The three men had a gun -- a .357 revolver -- and a plan to force their way into the home of a Farmingville drug dealer and rob him of his money and heroin.

In the backseat of a Nissan sedan that night in October sat Seyquan Patron, a felon and suspected Bloods gang member. His partner, Joshua Whitfield, also a felon, was up front. A third man, the driver, had recently joined the caper.

Whitfield was short one pair of latex gloves -- a must-have for the criminal wary of leaving evidence. They tried a 7-Eleven but found the price too high. So the men drove to a Stop & Shop on Ocean Avenue and bought a cheaper pair.

Properly equipped, they headed toward their target. The men were silent as they pulled off South Bicycle Path and into the Island Estates condo complex where the drug dealer lived.

As they did, a vehicle's headlights suddenly loomed into view behind them. Another car cut them off ahead. The Nissan was flooded with light, and the driver hit the brakes.

"Get out of the car!" policemen commanded. "Raise your hands!"

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Patron and Whitfield, now in jail awaiting trial on weapons and other charges, thought they were the hunters that night but were in fact the prey in a sting recorded by a hidden camera. Their driver was not a fellow criminal but an undercover detective with an elite team of Suffolk County lawmen dedicated to getting illegal guns off the street.

The team fights a dangerous ground war against a chronic problem for law enforcement -- the illegal flow of firearms to the region. At a news conference in April, Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota said the availability of illicit guns was creating "an increasingly dangerous situation."

Lacking means to dramatically reverse the influx, the team measures progress the only way that it can -- one seized gun at a time. At the news conference, Spota held up an illegal pistol the team recovered that was used in the 2010 murder of a Copiague cabdriver.

Dangerous, complex probes

That gun, like most that the team seizes, was traced to a legal purchase in the South. These guns are trafficked north, sold to buyers with criminal intent and often used in violent crimes and murders. The .357 revolver recovered that night of the sting originated from a gun dealer in Miami.

To do its job, the gun team makes extensive use of confidential informants and, with each operation, faces great risk. One of the chief concerns of police when they move to arrest any suspect is that he or she might have a firearm at hand. Gun team busts involve no such uncertainty; the prospect of a lethal encounter is a constant threat.

"We're going right to the worst-case scenario," said Suffolk police Insp. William Madigan, the team's executive officer. "We have been lucky, it's as simple as that."

Spota's office created the Firearms Suppression Team in 2006. It is staffed by six county police officers, plus Madigan. The team wages a tireless search for solid sources in the criminal underground and has even set up fake businesses as covers for sting operations.

The vast majority of illegal firearms recovered in New York City and Long Island were first sold legally in the Southeast and mid-Atlantic -- in states that don't require background checks for private sales, such as those that take place at gun shows. In these primary-source states, there is no limit on the number a buyer can purchase.

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A gun can become illegal simply by crossing a state border. Most states don't require a permit to own a gun, for instance, but New York does. Some guns are legally purchased in states to the south and smuggled northward along what's called the "Iron Pipeline."

"Someone may have friends and relatives acting on his behalf, purchasing his firearms so that he can traffic them at a profit," said Robert Cucinelli, a special agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. "Maybe he sells them to a drug dealer, and all of a sudden those guns are accessible to a criminal element in New York."

Often out-of-state guns

In 2010, the latest year for which the ATF has figures, law enforcement on Long Island recovered 744 guns as part of 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).

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The number of guns recovered on Long Island fluctuates year to year. There were 951 in 2006, 890 in 2007, 1,205 in 2008 and 986 in 2009, according to the ATF. Consistently, the bulk of the seized guns originate from states with gun laws more relaxed than New York's.

Illegal guns have been a chronic problem in the metropolitan region for decades, more so than in the rest of the state, despite repeated efforts by elected officials and law enforcement leaders to draw attention to the issue.

A review of available ATF data by the group New Yorkers Against Gun Violence found that 84 percent of guns recovered in New York City and Long Island originated out of state. In the rest of the state, the figure was only 40 percent.

In Suffolk, most illegal guns are seized in North Amityville, Wyandanch, Brentwood, Bay Shore, Huntington and Central Islip, said James Burke, chief of department for Suffolk police.

In Nassau County, illegal guns are most frequently recovered in an area called "The Corridor," which includes parts of Westbury, Hempstead Village, Uniondale, Roosevelt and Freeport, said Det. Sgt. Patrick Ryder, commanding officer of the Nassau police asset forfeiture and intelligence unit.

"Guns are tearing this community apart," said Jeremiah Carter, 47, a mechanic who lives in Hempstead Village. "You go outside on my block after 10 o'clock, you're taking your life into your hands. It's a bad way to live."

