Melissa Gayle, 10th grader at Washington Irving High School who spent her spare time doing charity work with a religious group in the Bronx, was on her way to get a snack near her home in East Harlem one evening in October, when she was shot dead by a single, stray bullet.
It is difficult to call her random murder commonplace in New York City. One could almost be comforted by the recent improvement in the statistics â€“ shootings in the city decreased from 2,030 in 1999 to 1,837 in 2003. And while nationwide, almost three-quarters of all murders were committed with a gun, in New York City, it is a little bit more than half â€“ some 325 people shot dead in 2002, according to the Department of Health, not including those deaths caused by the police.
But even one such horror story makes it clear that the battle to stop gun violence has not been won. Now, while police continue with strategies designed specifically to get guns off the street, the frontline in the battle is as much in the courtroom, thanks to the new Gun Courts, and ongoing gun lawsuits.
Police continue to attack the gun problem on a variety of fronts outlined in a Vera Institute of Justice report (in pdf format). Operation Gun Stop, an anonymous tip program that offers a $1000 reward for information leading to the arrest of anyone for felony gun possession, resulted in the recovery of 455 illegal guns and 757 arrests from April 2002 through last December.
The Firearms Investigation Unit continues to work undercover, as the case against the men involved in the shooting deaths of two undercover officers last year continues. The case highlights the dangers of trying to crack down on illegal gun traffickers, dangers that might have increased since the expiration of the federal ban on assault weapons.
The idea behind gun courts is at least partly grounded in psychology. Before gun courts, cases where illegal gun possession is the most serious charge were mixed in with other cases, sometimes murder or rape cases, that had the effect of making gun possession seem minor in comparison. Mandatory sentences might seem to solve that problem, but while New York has stiff penalties of a year for even first-time offenders guilty of illegal gun possession, judges are able to set aside the minimum if they feel it is unduly harsh.
So, Brooklyn Gun Court was born in April of last year, to keep gun cases from “fall[ing] between the cracks of the criminal courts,” explained Justice Jonathan Lippman, the state’s chief administrative judge. The court began by hearing cases from five Brooklyn neighborhoods known by police to be centers of gun violence. The concept has since expanded to include parts of the Bronx and Queens. In each gun court, one judge and a handful of prosecutors handle all gun cases.
New York is not the first city to adopt the gun court strategy in an effort to speed up gun cases and enforce sentences more in line with mandatory minimums. But it may be one of the toughest, at least compared with the nation’s first gun court in Providence, Rhode Island.
Rhode Island, like New York, has long had lengthy mandatory sentences for those convicted of illegal gun possession. In Providence, however, before the creation of gun court, sentences—including probation—were only imposed in 67 percent of cases, and jail time imposed in only about 25 percent of cases. During the first four years of gun court, sentences were enforced in 82 percent of cases.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg happily trumpeted the drastic change after the first few months of gun court. Of the first 97 cases resolved by the gun court, 98 percent resulted in jail or prison for offenders, and median jail time increased from 90 days to a year. Statistics in the current issue of Legal Affairs magazine reveal that about 75 percent of the first 300 cases resulted in sentences of at least one year in jail, compared to about 50 percent of gun cases in the rest of the borough that don’t go through gun court.
Clearly gun courts are specialized courts that, unlike drug courts, which offer counseling, mainly exist to make sure criminals are punished for illegal gun possession. Whether or not such sentences will reduce gun violence in the city remains to be seen.
Stopping the flow of illegal guns before they reach New York remains the top priority of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence, an advocacy group which is once again pushing for city legislation that they hope would make it easier for gunmakers to be held liable in court when guns are used in crimes Various efforts against gun manufacturers remain ongoing, including a lawsuit by the city.
City council legislation that would set out the criteria that would make gun manufacturers liable has been languishing since last year, but Andy Pelosi, executive director of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence, remains focused on passing the legislation , the Gun Industry Responsibility Act. Sponsored by Councilmember David Yassky, it is currently before the City Council.
“About 85 to 95 percent of guns used in crime come from out of state,” Pelosi said. Statistics from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (in pdf format) back up Pelosi’s assertion.Â