DA Vance Testimony on Federal Gun Laws Before the City Council

December 15, 2011

Res. No. 821 – Resolution calling on the United States Congress to pass and the President to sign into law H.R.591/S.35, which would close the background check loophole at gun shows by establishing a background check procedure for all firearms sold at gun shows.

Res. No. 1122 – Resolution calling on the United States Senate and the President to oppose H.R.822, known as the “National Right-to-Carry Reciprocity Act of 2011,” which would allow a resident from one state who has a carry concealed handgun permit to lawfully carry his or her handgun into a different state, regardless of the licensing eligibility standards in the other state.

Good morning, Chairman Vallone and members of the Council. Thank you for the opportunity to comment on two important public safety issues that are at the forefront of our federal government’s agenda: the gun-show loophole and the concealed-carry reciprocity mandate. Nothing is more important to me as Manhattan District Attorney than the safety of our citizens. From the day I took office, I have focused heavily on prosecuting violent offenders and getting guns off the streets.

Please let me provide some background regarding gun crimes in New York County.

This year, much like last year, more homicides were committed with a gun than any other type of weapon. Since I took office in January 2010 through the end of November, 62 people have been shot to death in Manhattan.  Every time an individual carries a loaded firearm, there is a heightened potential for a catastrophic outcome. In 2010 alone, we arraigned 378 individuals for Criminal Possession of a Weapon in the Second Degree, which is the C felony crime of possessing a loaded firearm. 

As you know, we are involved in myriad programs that aim to reduce the incidence of gun crimes.  Before I discuss our prosecutions, let me mention that some of these efforts are social initiatives, such as the new “Saturday Night Lights” initiative that has turned a previously-closed gym on Manhattan Avenue and W. 119th St. into a basketball training program open to neighborhood kids aged 12-16. The idea is to give kids an alternative to the street at the hours when they are idle, and therefore most at-risk of encountering violence.

Other programs in which we are involved represent a direct effort to reduce the number of guns in circulation. For example, at our most recent gun buy-back, we took more than 130 illegal guns off of the street. Yet the reality is that even with these types of efforts, illegal firearms remain a threat to public safety. 

We are also, of course, involved in vigorous enforcement efforts. This past October, the last five of 14 individuals who were part of the “137th Street Crew” were convicted of a range of crimes involving the possession and sale of crack cocaine and possession of firearms. These individuals used violence, including shootings, beatings and robberies, to protect their narcotics trafficking business, to enhance their own status within the gang, and enhance the gang’s street credibility with rival street gangs. They recruited children, particularly girls, to carry their weapons, believing police were less likely to stop them.  The defendants possessed 9-millimeter semiautomatic handguns with high-capacity magazines, .380-caliber semiautomatic handguns, .25-caliber semiautomatic handguns, and .32- and .38-caliber revolvers.  Their sentences have ranged from rehabilitative programs to 20 years to life, in the case of the gang leader.

This was hardly an isolated instance of gangs and guns intersecting in our city. In early November, my office charged 19 individuals with a range of gang-related crimes committed in the vicinity of 129th street in Harlem. The gang was known by a variety of nicknames: Goodfellas, One Twenty-Nine and the New Dons. They are charged with storing guns as their stock-in-trade; they hid them in easy-to-access but hard for many of us to imagine places like storm drains, rooftops and mailboxes. Their purpose was not primarily economic but violent: the guns were a tool to protect their turf against rivals.

These cases are troubling for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the demographic of both the victims and the offenders. They are, by and large, young people. And it is not a random group of young people:  If you look at a map of Manhattan and put a push-pin at the exact coordinates of every gun crime, an overwhelming concentration is located in Northern Manhattan. This community bears a disproportionate burden when it comes to gun crimes. Indeed, many experts have come to see gun crime as a public health crisis in certain communities.

There is, however, good news.  This year, there has been a groundswell of partnership among community leaders, law enforcement, and citizens; they are all coming together to keep guns off our streets.  For example, youth summits are being held around the city, and youth advisory groups are forming with the aim of finding creative ways to end gun violence. 

In the face of the efforts I have outlined, I would like to tell you, from my perspective as District Attorney, why it is essential that Congress not undermine this groundswell of unity that is building across the city with ill-advised laws that will hinder our efforts.