With strict gun control laws already in place in New York State, advocates for tougher measures say legislators in other states and the federal government must take action, such as requiring background checks for all gun sales.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), a longtime proponent of stricter gun control, said progress has been stymied by a powerful gun rights lobby and a public lulled by a decline in violent crime. His side is playing defense, he said, and there's little chance of enacting more restrictive laws.

"I hate to say this," Schumer said, "[but] the only way you will get that to reverse is if, God forbid, there are a whole bunch of terrible tragedies."

Spota said he is frustrated that the illegal gun problem on Long Island persists. "We have great laws in New York State," he said. "But if the guns are coming from other states into the hands of people illegally, we can't do anything about that."

Spota said the gun suppression team does roughly 200 interviews a year with individuals connected to arrests in which an illegal gun turns up. Using confidential informants, the team arranges an average of two gun buys a week, though the actual transactions can often fall through.

Cover, informants count

In January 2011, a team informant purchased a Hi-Point 9-mm pistol that originated in a Georgia pawnshop from a Copiague man named Randy Roland. The gun allegedly had been used by Roland's stepbrother, Barry Yorke, to kill Copiague taxi driver Juan Rosario in December 2010. In November 2009, the same gun was used by an unknown assailant to shoot and injure two people at a Copiague house party.

Yorke shot Rosario, who had been on the job a month, once in the head and stole $100, Spota said. Yorke and Roland were among seven individuals, most with gang ties, whose arrests on firearms and other charges were announced in April.

Yorke is awaiting trial on murder and unrelated weapons charges. He sold a 9-mm handgun that originated in Virginia for $950 to an undercover informant in March 2011, authorities believe. Three months later, he sold a .357 revolver sourced to North Carolina for $1,200. Roland, his stepbrother, faces criminal weapons possession and sale charges.

The team depends on confidential informants to make buys and busts. Unfortunately, criminals can be an unreliable bunch with a lazy approach to keeping appointments, said Det. Sgt. Scott Beiter, who leads the Suffolk gun team's street operations. Some informants take a measure of pride in their work.

"They say, 'you know what, these are guns, these are bad, this is a bad situation,' and they actually take a little satisfaction every once in a while in helping on our cases," Beiter said.

When the team moves to arrest an armed suspect, eliminating uncertainty and having as much control as possible over the situation is a priority.

In the arrest of Patron and Whitfield, for instance, the undercover detective driving the Nissan had persuaded Patron to put the .357 in the trunk. You don't want to have it out in the open, he argued, if we happen to get stopped by the cops.

A successful operation

In late 2007, police made a gun possession arrest of a tattoo artist who inked gang members. Offered the prospect of a reduced charge, he agreed to cooperate. So the gun team secured the necessary state license, leased a storefront and opened a tattoo parlor for the informant that was wired for surveillance. The effort would result in one of the team's biggest busts.

The informant told a known MS-13 gang member, Alvaro "Lobo" DelGado, in March 2008 that he wanted to do a burglary and needed protection.

DelGado loaned him a .38-caliber weapon and told him it had been used to kill 10 people. Soon after, DelGado asked for the gun back. Given the likelihood that the weapon had been used in multiple murders, the gun suppression team wouldn't let that happen.

The informant concocted a story, saying he'd been stopped by police and had to throw the gun out a car window. DelGado demanded a meeting with the informant. Believing that the informant's life was in danger, authorities raided DelGado's Bay Shore home in March 2008.

They recovered a .357 and a shotgun. A later investigation revealed that the .38 loaned to the informant had been used in a double homicide in May 2007 in Virginia, the source state for the gun. Authorities suspect the shotgun had been used in a murder in Washington, D.C., also in May 2007.

The .357 had a lethal past, too. Authorities believe it originated in Georgia, where it was used in a murder in 2006. Then it moved north and was next linked to a May 2007 homicide in Queens. In August 2007, before making its way to Suffolk, it was used to kill three young people in the notorious Newark schoolyard murders.

"A lot of them have a lot of crime attached to them before we get them," Spota said of the guns the team recovers. "So it's a scary situation."

The tattoo parlor was closed after the operation. DelGado, a native of El Salvador, spent a year in Suffolk jail and 2 years in state prison after being convicted of criminal weapons charges. He was released to federal authorities in March 2011 and was deported.

Not all guns the team seizes have such a bloody history. Nor are large hauls common. Mostly the team claims one illegal gun at a time, each one a potential instrument of violence.

Last year was the team's busiest. It spent $20,000 in state grant money to buy firearms and made a record 75 transactions, most but not all for a single gun. The team expects to top that number this year.

"We've been having a couple of bang-up weeks," Beiter said.