Young Gun

Packing Heat on Brooklyn Streets

Last year was the best Derrick Jones has had since he was 14. It was the first year that only one of the 23-year-old's friends was killed by a gun.

"It was right there," he said, pointing to a spot two feet away on the ground on the street where he lives, and where his friend died. He tugged his dark blue watch cap a bit lower over his ears and looked away while describing the incident. "They shot him right in front of my face."

A blue-and-white police cruiser rolled past the corner for the second time in 30 minutes. Jones and his friend Bill Burnz knew exactly what the cops were looking for. The young men waved mockingly and pulled their shirts out of their pants, baring their stomachs to the bitter cold to show they weren't hiding anything in their waistbands. "I get profiled every day! It ain't nothing, though," said Jones. "The blue-and-whites don't stop. They're looking now, but they don't stop. It's the detectives that come out and harass us and drag us in. I never walk out the door without my ID."

Illustration by Tim Okamura

These days, Jones never leaves home without at least one of his guns, either. He lives in a neighborhood—and a nation—where guns are both prevalent and accessible. Most of them are smuggled in from states with looser gun control laws.

Governor George Pataki acknowledged the problem in this year's State of the State address. He announced plans to create a state police special task force that would target new weapons coming into New York State, while law enforcement officials continue to work to get guns off the streets.

Jones got his first gun when he was 14. It was a nickel-plated .380 Glock that could hold 10 shots, he recalled with a hint of nostalgia. It was a gift from his older sister's boyfriend. That was around the same time that Jones, known to some on the corner as 8 Ball, began what he calls "earning money"—by dealing drugs.

He's been armed ever since. "I learned by watching," he said, shifting from foot to foot. Jones said he needs his gun for protection. "You just never know when you're gonna get snaked."

Jones is not afraid to show police his ID because his juvenile records are sealed, and his adult record is clean. Although he has been picked up for questioning by police three times in the past year, he said, he has not been convicted of a crime since he was 16.

Most days, he can be found on the same Crown Heights corner he's been on for the past nine years—in the heart of Brooklyn North's 77th Precinct, with one of his guns strapped to his back. In 2000, the precinct led the city in gun arrests, and police confiscated over 200 illegal firearms. According to Sergeant Gary Lemite of the precinct's street and narcotics squad, most of them were taken from males between the ages of 18 and 30, like Jones.

As successful as they've been, the 77th's police know that they have gotten only a tiny fraction of guns off the street. "It's a dubious distinction," their commander, Deputy Inspector Michael Marino, said. "I'm very proud of my cops, but is it that this neighborhood has more guns, or that my guys are that good? It isn't clear."

The precinct, which also includes Prospect Heights, is two and a half miles long and a mile wide, with a population of about 150,000. Last year, it had the eighth highest number of shootings of the city's 76 precincts. Boroughwide, federal law enforcement officials confiscated 1519 guns in Brooklyn in the first nine months of the year 2000, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the federal agency that regulates and monitors the sale and use of guns.

With some understatement, Sergeant Lemite observed, "There are a lot of kids out there with guns." Jones alone has four: two 9mm semi-automatics, a .38, and a .357 revolver. Altogether, his small armory has a capacity of 49 rounds.

Getting a gun legally in New York is not easy, but circumventing the law is. City law requires a permit in order to purchase a gun, and a permit requires a license. In order to get a license, one must be 21 years old, have no record of a felony conviction or other "serious" offense, "be of good moral character," have no record of mental illness, submit two photos plus fingerprints, and pay an application fee of $170. The entire process may take up to a year, and licenses must be renewed every two years.

Jones doesn't bother with a license. When he wants to get another gun, he's got several options. He can buy one from one of the many underground dealers who sell used or stolen guns out of vacant apartments, abandoned buildings, or the trunks of cars. Or he can go to a pawnshop out of state, where, Marino said, guns with a street value of several hundred dollars can be bought for as little as $75. Licensed pawnshop owners must file a "yellow sheet" to notify the ATF when they sell a gun, but often they skip the yellow sheet and report the guns stolen. That way, the owner can profit twice: first from the customer and then from his insurance company. But chances are a pawnshop gun has been used, and no one wants a dirty gun.

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