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'The Dirty Little Secret No One Tells You': New York ATF Chief Details Roadblocks and Progress in Fight to Disrupt Gun Violence

A gun seizure (photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

When talking about gun violence in northeastern states like New York, elected and law enforcement officials often say that guns arrive via the “Iron Pipeline,” short-hand for the I-95 corridor where firearms smuggled from southern states with laxer gun laws to the northeast.

But the reality is much more complex, according to John B. DeVito, Special Agent in Charge of the New York office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF).

During remarks Thursday at a conference hosted by City & State New York, DeVito discussed the complicated nature of gun trafficking and combating it, including enhanced information-sharing that his office is coordinating.

Devito mentioned needing to “educate” Mayor Eric Adams, the first-year Democratic mayor of New York City who is a former NYPD captain and has made public safety his top priority. And he lamented the lack of a true national strategy against gun violence and limited resources given to his agency as it attempts to reduce illegal gun activity in a country where guns outnumber people, millions more are being made each year, and many legal guns eventually become used illegally.

DeVito also said he does not foresee a significant negative impact from the Supreme Court striking down New York’s strict concealed carry law. State lawmakers quickly responded to that ruling with new gun-permitting requirements and the designation of many “sensitive locations” where concealed carry will still be banned. DeVito downplayed the focus of Mayor Adams and others on gun manufacturers, saying that beyond looking at their marketing, there is limited utility in focusing on gun-makers’ roles in gun violence.

DeVito was joined by several private sector experts, some with NYPD or Department of Defense backgrounds, who work in public safety technology on a panel at City & State's annual Protecting New York Summit, during a conversation moderated by Gotham Gazette editor Ben Max.

“Get that idea of a pipeline out of your heads,” DeVito told the audience of roughly 200 at the Manhattan venue. “What we're dealing with in this nation is a countless supply of firearms that are being fed to the criminal marketplace on a daily basis through an unknown number of garden hoses.”

As illegal guns enter New York through these various avenues, DeVito said that law enforcement agencies at all levels of government need to better collaborate to suppress gun violence, and pointed to some recent progress. It is critical to change the proprietary culture in law enforcement – where data is often kept to individual agencies and departments – and adopt more unified strategies, DeVito said.

“Being able to identify those individual garden hoses, disrupt them, shut 'em off, and figure out who they're feeding is an extremely difficult process,” he said. “Getting everybody to utilize similar tools to address this problem and work in a collaborative manner is probably the most effective strategy that we've ever had in this country.”

In his position with the ATF – a federal law enforcement agency within the U.S. Department of Justice that works to prevent violent crime, terrorism, arson, and other threats to public safety – DeVito has worked to enhance intelligence sharing and cooperation. Forming partnerships across law enforcement agencies has been key to this work, he said, including through centralized information-sharing to more effectively identify repeat offenders, gun traffickers, and those actually pulling the triggers.

“My time here in New York has been all about establishing effective partnerships with the NYPD, state police, as well as all my federal partners and all the state locals,” said DeVito, who took his current post in 2019. “And that means breaking down the silos of intelligence information so that we can better identify those drivers of violent crime in our communities.”

DeVito was joined on the panel by Michael Joy, Product Specialist in Digital Evidence Management at Cellebrite; Anil Chitkara, Founder and Head of Corporate Development at Evolv Technology; and Kieran Carroll, Chief Strategy Officer at ZeroEyes. 

Joy, a retired police captain that helped lead the NYPD’s technological evolution as commander of its Strategic Technology Division, echoed DeVito in championing more transparency and cooperation in law enforcement. Particularly, he said, when it can help connect cases across separate divisions in law enforcement that don’t typically work together. It is also essential, he argued, that law enforcement work with tech companies like his to better collect and analyze the massive amounts of data that can be accrued via cell phones and other sources.

He encourages agencies to begin rethinking how they fight crime to involve more information-sharing and data-based analysis. “We can't use technology well if we don't teach everyone in a consistent way how to use it best and where that data should go,” Joy said. “You're going to ultimately transform your investigative culture in order to accomplish this mission.”

As part of the ATF’s National Crime Gun Intelligence Center Initiative, DeVito has worked with the NYPD to create the first New York City Crime Gun Intelligence Center (CGIC), which is used for the immediate collection, management, and analysis of gun crime evidence.

These CGICs use tools like the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network (NIBIN), which automatically shares and evaluates ballistic intelligence from law enforcement agencies across the country. After comparing images of submitted ballistic evidence – like casings and firearms from crime scenes – the network produces a list of potential links between and among them. Firearms examiners then analyze those matches to identify potential ‘hits’ that point to repeat offenders.

