Diplomats and Guns

Chinatown mystery: Why did officials from the bloodiest country on earth stock up at a local gun shop?

The black Lincoln Town Car's tinted windows obscured the passengers as it left Chinatown one afternoon late in September. Inside were three diplomats from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and their newly purchased cache of more than 30 military-style handguns.

What better Gotham souvenir to bring home to the kids than a cocked and locked Colt .45?

More likely, the men needed the weapons either to combat or to aid an alphabet soup of rival militias like the ADF, FLC, and RCD back home. More people have died in the past nine years of bloody conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly known as Zaire) than in any other war since World War II— including Vietnam.

When the United Nations convenes its General Assembly each fall, thousands of foreign nationals with diplomatic credentials descend upon New York. Some spend their free time dining in Tribeca, shopping on Fifth Avenue, or attending a Broadway show.

But on September 25, while the media were traveling over to the U.N. to cover that evening's speech by Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, three officials from the DRC's permanent mission to the U.N. hopped into their Town Car and were driven to the John Jovino Gun Shop at 183 Grand Street.

They had picked the right place: Formerly a one-stop shopping spot for the NYPD, the John Jovino Gun Shop has been a fixture of the Grand Street block that connects Chinatown and Little Italy since it opened in 1911. It claims to be the oldest gun shop still in operation in the United States, though few people outside the law-enforcement community know about it—except perhaps for those who have helped it earn its reputation as one of the biggest suppliers of guns to New York's criminal class, according to one study.

Once at the gun shop, the DRC crew presented their credentials to manager Charlie Hu and waited for him to fill their purchase order. A reporter happened to be there to witness the transaction. The list included 26 semiautomatic Glock 19 pistols, several Smith & Wessons, a Colt .45, and a Beretta 9-millimeter, plus ammunition for the guns and a number of accessories like holsters.

"This letter is to certify that for officials [sic] purposes, we request to purchase the following military equipment," began the letter that the DRC officials laid atop the gun shop's counter. It was addressed to "Mr. John Jovino," even though Jovino sold the shop in the late 1920s to the Brooklyn family of Anthony Imperato, its current owner.

Buying even one handgun legally in New York is extremely difficult; whether the diplomats went through the regular procedures is unknown. Asked about getting a pistol license, gun-shop manager Hu replied, "Very hard. You don't want to. Very hard." A spokesperson at the NYPD's licensing division said that a basic license to buy a pistol and keep it at home usually takes from four to six months and requires an extensive background check and usually a personal interview. After the purchase, the owner has to bring the weapon to the NYPD within 72 hours for registration.

DRC mission officials refused to comment about any procedures they might (or might not) have followed. Imperato, responding to questions via e-mail from his office in Brooklyn, said that Hu, the manager, is largely in charge of the shop's operations now. "I do not keep tabs on the day-to-day stuff that goes on at Jovino," Imperato said. "I believe that it's the same as it always was. We sell police equipment, handguns, some long guns, accessories, and gift items like caps and T-shirts."

The diplomats, who wore pinstripe suits, wingtips, and perfectly dimpled ties, showed interest in some of those gift items as they sifted through a selection of military camouflage utility pants and NYPD raincoats. All the while, Hu scurried through the store to assemble their order.

"I'm very busy with diplomats right now," he told a flow of tourists and curious streetwalkers as they trickled through the shop in twos and threes, most hauling backpacks and cameras. "I'm very sorry." As the officials waited, their vehicle idled on Grand Street beneath the store's hanging sign—a four-foot-long replica of a revolver.

Jose Alvarez, a professor of international law at Columbia University, said that foreign representatives get no special treatment when it comes to buying firearms: They still have to satisfy New York City's licensing requirements, which means that every gun must be registered, and the purchase can't include fully automatic or assault-style weapons. "I don't know of any special laws that permit them to have what ordinary citizens can't have in terms of guns," said Alvarez. On the other hand, if a diplomat is caught with an illegal weapon, he (or she) does have immunity from U.S. law: "He cannot be detained, he cannot be prosecuted, he cannot be searched," Alvarez noted.

A State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that the U.S. government is responsible for the safety of foreign diplomats on American soil—but that usually means offering local police assistance, not weapons. The official added that some diplomatic missions do occasionally take security into their own hands, like the Israeli embassy, which maintains its own armed force.

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