We have only to look at H.R. 822 – otherwise known as the reciprocal right to carry bill – to see a glaring example of federal legislation potentially undermining our best efforts to keep guns off our streets.  This bill, while providing no benefit to society, places law-abiding citizens at unnecessary risk of grievous harm.

As you know, H.R. 822 would require every state to honor permits to carry concealed weapons from any other state, overriding the laws of New York and many other states.  If this bill were to become law, individuals who would not be eligible for a permit in New York would be afforded the right to carry a concealed weapon while in New York solely because they hold permits from their home states.  Without any discretion or oversight, New York would be forced to allow individuals to carry a concealed weapon in clear violation of New York State law. Let me be clear on this point: people who New York deems too dangerous to be afforded the privilege of carrying guns would nevertheless be free to stroll through Times Square armed with enough firepower to shoot dozens of people.

Legislators in each of the 50 states crafted their gun laws with careful consideration for the safety of their constituents. In our state, for instance, we prohibit most convicted offenders from carrying a firearm.  Moreover, New York, among other things, requires that prospective licensees demonstrate good cause for carrying a firearm, insists that applicants otherwise be of good character, and establishes specific training protocols in order to carry firearms. There is good reason for these requirements, including the fact that New York has densely populated areas, major tourist attractions, and thoroughfares that serve as a main artery to other East Coast destinations.  With due consideration to these factors, New York has decided not to honor concealed carry permits from other states, many of which do not have similarly thorough screening and educational elements as part of the permit process.

Stripping New York of the discretion to determine who can carry a concealed weapon when they are temporarily residing in or travelling in New York State would be a danger to New Yorkers, our visitors, and our law enforcement community. H.R. 822 would encourage gun traffickers and other criminals to pass through the state with loaded weapons in their cars and on their person.  It would put police officers in the untenable situation of having to know and understand the concealed carry permit process of each and every state, an unrealistic requirement that would make it impossible for law enforcement to know whether someone who is carrying a concealed weapon is doing so legally.

Simply put, no justification exists for overriding states’ laws and therefore dramatically reducing public safety.  H.R. 822 is a bad idea all around.

In stark contrast to H.R. 822, H.R. 591 would have the direct effect of making New Yorkers safer.  H.R. 591 is designed to close the so-called gun show loophole. 

Currently, under federal law, only licensed gun dealers are required to conduct background checks before completing the sale of a firearm.  Occasional sellers – a term not defined anywhere in federal law – are not required to perform such background checks. It does not take much imagination to see why sellers would call themselves “occasional” sellers for the purposes of selling at gun shows.

New York State is, in fact, one of only six states in the country that has already closed this loophole at the state level by requiring universal background checks on all firearm sales at gun shows, including sales by unlicensed dealers.  But absent similar initiatives across the nation, gun show loopholes are a very real threat to New York.

All we need to do is look at where the majority of guns that are used in the commission of a crime come from:  In New York City, upwards of 90% of crime guns come from another state. 

It is not hard to see why.  Someone inclined to use a gun in a gun crime would be wise to step out of state to purchase that gun; they can avoid the background check and be assured of securing a weapon, despite their criminal history and laws preventing them from owning a firearm.  And as long as there is nothing to prevent them from doing so, New York has no way to stem the flow of firearms purchased without the requisite background checks at gun shows in surrounding states. 

H.R. 591 toughens penalties, holds gun show operators accountable, and requires background checks for all sales.  Corrupt dealers would be subject to a license suspension, jail time, and significant fines. 

These pragmatic changes should be made now.  The federal gun show loophole must be closed.

I hope you will join with me by taking this a step further.  Recently you may have heard about Attorney General Eric Schneidermann’s investigation into the flouting of New York’s gun show laws over the past several months.  Undercover investigators, who frequently told sellers that they had facts in their backgrounds that would bar them from owning a firearm, were nonetheless sold firearms by sellers.  The same holds true for Mayor Bloomberg’s announcement yesterday where undercovers, using the same tactics, were able to purchase guns over the internet in violation of federal law.  In fact they were able to illegally purchase the same make and model used in the murder of New York City Police Officer Peter Figoski. We need to work together to enforce New York’s existing laws and, where necessary, to enhance the laws so that this type of activity does not continue.

New York has benefited from a more than decade-long decrease in violent crime.  Together we can continue to move forward by reducing gun crimes and giving all of our communities that same opportunity to flourish.  I look forward to working with all of you to make that vision a reality.