Suffolk County police, with a new team focused on firearms-related offenses, are seizing guns at a record-setting pace this year, snatching dozens of weapons from drug dealers and gang members — many of them trafficked illegally from Southern states, officials said.
Officers had recovered at least 234 illegal guns as of July 26, compared with 201 during the same period last year, a 16 percent increase, department records show. The gun seizure figure marks a 152 percent increase from 2014, when 93 guns were recovered through the same date, records show.
In Nassau, county police had recovered 559 illegal guns this year as of Wednesday, compared with 570 during the same period in 2015, that agency’s records show.
Police officials in both departments said gun recoveries have helped prevent killings and nonfatal shootings, deterred assaults and robberies, and lessened the likelihood of armed warfare among gangs and drug crews. Many of the seized firearms were first sold legally in the Southeast and mid-Atlantic regions — in states that don’t require background checks for private sales, such as those that take place at gun shows.
A gun can become illegal simply by being taken across a state border. For instance, while most states don’t require a permit to own a gun, New York does. Many guns are legally purchased in states to the south and smuggled north along what’s called the “Iron Pipeline.”
“I’ve never seen this many guns being taken off the streets,” said Stuart Cameron, a 30-year veteran of the Suffolk police force who took over as chief of department in December. “Long guns, semiautomatics, all kinds of firearms. It’s been remarkable.”
Firearms team credited
The rise in Suffolk’s gun seizures is attributable to their firearms suppression team, which Cameron’s boss, Commissioner Timothy Sini, created after taking over the department’s top job in February, officials said.
The team’s 15 members patrol communities and investigate firearm-related offenses, focusing on recovering illegal guns and stopping gun violence, officials said. They also work closely with detective squads and with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, gathering evidence on long-term and short-term gun and gang investigations.
A second firearms suppression team was launched recently because the first one was so productive, police said, and Sini expects its casework will help drive gun recovery totals even higher.
“They’re gun specialists, and they’ll be more specialized as the team matures,” Sini said, referring to the members of both teams. “They’re pretty impressive now, but we think we’re going to gain more steam in the second half of the year.”
The Nassau County department does not have a similar specialized group. However, acting Police Commissioner Thomas Krumpter said in a statement his agency “continues to remove illegal firearms from the streets of Nassau County for the safety of its residents. Our Asset Forfeiture and Intelligence Unit, Criminal Intelligence Rapid Response Team (CIRRT), Bureau of Special Operations (BSO), patrol force and squads have had a significant effect on the suppression of gun-related crime.”
Suffolk police, at the current pace, would recover more than 430 illegal guns this year, which officials said may be the most ever taken off the streets by Suffolk cops in one year. The department seized 330 illegal guns in all of 2015 and 189 in 2014, officials said.
Statewide, recoveries of illegal firearms also have increased, from 7,686 in 2014 to 7,803 last year, according to the most recent state data compiled by the ATF.
Suffolk’s focus on illegal firearms helped quell a surge in violence earlier this year, police said. At least 23 people were wounded by gunfire in the county from Jan. 1 through May 10, compared with 12 during the same period in 2015, according to state records and police officials.
By late July, the number of gunshot victims countywide had leveled off at 45 — the same total recorded during the first seven months of 2015, officials said.
Homicides by firearms also have fallen in Suffolk this year compared with last year, from six to five, records show.
As for the source of illegal guns, at least 441 of those recovered statewide were traced back to Virginia; 412 to Pennsylvania; 401 to Georgia; and 347 to Florida, according to the ATF’s statistics for 2015.
‘Focused on trafficking’
“We are focused on the trafficking angle,” Sini said. “Hopefully, we can get some better federal laws so we can put traffickers away.”
Federal law only requires background checks for sales conducted by licensed gun dealers. No background check is required to buy guns from private sellers, either online, in person, or at gun shows, meaning convicted violent criminals still can buy firearms in certain circumstances, authorities said.
The national debate over gun laws intensified after 49 people were killed in June at a nightclub in Orlando, Florida. The shooter, Omar Mateen, who was killed by police, said he was inspired by the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS.
Last month, Congress left for its summer break without voting on a proposed measure aimed at preventing terrorists from buying guns in the United States.
Other gun safety legislation has been voted down in Congress in recent years, amid intense lobbying by the National Rifle Association, which opposes mandatory background checks for private-seller gun sales.
NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre has blamed the federal government for failing to enforce existing gun laws and has argued that background checks won’t keep guns away from criminals.
“Law-abiding gun owners will not accept blame for the acts of violent or deranged criminals, nor do we believe that government should dictate what we can lawfully own and use to protect our families,” he said during a congressional hearing in 2013.
“Homicidal maniacs, criminals, and the insane don’t abide by the law,” LaPierre added.
But a gunshot survivor in Suffolk said even a single firearm kept out the hands of a criminal could save lives.
Benicio Salazar, 46, was wounded by gunfire in June 2014 after an argument broke out among several other men outside a bar in Huntington Station. Salazar wasn’t involved but happened to be nearby.
“We need the cops to deal with it. We need the senators to deal with it,” the Huntington Station resident said, speaking in Spanish through a translator. “Every gun the cops take from the criminals is a big blessing.”