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.

"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.

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."

Unlike Pataki, Shannon does not think it is easier for out-of-state residents to get guns they could not get at home. "You generally need an in-state license to buy a gun," said Shannon. "Buying with an out-of-state ID is something dealers would frown upon."

For Jones though, finding a gun dealer who was willing to accept his New York State ID in Virginia was easier than shooting fish in a barrel. "I just walked into the store and showed them my ID," he said. "No felony, no problem."

In fact, Virginia state law might have been written with out-of-state customers like Jones in mind. Virginia gun dealers pay $2 to run a felony check on in-state residents, but out-of-state license checks cost $5. Store owners pass the cost on to customers, but shrewd consumers from the North like Jones do not mind paying a slightly larger fee. He still avoids the up-to-one-year wait that he'd be subjected to in New York, as well as the $244 fee ($170 for the license and $74 for the fingerprints). By going to Virginia, he also saves money by cutting out the middleman. "A gun that might be $500 to $600 here is, like, $300 there," the happy customer explained.

Jones can then simply walk out of the store and drive his new gun back to Brooklyn. With New York plates on his car, he slips across the state border, unnoticed, and returns home. Despite the drop in violent crime citywide over the past few years of the Giuliani administration, the number of homicides rose citywide last year, and so did shootings in the 77th Precinct.

"Guys are getting bolder on the streets," the 77th's Sergeant Charles Broughton said.

"On New Year's Eve they light up the streets like Beirut," said Lemite. "They blast off for 20 minutes straight. That's how they ring in the New Year here. They shoot from the doorways, windows, and rooftops."

For Jones, staying strapped is not just for fun; it's life insurance. Though his guns are illegal, unlike Shannon's, he shares the Georgia horse breeder's perspective on vigilante justice.

"You never know who has a gun," said Jones. "You can't take people for granted. It could be your best friend who's out to get you. You just never know," he said, scrunching his face and nodding toward his pal Burnz, standing to his right.

Like Shannon, Jones supports responsible gun ownership. "I use my gun when I feel threatened only," he said. "But if I see you with a gun, or you're known to have one, I'm not gonna wait."

The drug dealer said he's only drawn his gun three times in his life, once with violent consequences. "Yeah, I hit someone once," he said, casting his eyes to the ground.

He does not glorify his lifestyle. "If you have a gun, you're gonna end up locked up, be crippled, or dead," he said. "But I'm getting out. I'll tell you that. If I'm getting money, someone's gonna get mad, and that's when the gunplay comes into it. It's no good, but it's all about who gets who first."

"Personally, I'm tired," Jones said. He hopes to move upstate from Brooklyn to Troy, where his two children—one four, and the other five months old—live with their mother, and where he is not already known for what he does. There, he can make a fresh start. His dream is to stop selling drugs and to become a chef.

But right now, he said, the money is just too good. And staying strapped is the only way he knows he can protect himself and provide for his family.

Jones's mother, a correction officer on Rikers Island, is aware of his lifestyle, he said. "I don't want my mother to ask nobody for nothing." His nine brothers and sisters also know about their brother's work, but Jones said he keeps it outside the house and doesn't want them exposed to it.

"Twin! What'd I tell you? Get inside!" he yelled to his 16-year-old brother lumbering across the street. "What'd I say if I see you out here?" The boy turned around, pulled his puffy red coat closer to his neck, and kept walking.

"I told them, if I ever catch any of them out here doing anything I've done, I will plant my foot in their ass," the drug dealer said, turning back to his corner.

A squad car rolled by for the fourth time. Jones rocked back on his heels, bared his stomach, and smirked. His 16-shot 9mm had been nestled between his shoulder blades all along.

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