With more guns than people in the U.S., DeVito said it is paramount for officers to effectively devote their time and resources to arrest their primary targets: those violent shooters – who are a tiny minority of the population and typically repeat offenders that go on to commit several shootings – and their firearms suppliers. The leads generated by NIBIN help match evidence across cases to find those repeat offenders and build stronger cases against them.

“We're dealing with this massive amount of intel – how do you make that massive amount of intel actionable? That's one of the most difficult parts to being in law enforcement,” said DeVito. “[NIBIN] layers all this data and it identifies the number one priority.”

DeVito said he has established 12 CGICs across New York State since his appointment, more than any other state. ATF has worked to expand NIBIN into the ten crime analysis centers statewide, which are responsible for providing investigative support and information to police. As a result, the process of cross-referencing casings used in shootings, which used to take months, has been reduced to days, the ATF has reported.

The ATF is now expanding the Joint Firearms Task Force, which DeVito founded with the NYPD in 2021. In addition to increased intelligence sharing, the partnership embeds ATF agents in the police department and gives NYPD officers working with the agency some federal privileges. Those include the ability to investigate federal gun violations and potentially link them with cases on the state and municipal levels.

The overall aim, DeVito said, should be to treat gun violence like the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force treats terrorism: cohesively across federal and state agencies with a clear sense of the mission at a national level. “I think the men and women in this room would probably be surprised to realize that there isn't a unified strategy in this country to address gun violence,” he said.

“There have been more people killed in the past 10 years from gun violence than the last 100 years from terrorism,” DeVito said. “And yet we are complacent in it. We have to do a better job of addressing that threat.”

"You should all demand to know why the DOJ does not have a unified strategy to address gun violence,” he said to the audience. "I need your voices.”

At a meeting Wednesday at Gracie Mansion with Mayors Against Illegal Guns, Mayor Adams applauded efforts by DeVito and the ATF to create a more unified approach to gun violence. Adams proposed cities reach agreements similar to those pioneered between the ATF and police departments across New York to overcome federal limitations that hinder data-sharing. Those hurdles are part of national limits DeVito repeatedly decried on Thursday, indicating that federal officials are not particularly serious about taking on gun violence.

“For far too long, Washington through Congress has gotten in the way of ATF sharing information,” Adams said. “We started here in New York State. And we're looking to partner with all of our mayors to do the same thing. This would allow us to bypass whatever restrictions are done on a federal level…And it's an unbelievable opportunity for us to go after the shooters, the guns, the manufacturers, the illegal dealers of guns, particularly the secondhand dealers.”

At the Wednesday meeting, Adams and other mayors also called for more culpability for gun manufacturers for their role in violent crime, noting that increased sharing of evidence could help do that.

Nick Suplina, Senior Vice President of Everytown for Gun Safety, pointed out that between 2016 and 2020, over 1 million guns were recovered by law enforcement in connection to a crime. Five companies manufactured half of those firearms.

“They're no different than the cigarette manufacturers of yesteryears who stated year after year, knowing their product produced a dangerous outcome, continued to lie and hide behind the facts,” said Adams, speaking of gun manufacturers. “We are not going to allow that to happen anymore.”

When DeVito was asked how he viewed the mayor's comments, he rebuked them, though he did also make a comparison to the evolution on cigarettes.

“Unfortunately, he made that statement before he was educated by me,” DeVito said of Adams.

“They're selling an item that is not contraband,” DeVito said, defending gun manufacturers as operating in a free market economy in a country that protects the 2nd Amendment right to bear arms. “It's not dope. It's a firearm.” 

“If the industry were complicit and negligent and active in a criminal manner, trust me, it would be readily visible to law enforcement,” he said. “And we actively look for that on a daily basis.”

New York does in fact have a relatively new law, spearheaded by Brooklyn State Senator Zellnor Myrie, that allows the state to pursue charges against gun manufacturers for the devastation that their products are used to inflict, and it was recently upheld amid a legal challenge.

DeVito said that he has to rely on gun companies and other sellers to alert him when an individual makes a suspicious firearm purchase, in part because he does not have enough resources to do ATF’s job as a regulator. DeVito said his office regulates 225 federal firearms licenses in the state, but that he only has 11 investigators doing that work, suggesting that the federal government purposely keeps his force small to prevent more intervention.

“That’s the dirty little secret that no one tells you on the daily news,” DeVito said. “They purposely keep ATF small so that we don't interfere with the sale of firearms in this country – that we are doing everything to promote firearms sales in this country.”

He was asked by Max if the Supreme Court’s recent ruling to strike down the century-old New York state law requiring applicants for a concealed carry permit to provide “proper cause” (distinguishable from the general public) could increase gun violence.

