Diplomats and Guns

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

Do the DRC officials need nearly three dozen handguns for personal protection in Manhattan? Probably not—but even if they intended to take the weapons back home, it wouldn't be a problem, said Alvarez: The guns could be sported out of the U.S. in diplomatic pouches, which cannot be searched.

If that happened, the firearms would hardly raise an eyebrow in the DRC, a troubled nation of 60 million that shares a border with Uganda and Rwanda and has been a battleground for the region's thuggish government forces and equally brutal rebels.

More than 3.5 million people in the DRC have died since 1998 as a result of the fighting, according to Jerry Fowler at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, which has launched an online exhibition focusing on the region.

Convenience mart: the John Jovino Gun Shop in Chinatown
photo: Staci Schwartz
Convenience mart: the John Jovino Gun Shop in Chinatown

At the gun shop last month, the DRC diplomats displayed no clues about their intentions. They stood outside the store, talking softly and drinking bottled water for 15 minutes in the afternoon sun, while the store's employees loaded the idling Town Car with two large cardboard boxes and two plastic shopping bags. Just after 4 p.m., the officials climbed into the car, along with Hu, who carried a black satchel into the back seat. Then the car slipped into the street and quickly blended in with traffic.

The DRC mission declined to comment on the purchase, but Hu briefly discussed the diplomats' visit the next day. The DRC officials were not his first foreign customers, he said. "Sure, we do diplomatic—United Nations, yeah," he said. When asked what procedures they were required to follow for such a transaction, Hu answered, "I'm busy—sorry. I have a lot of work to do. I'm very sorry."

Asked the same question the following week, Hu declined to elaborate. "I have no time now," he said. "Call tomorrow—uh, the day after tomorrow." When called again, Hu repeated his refrain.

Jovino has five employees and does about $1 million worth of business annually. "Our business was always primarily law enforcement, both retail and on a wholesale basis," Imperato said, but that changed after the NYPD got its own equipment bureau.

A study by Columbia professor Howard Andrews once cited the shop as one of the biggest suppliers of guns used in New York City crimes. Of the 11,700 guns recovered in criminal investigations from 1996 to 2000, the study found, 102 were purchased at Jovino. Only two Virginia gun shops beat that tally, and they've both been shut down, papers reported in 2003. That outcome is consistent with Mayor Mike Bloomberg's tough stance on guns—out-of-state guns, at least. Though the city has sued 27 gun dealers whose inventory migrated into the hands of New York criminals from as far away as Georgia, no litigation is known to be pending against even a single dealer in New York.

Jason Post, a spokesman in the mayor's office, wouldn't comment on that, the diplomats' gun purchase, or any other aspect of this story. Officials at the New York City Commission for the United Nations Consular Corps and Protocol, which deals with the huge diplomatic corps from around the globe, wouldn't return calls seeking comment on how such a sale squares with Bloomberg's avowed crackdown on firearms.

The commissioner of that city agency might have some insight into the issue: She's Marjorie B. Tiven, the mayor's sister.

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