Illegal gun buys dodge New York's tough new law
With the signing this week of the NY Safe Act by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, New York now has the toughest gun laws in the country. Even before Cuomo signed the bill, the state was fourth in the nation when it came to tough gun restrictions, according to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
Still, nearly 9,000 illegal guns were seized throughout the state in 2011, according to statistics from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
While local police officials have applauded the state's new law, they know it's not a panacea for the problem of illegal guns on the streets.
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"Criminals don't recognize state borders," White Plains Public Safety Commissioner David Chong said. "The problem is the guns on our streets in New York come from states where firearms are more readily available."
It's called the "iron pipeline," said ATF Special Agent Charles Mulham, describing the route along Interstate 95 that illegal gun peddlers travel to bring guns -- including high-powered assault rifles -- from states with looser gun laws to the streets of cities and towns in New York.
New Yorkers travel to states as distant as Florida and as near as Pennsylvania, pay residents there to buy guns for them, then travel back to New York with the firearms in their cars. In some cases, the buyers keep the guns. But more often than not, police believe, guns bought in other states are sold in New York on the black market, at a steep markup to the purchase price.
"It's a very lucrative trade and it's the evolution of an interstate gun trafficking scheme," Mulham said.
The buyers pay the state residents -- called "straws" by ATF agents -- a fee for each gun purchase. Buyers may stay in Florida or Virginia for a month or two, commissioning one purchase after another, Mulham said. By waiting seven days between gun buys, the buyers escape the mandatory federal notification regarding gun purchases made within five days of each other, he said.
"Multiple sales within that five-day window are going to raise federal flags," Mulham said. "This way they avoid the flag and can transport more guns in one trip."
Law enforcement officials were able to trace the origin of 4,973 of the nearly 9,000 guns seized in New York in 2011.
They found that more than two-thirds of the guns seized in New York came from out of state, according to ATF statistics.
Most of the out-of-state guns came from Virginia, where 407 seized guns originated. Pennsylvania was next with 368, followed by North Carolina with 349. Illegal guns came into New York from as far away as Guam, according to the ATF.
According to the latest available statistics, 456 illegal guns were recovered in the Hudson Valley in 2009. When the seizures are broken down by county, Westchester tops the list, among Hudson Valley counties, with 227 illegal guns seized, according to the ATF. The cities of Yonkers, Newburgh, and Poughkeepsie had the most illegal guns taken off the streets, combining for 222 gun recoveries by police, the ATF says.
Home burglaries are another source for criminals looking for guns. The Bureau of Criminal Justice Statistics issued a report in November that found 1.4 million guns -- or an average of 232,400 per year -- were reported stolen in home burglaries and property crimes across the country between 2005 and 2010. The report was not broken down by state.
Federal agents cast a wary eye on those numbers.
"You'll have some people who'll sell a gun illegally and then report that it was stolen," Mulham said. "Also, you have straw buyers who claim the guns they bought recently were stolen, when they actually were buying them for a guy from a state with tougher gun laws like New York."
The illegal gun sales take place in apartments, hallways, or out of the back of a car, said Chong, who ran the New York City Police Department's High Intensity Drug Trafficking Task Force, a squad that also participated in undercover purchases of illegal guns.
"It's among the toughest of tasks a police officer can undertake," Chong said. "Because you're always dealing with someone who is armed."
He pointed to the 2003 slayings of two NYPD undercover detectives, Rodney Andrews, 34, and James Nemorin, 36. They were gunned down by Ronnell Wilson during an undercover gun buy in Staten Island.
"It's a profit-driven trade and the Saturday night special is a thing of the past," Chong said, referring to the .38-caliber nickel-plated revolver that once dominated black market sales. "The bad guys want the biggest and most powerful guns."
That means assault weapons that will cost $500 in another state, but then fetch up to $2,000 in a street sale in New York, he said.
In recent years, as gun laws in New York have become tougher -- and federal prosecutors have pressed charges more frequently, bringing into play federal penalties that are tougher still -- police have seen the rise of what they call "the community gun."
"That's where a criminal can rent a gun from someone and return it when he's done his deed," Chong said. Sometimes the "community gun" is shared among members of the same gang, he said.
Yonkers police took some 100 guns off the streets of the city of 200,000 in 2011, according to ATF statistics. Police launched two major gun raids in Yonkers last year, said Yonkers Det. Lt. Patrick McCormack. As a result of the Yonkers crackdown, street gang members there have come to depend heavily on the "community gun," McCormack said.
"They'll store the gun in a wall or under a garbage can and then charge a fee for its use," he said. "Sometimes the fee is cash, sometimes it's narcotics. But criminals are aware of the penalties for illegal gun possession, and that's what's led to the 'community gun.'"
To combat illegal guns, some communities have resorted to no-questions-asked gun-buyback programs. In such programs, individuals are allowed to turn in guns to police and receive cash rewards with no questions asked regarding the weapon's history. Orange County is conducting such a program now, offering one $150 grocery store gift card per gun.
Jersey City collected 164 guns during a similar program earlier this month.
But those programs aren't going to dent the illegal gun problem, McCormack said.
"You mostly get old weapons or broken guns that are of no use," he said. "You don't get the guns that have been used in crimes."
Chong agreed, saying the only way to keep guns out of the hands of criminals is to prosecute gun crimes vigorously and hand out long prison stretches to those caught with illegal guns.
"We need to close the federal loopholes, enforce the gun laws we have and send these guys away for a long time," he said.