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.

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

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.

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.

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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