“At the end of the day, we don't know how this is gonna play out,” DeVito said. “So let’s wait and see how this plays out. I wouldn't be too overly concerned about it.”

During the panel, Chitkara spoke about the possible implications of the expanded use of his company’s technology in New York City. Currently, Evolv scanners, which promise speedier and more efficient contraband scanning at entrance points for major venues, are used at some private and public places in the city, including hospitals, museums, and sports arenas. That includes a pilot partnership with the Adams administration.

While he touted his product for many venues, he was more circumspect about their use in the city subways, where the mayor has said he is interested in possibly installing them or something similar.

“It's a very complex and challenging problem,” Chitkara said in response to a follow-up from Max. “Subways are complex because they're small locations where lots of people are going through and nobody wants to stop”

Carrol co-founded ZeroEyes to provide human-backed artificial intelligence services that scan camera feeds looking for guns with a particular focus on schools. He argued that the public sector must partner closely with the private sector and the many companies and technologies that could improve safety. “ZeroEyes has caught hundreds of guns in the last three years on campuses,” said Carrol. “Guns show up at schools, way more times than you would think. Quite frankly, it's unnerving as a parent.”

Other Speakers on Public Safety
Before the panel with Carrol, Chitkara, Joy, and DeVito, a keynote speech was delivered by NYPD Deputy Chief Jason Savino, Commanding Officer of the Gun Violence Suppression Division. That division, according to Mayor Adams, has been largely responsible for reductions in shootings and murders thus far this year compared to last.

The unit of more than 200 investigators builds cases around “trigger pullers,” according to Savino, spending most of its time tracking the gangs and ringleaders who perpetrate the majority of shootings in the city. In 2021, it took down seven gangs and made more than 100 arrests of offenders that were largely charged in more than one shooting, according to Savino. So far this year, he said it has taken down four gangs and made over 75 similar arrests.

In his speech, the deputy chief emphasized the need to do more to address “drill rap” – a style of rap that often glorifies shootings and contains antagonistic references to other gangs and individuals, which and Mayor Adams have said has led to increased shootings. “Where I have to draw the line is where music encourages and actually entices violence,” he said after noting his own love of music.

He also talked about recidivism as a major problem contributing to gun violence, but did not offer specifics. “There’s really a small number of individuals committing such a large portion of the crime,” he said.

He stressed the need for a society-wide effort to keep young people out of criminal activity.

“How do we touch those that didn’t quite make the case, but almost did? How do we keep those individuals from filling the void and becoming the next shooters and continuing the cycle of violence? How do we touch that individual proactively before he or she ever reaches for that firearm?” he asked. “These questions, amongst so many others, need further discussion.”

In three other panels throughout the conference, elected and appointed officials and other experts discussed cybersecurity; emergency preparedness and management; and how the city can address public safety more equitably and sustainably.

The final panel was joined by NYPD Chief of Department Kenneth Corey, who also discussed the need to break the cycle of repeat offenders, but specifically those suffering from mental health issues and not being provided proper treatment. Cooperation and collective discourse, he said, are key to finding holistic ways to address crime.

“There is a huge, huge overlap between people involved in violence and mental health,” he said. “And what we’re doing right now really doesn’t work because we keep seeing the same people over and over and over again.”

Corey added that despite the city being dramatically safer than in the 1970s and 1980s – and the subway being safer than it was five years ago – the crime that does occur, and is reported on heavily by the media, creates the public perception that the city is just as unsafe as it was when crime was much higher.

“And when we talk about the perception of public safety, I can quote statistics to you all day long – and tell you how statistically safe you are in New York City,” he said, but there’s other key factors to how people feel.

“The front cover of both [tabloid] papers has crime in New York City out of control, although I can put up a graph somewhere and show you we are at a crime level where Mike Bloomberg was hanging billboards proclaiming New York City the safest large city in America,” Corey continued. “So we are a far cry from the ‘70s and ‘80s, but what gives people that perception are these random incidents, right, so when you see a young woman being thrown in front of a subway train. When you see someone shooting up a subway train. When you see someone killing someone who is just on his way to Sunday brunch on a subway train, and all of these similar type events,” he said.

“What all of these events have in common is that that offender has mental health issues,” Corey said.

He said that the NYPD has taken steps to rethink how they police people suffering from mental illness, such as by expanding programs that send EMTs and social workers to mental health-related calls. But more conversations will need to happen, he said, including between groups that are often in conflict, like progressives and the police department, to find better ways to police those in mental health crisis.

“I think that we are at the point where we have to stop shouting, start talking to one another, and more importantly, sit down and start listening to one another,” he said. “And I think once we do that, we realize that we have a whole lot of common ground that we can make tremendous progress on.”

Charles Gorrivan, Gotham Gazette

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