting on violence in lower Manhattan's housing projects.

Cheeseboro is not alone. Gunfire still echoes through many city streets, even though New York City has what are widely believed to be the most stringent gun control laws in the country.

Faced with this paradox, residents and city officials contend that the guns come from other municipalities and from states with far less restrictive laws, where dealers can buy weapons in bulk and illegally sell them here. And so Mayor Michael Bloomberg has expanded his fight against crime far beyond the city’s borders. He is trying to get illegal guns off streets in New York City by lobbying for legislation in Washington and using covert sting operations to track down so-called rogue gun dealers, mostly in the South. People on all sides of the issue agree that Bloomberg has become the mouthpiece for gun control on the national level. But beyond attracting attention, has his campaign produced any real results?

Crime in New York

New York City has come a long way since 1990. With crime nearing a low not seen in years, recently released statistics from the Federal Bureau of Investigation show the city is the safest of any large metropolis in the country.

While violent crime increases across the nation, New York City's rate fell 4.6 percent in 2006 compared to 2005. Although the city's murder rate rose last year, it is down roughly 74 percent from 1990, according to the New York City Police Department.

Though violence is declining, illegal guns still extract a hefty toll in the city, officials said. In the first half of 2007, the police department’s Deputy Commissioner of Public Information Paul J. Browne said, illegal guns were used in 67 percent of the 232 murders that occurred.

In testimony before a House of Representatives subcommittee last year, Bloomberg said more than 300 people died by the trigger of an illegal gun in New York City in 2005. And, according to Bloomberg, 82 percent of the guns used in crimes in the city were purchased outside of the state.

While some neighborhoods are certainly far safer than others, no neighborhood, street or block is immune from violence. And a bullet can strike at anytime (a weapon was recently fired in Cheeseboro’s neighborhood in broad daylight striking one resident several times).

Tracing Guns

In an effort to stop the shooting, Bloomberg, along with Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, spearheaded Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a bipartisan coalition that in just a little more than a year has attracted more than 225 mayors in more than 40 states. Aimed at eradicating the illegal gun trade, the coalition is intent on repealing the Tiahrt Amendment, which restricts law enforcement’s access to data, compiled by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, tracing firearms across the country.

Currently, law enforcement officials can use the tracing data only to investigate a specific crime. For instance, when a gun is picked up at a crime scene, the police department can use the bureau's information to trace the origin of that specific weapon. But, under the amendment, police are unable to look at other data to spot trends or isolate problematic dealers, city officials said.

This was not the case before 2003, when the amendment was first included in a federal appropriations bill. Then, the police department "could use data from all crime guns (which the federal government once provided) to detect patterns of crime gun purchases … from certain gun dealers in certain states," Browne stated in an e-mail. "The information could be used to detect, for example, that a gun trafficker in New York was using one or multiple out-of-state dealers to supply a variety of criminals in the city. Without the overall data, patterns like that may be missed."

Eleven national police organizations have sided with the mayors’ coalition to oppose the amendment and so have dozens of state and local groups, including the New York Association of Chiefs of Police, according to the coalition. New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly has called the restricted data "critically important to the work of law enforcement as we seek to identify where illegal guns are sold and how they wind up in the hands of criminals."

If the amendment were defeated, the coalition contends, data could be shared among law enforcement agencies across state borders to identify those dealers whose weapons account for the majority of gun crimes in America. The last time such data was available, almost five years ago, 1 percent of gun dealers accounted for weapons used in 60 percent of gun crimes nationwide, according to the mayors' coalition.

Gun associations and some members of Congress argue opening up the data would deteriorate the Second Amendment's guarantee for a citizen to possess a firearm and an individual’s right to privacy.

“Mayor Bloomberg and the coalition have been lying to the American public,” said Tom King, president of the New York State Rifle and Pistol Association, which boasts 40,000 members throughout the state. “They have always had access to the trace data as long as there was an ongoing criminal investigation. What they are trying to do is get unlimited access to information that has been off limits for years. It’s an invasion of privacy.”

For weeks before the Senate committee vote last month, the mayors’ coalition ran commercials in influential districts in an attempt to persuade certain legislators to open up the tracing data. But in late June, the Senate Appropriations Committee rebuffed the coalition’s appeal and instead strengthened the amendment. It passed a measure, proposed by Republican Richard Shelby of Alabama, that would make law enforcement officials subject to prison sentences if they used trace data from the bureau for anything but a specific investigation.

The House Appropriations Committee is scheduled to consider a similar amendment this week.

In a sharply-worded statement responding to the Senate committee’s action, Bloomberg said, “This version of the Tiahrt Amendment is worse than anything we’ve ever seen – and it’s a slap in the face to the men and women who put on a uniform every day and risk their lives to protect us.”

Gun control advocates see the committee vote as a decisive blow to the mayor’s campaign and as another sign of Washington’s long-standing resistance to taking on the gun industry and its lobbyists. For their part, gun organizations hailed the decision as a victory for what they view as their Second Amendment rights.

