Gun-Ho for New York
In 2006, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that he was filing suit against 27 out-of-state gun dealers. He called the gun sellers a "scourge on our society," and claimed that they were illegally selling weapons that kept ending up on the streets of New York.
Most of the dealers Bloomberg sued quietly settled their cases, agreeing to allow the city to place monitors in their stores to oversee transactions. Others shut down their operations or had their cases tossed out of court. But one man, Jay Wallace, owner of a 12,000-square-foot firearms supermarket outside Atlanta, decided he was willing to pay any price to keep New York from sending someone to monitor his store.
So he borrowed $700,000 and moved to New York—a city he'd never been to before.
In May, Wallace, his wife, and three grown sons rented an apartment in Brooklyn, determined to wage war against the city's lawsuit right from the belly of the beast itself.
And then two strange things happened.
First, on June 2, the very morning that his case was to be heard in court, Wallace threw in the towel, convinced that he wouldn't get a fair trial from a judge he considered too biased.
And second, even more surprisingly, by the time he decided not to show up in court, Wallace—a gun-loving, rock-ribbed, Second Amendment–quoting Georgian—had fallen in love with the city he'd vowed to fight to his "last breath."
He's even thinking of moving here permanently.
"When you sneeze on the street, five New Yorkers say 'Bless you'!" Wallace says, wearing a satisfied smile. To his surprise, none of the negative things he'd heard about the city conformed to reality.
On a blazing Sunday afternoon, he's distractedly picking at a chicken sandwich at the Smoke Joint, a Southern-style barbecue place in trendy Fort Greene. The 51-year-old is wearing a green plastic "Save Our Troops" bracelet and an NYPD baseball cap, a gift from a sympathetic police officer who'd contacted him after reading about the case in the news. The cop had even driven the Wallaces out to Long Beach the day before.
Wallace's wife Cecilia, a blonde in a bright-pink top and wearing a silver necklace with a cross, eats barbecue pork at his side. After three years of obsessing over the lawsuit, the couple would soon be heading back to Georgia, having given up their day in court. But at least they'd always have New York.
Wallace betrays the easy confidence of a successful man convinced of the rightness of his cause. The pawnshop he opened in 1979 turned into one of the largest independently owned firearms dealerships in Georgia. Active in local affairs, he's also a volunteer fireman and sheriff's deputy in the town of Acworth, population 17,000.
Now that the Wallaces are no longer preparing for trial, they've had time for some sightseeing: Times Square, Central Park, Broadway shows, two pilgrimages to Ground Zero. But Wallace wanted more than a tourist's perspective; he wanted to experience the city the way the locals live it. And he found that some of the best spots were right in Brooklyn. At Red Bamboo, a vegetarian restaurant, Wallace sampled fake meat in the form of "chicken" Parmesan. He also tried soy milk: "I came here, and I noticed New York had a lot of soy milk. I'd never had it before, but I tried it—first the sweetened kind. It was good!"
Even the nursing staff at the hospital on DeKalb Avenue, where Wallace spent Memorial Day weekend because of chest pain, proved to be some of the loveliest health-care professionals he'd met. (He's composing a thank-you letter to the hospital director. As a small-business owner, he says, he knows the value of a customer's kind word.) And despite being somewhat "mustardy," the barbecue sauce at the Smoke Joint deserves an A, he points out.
Wallace is so impressed, he says he could actually consider living here one day. Not that some things don't need improvement. He and Cecilia are worried about the destruction of the old Coney Island—where they'd eaten a Nathan's hot dog—and about the taxi drivers who can't afford the price of gas. Mostly, Wallace finds it unfortunate that such a wonderful city is suffering under a despot-in-chief for a mayor, one who is turning New York into a playground for the rich. "Living here, I know how New Yorkers feel—overtaxed!" Wallace exclaims, half-furious, half-smiling. But nothing seems to detract from his down-to-earth Southern charm.
When Wallace speaks of the mayor, his nostrils flare with anger. But he doesn't feel that way about other New Yorkers, who, he says, he doesn't "blame for what Bloomberg has done . . . I'm telling you, if someone had told me I was going to be sued by the mayor of New York, I wouldn't have believed it. I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't lived through it myself."
As the afternoon wears on, the restaurant owner comes over to the table with a basket of locally grown organic strawberries to pass around. Taking one, Cecilia—Wallace's high-school sweetheart, and the daughter of a Birmingham grocer— remarks that the local businesses in Fort Greene remind her of the South before it came to be dominated by chain stores.
