Police on Long Island are seizing a soaring number of guns linked to criminal investigations as a result of aggressive tactics and the creation of special teams carrying out undercover operations.
This year, Nassau cops recovered 345 guns from Jan. 1 to June 4 -- the last date for which the department released recovery data -- compared with 135 during the same period last year, a rise of 155 percent, according to records of the New York State Department of Criminal Justice Services. Suffolk police recovered 229 guns from Jan. 1 to July 1 -- the last date for which they released such data -- compared with 130 during that same period last year, a 76 percent increase.
"There's no question that the increase in guns being taken off the streets is preventing additional violent crimes," said Nassau Police Chief of Department Steven Syrnecki.
More 'fish in the water'
Even with increased gun seizures, more guns are being brandished, used or concealed during crimes in Nassau, records show. The number of violent crimes committed in which a gun was involved rose from 87 to 106 between Jan. 1 and June 27, the latest records show. In Suffolk, those crimes fell, from 167 to 164, between Jan. 1 and June 21 -- the most recently tracked period.
Violent crimes that do not involve guns decreased in both counties, the state records show. From Jan. 1 to June 27, a total of 561 violent crimes were recorded in Nassau County compared with 641 over the same period last year -- a 12 percent decrease. In Suffolk County, the number of violent crimes fell 15 percent, from 723 to 614, through June 21.
"The fact that they recovered more guns and that the percentage of crimes [involving guns is increasing] shows that there are actually more guns out there than there were before," said Eli Silverman, Professor Emeritus at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan. "It's a matter of there being a lot more fish in the water."
If gun seizures continue at the same pace in both counties, the numbers would set a record. The highest number of guns seized by police in Nassau in a year was 710 in 2009; in Suffolk, the highest total was 422 that same year, the records show.
Authorities say reasons for the surge in gun recoveries include: more arrests of armed drug dealers and gang members; better-advertised and more successful gun buybacks following the mass shootings in Aurora, Colo. and Newtown, Conn.; and because weak gun laws in other states appear to have led to more guns arriving in the region in recent years.
Specialized policing teams -- such as the Suffolk County District Attorney's Firearms Suppression Team -- have also helped drive up gun recovery numbers, authorities say. Staffed by investigators assigned to the district attorney's office, the team routinely carries out sting operations and undercover gun buys.
"Our county has the most active and aggressive gun team in the country," Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota said after the team broke up a Georgia-to-Suffolk drug trafficking ring in April.
Police in both counties recently added specialized intelligence units -- The Criminal Intelligence Rapid Response Team in Nassau and Field Intelligence Officers in Suffolk -- which have taken numerous illegal guns off the streets.
"There's been a significant increase in the number of guns recovered and that's saved lives," said Suffolk Chief of Detectives William Madigan. "Finding those guns is our highest priority."
Guns without borders
Illegal guns flowing in from outside New York have been a serious problem on Long Island and in New York City for decades. The influx has continued despite repeated efforts by elected officials at the local and federal level, including a campaign by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, to draw attention to the issue.
From 2010 through 2012, 26,377 guns were recovered by authorities statewide as part of criminal investigations, according to the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
In 2010, the latest year for which the ATF provided regional recovery figures, law enforcement on Long Island recovered 744 guns linked to criminal investigations. The agency was able to trace 299 of them to the states where they were first sold. The ATF found that 78 came from within New York State, and the remainder from elsewhere. Top source states included Florida (39), Virginia (37) and North Carolina (22).
Nassau municipalities are frequently among the top "recovery cities" statewide for guns. In Hempstead in 2012, more guns were recovered than in all but four cities in the state, records show.
In the Village of Hempstead, 115 illegal guns were seized in 2012, while 112 illegal guns were recovered in Freeport, according to ATF data. Those totals ranked fifth and sixth among municipalities statewide, behind New York City, Rochester, Buffalo and Syracuse.
In 2011, Uniondale ranked sixth with 100 recoveries, records show, while Yaphank in Suffolk County ranked tenth with 53 recoveries.
"Every one of those guns could represent a life saved or a shooting that was prevented," said Det. Sgt. Patrick Ryder, commanding officer of the Nassau police asset forfeiture and intelligence unit, which regularly seizes illegal guns brought to Long Island from other states.
Residents in neighborhoods with high gun-recovery rates said they are pleased with the increase in recoveries, but say too many illegal guns remain.
"I moved to Long Island [from Brooklyn] to get away from guns, to get away from violence, but you still hear gunshots almost every night and you still see people with guns out there," said William Blaine, 37, of Freeport. "It's good that at least they're taking away more guns from the bad guys now, but all it takes is one bullet to destroy a life."