Young Gun

Packing Heat on Brooklyn Streets

"Rule number one," said Jones, waving a finger in the air, "Never buy a used gun. You never know where it's been."

Federal guidelines suggest that all crime guns confiscated by police be turned over to the ATF to be traced. In 1999, ATF agents traced 7337 guns confiscated by New York City police. More than half of them were successfully tracked to their owners, according to an ATF report published last November 30.

Serial numbers are the easiest way to trace a gun. Even if someone has tried to scratch out the engraved number or to burn it off with acid, forensics experts can sometimes still raise the number. If not, ballistics experts examine the bullets a gun has fired and the casings it has left behind. Each gun leaves a distinct etching, or "fingerprint," on both, helping enforcement agents track it to other shooting incidents. This was the method used on 950 of the New York guns traced by the ATF last year.

Illustration by Tim Okamura

A dirty gun is especially dangerous because, under federal and local law, the person caught holding the gun runs the risk of being held liable for any and all crimes to which the gun can be linked in any way, no matter how long he or she had it or who had it previously. For the guns traced by the ATF in 1999, the average amount of time lapsed between when the gun had last been used in a crime and when it had been taken by police was 7.2 years. Nearly 95 percent of the guns turned in last year changed hands at least once. No one wants to go to jail for a crime he didn't commit just because he's holding a hot-potato gun.

Jones bought his most recent gun new in Virginia. In that, he is following the norm. Eighty percent of the traceable crime guns recovered in New York City come from out of state, ATF records show. "We're seeing most of the guns recovered in New York City were purchased by straw buyers in Southern states and are making their way to New York," said ATF spokesman Joseph Green. "Straw buyers" are people who buy guns in bulk legally in Southern states, where laws are more lenient, and then turn the weapons over to secondary buyers, often from the North, at a handsome profit.

Most guns on the street come from North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, Virginia, and Georgia, states along a route known as the "Iron Pipeline." Of these states only North Carolina requires any sort of permit to purchase a gun. Since the Brady Bill was signed in 1993, federal law has required a criminal background check be run on all prospective gun buyers. But waiting periods vary from state to state.

States along the Iron Pipeline have none at all. Salespeople are responsible for checking to see if customers have prior records or felonies. They are not responsible for ascertaining the final destination of the firearm, said Green.

Too often, it's New York, the governor asserted in his State of the State address. "We've taken the right steps on guns," Pataki said, "but too many guns are coming into New York from states that haven't."

The proposed statewide Special Weapons Interdiction Field Team would target just this type of interstate commerce and aim to stop gun buyers and their merchandise at the state border. Now, when local police do arrest someone with an unlicensed gun, the case gets turned over to the ATF. "Getting one gun will not stop things," said Sergeant David Cheesewright, also of the 77th Precinct. "You want to get the pipeline and the whole network," starting with the distributor.

As easy as it is to get guns onto the streets of New York, it is almost impossible to get them off. Police try to turn detainees into informants, but ratting on a dealer can get you shot on the street. Federal law says that a felon with a gun may face five to 10 years in prison if convicted. But Jones, for one, has no felony record. He knows that any charge brought against him for having an unlicensed gun will most likely get pleaded down, and he feels the odds are in his favor.

Organizations like the NRA protect the rights of citizens to own and use guns, and their powerful lobbying groups make it difficult for legislators to change laws without their explicit consent. "There are 20,000 laws across the U.S. restricting firearms ownership," said Richard D'Alauro, a local NRA representative on Long Island. "The problem is not new laws, it's enforcing the ones we already have."

That view is widely shared in the Iron Pipeline states, David Shannon said. A horse breeder in Georgia, he described himself as part of the "gun culture," and he shares the NRA's position that "the Second Amendment is important; we should be able to protect ourselves."

Shannon, 35, lives in a semirural part of Fulton County, where he uses one of his dozen or so guns to pick off "varmints" like coyotes and rats, and to scare trespassers from his property. "You never know what's going to happen," said Shannon, who used to work for a security system company in Atlanta. "Many of the [gun] laws don't really make sense, but they make people feel good. It's a bizarre situation."

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