Her husband agrees, but he gestures to the bars on the shop windows across the street and shakes his head. "We don't have bars on our store windows in Georgia," he explains. "And it's because an honest and responsible citizen can carry a firearm."
You can take the man out of his gun shop, but apparently you can't take the gun shop out of the man.
"If New Yorkers want to be without firearms, more power to them," Wallace says, looking out to Flatbush Avenue, where a Hot 97 truck rolls past. "When in Rome, I'll act as a Roman. But don't come to my backyard and tell me how to run my business."
Convinced that lax gun-shop owners were making illegal sales of firearms to criminals who would then traffic them to New York City, the Bloomberg administration in 2006 hired an investigative firm to make a series of "straw purchases" in gun shops mostly in the South.
Federal law prohibits individuals from buying guns for people who are banned from buying them on their own, but the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives estimates that more than half of the trafficked guns used by criminals aged 18 to 24 are obtained this way. (An ATF spokeswoman says the agency has no way of knowing the total number of guns trafficked in the country.)
To prove that dealers were ignoring the law and were lax when it came to screening buyers, the city hired the Manhattan-based James Mintz Group and arranged for two investigators to pose as a couple and act out the classic straw-purchase scenario: The woman fills out the paperwork in her name, but behaves as if the gun is actually for the man, who asks all the questions about the weapon and lays down the cash for it. (Fifteen dealers who refused to sell a gun to the undercover agents weren't sued.)
Wallace swears that his employees— one of them is his son Eric—followed ATF guidelines when the investigators came to his store. He says the clerks were suspicious of the agents, but eventually decided, after some questioning, that they were legitimate buyers.
Wallace sells about 5,000 guns a year at his store, Adventure Outdoors. Since 1994, 62 of the guns purchased there have been recovered by the NYPD, according to Eric Proshansky, the lawyer for the city. Most were trafficked here, and a handful were used in violent crimes.
Though Wallace is convinced that he didn't violate the law, he backed out of the civil trial on June 2, citing the liberal bias of longtime federal judge Jack Weinstein, a 1967 Lyndon B. Johnson appointee. Weinstein, who has ruled against the gun industry in previous cases, had decided to empanel an "advisory jury" in the case. The jury's decision wouldn't be binding, and Weinstein would be the final arbiter in the case.
"When they took away our constitutional jury," says Cecilia, "we could see the writing on the wall."
Because the Wallaces refused to take part in the trial, a city magistrate judge can issue a "default judgment," which the Wallaces plan to appeal. (A devout Methodist, Wallace spoke of the appeal as the best chance for David to fight Goliath: "I'm putting my stone in my sling. And my sling is called the Second Circuit.")
About 75 percent of guns found in New York come from out of state—via the so-called "iron pipeline"—with the top source states being Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia, according to the ATF. Legislative obstacles set up by the powerful firearms lobby and its supporters in Congress have prevented the city from gaining access to a national ATF gun database, making it tough to trace guns to out-of-state dealers. Since 2002, the Tiahrt Amendment—named after the Kansas Republican Todd Tiahrt—has blocked access to the database for use in civil lawsuits.
Supporters of the amendment say that it protects the confidentiality of gun purchasers and doesn't inhibit law-enforcement efforts. When the Senate voted to renew the law last summer, Bloomberg—who sits at the helm of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a group of 320 mayors crusading for reform in firearms regulation—called it a "slap in the face to the men and women who put on a uniform and risk their lives every day."
Stymied by the Tiahrt Amendment, the city adopted another strategy, obtaining a court order that required Adventure Outdoors and other dealers to offer up the serial numbers of all the guns sold over the past seven years. It then matched the numbers with those collected by the NYPD.
Bloomberg's lawsuits against out-of-state dealers are the first of their kind in the nation. (The suits sought no monetary damages—the sole aim was to place monitors in the shops to observe sales.) Previous attempts to curb gun trafficking to the city tended to focus on gun manufacturers and distributors, but those efforts have largely collapsed in recent years. In 2000, New York joined other cities, such as San Francisco and Boston, when they sued gun manufacturers such as Beretta USA, Browning Arms, Colt's Manufacturing, Glock, and Smith & Wesson. By 2005, those lawsuits were tanking, says Daniel Webster, who directs the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy & Research and was an expert witness for the city. Courts weren't accepting the cities' contention that the manufacturers should be held liable for dealers who sold guns to criminals, or for guns used in criminal acts. And a 2005 law, the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, has made it all but impossible to sue manufacturers.