The Sting

But Bloomberg has not been content to simply lobby on the issues. In the spring of 2006, he sent private, undercover detectives to five states to target gun dealers who had sold weapons allegedly used to commit crimes in New York City, officials said.

The dealers allegedly participated in straw purchases, or sales made to a third party representing someone who would not pass a background check because he or she is a convicted felon. The investigators, city officials said, wore hidden cameras. One investigator inquired about a gun, then the other individual filled out the federal paperwork for a background check.

The investigations in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, South Carolina and Georgia resulted in lawsuits against 27 dealers filed in two rounds, one in May and the other in December of 2006. Nearly half of the dealers have since settled with the city and agreed to have their businesses supervised for federal compliance by a special master selected by the city and approved by the court. The special master closely monitors the dealers' sale activities and is paid for by the city.

The settlements, which found the dealers sold firearms in violation of federal and state statutes, also sets up a fee structure for future violations ranging from $1,000 for the first offense to $3,000 for the third and subsequent offenses, according to the city.

But some in federal and state government, in Virginia in particular, are fighting the sting operations. The Justice Department has requested the Bloomberg administration "cease and desist" with their covert criminal investigations.

To prevent more Bloomberg-backed lawsuits against local gun dealers, several states are considering allowing only law enforcement – and not private investigators – to conduct investigations of straw purchases. Virginia Governor Tim Kaine signed legislation in March that prohibits anyone but law enforcement from attempting to buy a firearm through illegal tactics. Violators could face up to five years in prison.

One organization in Virginia specifically held a gun raffle in defiance of the metropolitan mayor’s gun control initiative.

The Reaction at Home

Back in New York, though, many applaud the mayor’s tactics.

"He is national leader on the issue, and he has stepped in where Washington has failed,” said Jackie Kuhls, executive director of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence. “Going out to the source of gun crime is critical. If you only wait for someone to be dead from a gunshot, that's too late.”

But such acclaim is not universal. Some gun dealers in the five boroughs said Bloomberg’s efforts in and out of the metropolitan area inhibit law-abiding citizens from owning a handgun.

From his store in Staten Island, which has sold firearms for seven years, Dino Longueira said acquiring a handgun in the city is complicated and exhaustive (most of the time it takes more than six months for a permit to go through). “You have to be somewhat of a paralegal to even go through the process,” said Longueira. “It’s designed in my opinion to discourage people. … I can’t imagine how more restrictive licensing of citizens has anything to do with the drop in crime.”

Bloomberg’s crusade, Longueira said, has assisted the National Rifle Association’s argument: that more restrictions tear away, piece by piece, at the Second Amendment.

But Bob Derrig, a co-owner of West Side Rifle & Pistol Range in Manhattan, said despite the “sneaky” tactics, he agrees with Bloomberg in getting illegal handguns off the street. “Every time they put a new law in it annoys you sometimes, but you get used to it,” said Derrig. “No illegal guns are sold from dealers in New York City. However that doesn't say that a gun I sell to an individual isn’t used in a crime after it's stolen.”

Greater enforcement of the city’s already-established laws goes hand in hand with the gun regulations, he added.

Local political leaders have backed the Bloomberg agenda and readily passed initiatives further restricting access to guns. The City Council worked with Bloomberg to establish the first metropolitan registry of gun offenders, while it also condemned a proposed gun-themed restaurant in Times Square backed by the National Rifle Association. (The NRA eventually abandoned the idea.)

After Councilmember James Davis was killed at City Hall in 2003, the council was even more eager to support gun control initiatives and explored making gun manufacturers liable for gun-related deaths.

A National Agenda

For his efforts, Bloomberg has been demonized on pro-gun blogs and chastised in conservative editorial pages.

But others have congratulated the mayor for his gun control crusade. “He gets five stars all the way across the board,” said Professor Eugene O’Donnell of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “He is a national leader. It’s really a disgrace that he has to be the leader that he has been.”

Bloomberg’s actions have helped fuel speculation that the mayor is seeking the White House. As he chastises a partisan Congress for not doing more to curb guns - among other things – some see him adding to his national profile and building support for a presidential run.

Living In Fear

Back on the Lower East Side, residents who have seen the toll of gun violence for decades have more immediate concerns. They want more law enforcement, safer streets and quieter nights -- now.

The guns in their neighborhood, some residents said, are illegal and come from locations outside of New York, like New Jersey and Philadelphia. They want more police to halt the illegal activity.

Although Cheeseboro plans on getting out, he worries about his two brothers --– teenage boys surrounded by gunfire and at risk of joining the area’s gangs. "I fear for them constantly," said Cheeseboro. “Shootings happen often. I think everyone in the neighborhood is afraid.”

The violence may not mirror that of the 1990s. But advocates said the nation must do more to end the shooting. “There are still children that go to sleep to the sound of gunfire," said Kuhls of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence. "We still have residents that live in fear. The mayor understands that.”

 


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