The ATF's data, meanwhile, showed that almost 60 percent of trafficked guns come from less than 2 percent of dealers. So Bloomberg took the next logical step: If the suits against manufacturers weren't working, it was time to go after those dealers who seemed to be at the root of the trafficking problem.
"The manufacturers were the much bigger fish," says Webster. "The lawsuits against dealers were an easier case to make."
And the city felt it had very good evidence against Adventure Outdoors, in particular. It had a witness, Shanika Davis, who, in 2004, was convicted of a felony for making a straw purchase from Adventure Outdoors on behalf of a New York City gun trafficker. The woman testified that the trafficker directed her purchases through a cell-phone conversation held within earshot of the sales clerks. Proshansky says he's uncovered 19 prosecutions of illegal gun purchasers who bought from Adventure Outdoors over the past decade or so—the highest number of prosecutions connected to any dealer that was sued.
But Wallace claims that the multiple prosecutions demonstrate just how vigilant and careful he is when selling guns: He says at least six prosecutions came about because he alerted ATF agents to suspicious activity in the store. (Testimony from ATF agents that Wallace says would support his claim, however, wasn't heard because Wallace pulled out.)
"If the city had just come to me and said, 'Jay, we have a problem,' I would have done something," he says, adding that he cares more about guns getting into the wrong hands than the publicity- obsessed and "agenda-driven" Bloomberg. "After 30 years in the business, I know so much more than they do. It's like a child telling the teacher what to do."
If Wallace ever does face off against Bloomberg in court, it'll be on Wallace's home turf in Georgia, where, as Cecilia explains in her Birmingham accent, the New York mayor "won't have his judge to protect him." Wallace has countersued Bloomberg for defamation and libel in a federal court in Atlanta.
Wallace says he's motivated by an unshakable faith in the American justice system. But it doesn't hurt that he has friends in high places.
Representing him in the countersuit is his buddy Bob Barr, the Libertarian presidential nominee and former Republican Congressman. A few weeks ago, Wallace's allies in the Georgia State House passed a law, House Bill 89, which makes it a felony to knowingly deceive a firearms retailer—a reaction to Bloomberg's undercover investigators, whom Wallace is also suing. (The same bill allows Georgians with a permit to carry a firearm in many public places, such as restaurants, buses and subways, and state parks. Asked about the law, Wallace says that sometimes the South is pictured as the Wild West, with people swaggering around with guns in their holsters. It's not the right image, he clarified, because the firearms have to be concealed.)
Besides the Second Amendment Foundation and the NRA (which donated $1,000 to each of the dealers sued by Bloomberg), Wallace has received support in the form of dozens of smaller donations, including $50 from a soldier stationed in Iraq, who wrote him an e-mail saying: "Your fight is as important to the cause of freedom as the fight of my brethren against the terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan."
On their final afternoon in New York, the Wallaces caught a ferry to the Statue of Liberty. "I get shivers just looking at it," Wallace said as he and Cecilia stepped onto the tourist-swarmed island. There wouldn't be time that day to go to Ellis Island, where Wallace hoped to look up his Lithuanian-Jewish "warrior" roots, the source of his chutzpah.
Peering out from the ferry's window, Wallace inquired about the origin of the cannon armory on Governors Island. His love of guns is as much the love of a collector and a history buff as it is that of an avid hunter. Among the hundreds of guns he keeps in safes in his home is an original Civil War–era Henry single-action repeater (Wallace says the technology gave the North the war) and a cap-and-ball pistol from the Revolutionary period.
The Bloomberg lawsuit has only caused Wallace to delve more deeply into history. He spends hours poring through the Library of Congress database, seeking clues to the founding fathers' constitutional vision, especially when it comes to the Second Amendment. He recently found a 1788 letter from James Madison to Thomas Jefferson that he thought was particularly relevant. "It describes what's happening to me today, with the government getting powerful and then stomping on an individual's rights and persuading people to think it's a good idea for the moment. Go read it," he said. "Those were some smart people."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.
- Seventeen Millennials Arrested as Police Bust Elaborate Credit Card Scheme
- Video: Brooklyn Flag-Burning Protest Erupts in a Few Almost-Fights
- The NYPD Has Installed Cameras Across the City So You Won't Be Tempted to Set Off...