New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has called upon Congress to enact tougher guns laws after four of his city’s police officers were shot and wounded while responding to a hostage situation in Brooklyn on April 8.
Those shootings brought to eight the number of NYPD officers who have been shot in recent months—one of them resulting in a fatality—and, according to Bloomberg, all the guns used in those events were illegally owned.
“And make no mistake: It will happen again—and again—until those in Washington stop cowering before the gun lobby,” Bloomberg wrote the next day on the New York Daily News op-ed page.
And contrary to what lawmakers might believe, he said, most gun owners support the kinds of background checks that would help stop the flow of guns to criminals.
Attorney Jackie Hilly, executive director of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence, said that Bloomberg is correct in his assessment of the situation.
According to Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms data, she said, several states are known to be the primary sources of illegal guns coming into New York: Pennsylvania, Virginia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia and Florida.
Known as the “iron pipeline,” the reason those states constitute a gun-trafficking problem for New York and elsewhere is because private sales of guns in those state do not require a background check.
“They’re then thrown into the back of trucks or any other means of transportation and they’re brought to New York and sold to criminals,” Hilly said.
While the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993 mandated the creation of a National Instant Background Check (NICS) system, which went into effect in 1998, that law only applies to sales conducted by federally licensed dealers. It does not apply to a vast “secondary market” of gun transactions, and the background checks on those buyers are left to the states to decide.
“An estimated 40 percent of all guns sold in the U.S. are sold without any background check,” Hilly said. “There’s a vast, gaping hole in our system.”
In addition, she argued, the NICS system itself is flawed because it relies on states to upload data on convictions and adjudications into the system and the reporting requirements are lax. The Brady Law identified nine categories of people who must be excluded as purchasers—felons, people under indictment for felonies, people convicted for domestic violence, people who have been adjudicated as mentally ill, who have been dishonorably discharged from the military, etc.—but oftentimes, she said, those data are very slow to make it into the NICS system.
“So you can get a gun anywhere anytime in this country pretty easily and not worry about having your background checked,” she said. “And the guys who are involved in the criminal trafficking of weapons know very well where to go and how to do it.”
New York is known as a state with some of the toughest gun laws in the country and it also has one of the lowest rates of gun deaths. Last year, the Daily Beast examined the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and found that New York State ranked 45th in the nation with 5.1 gun deaths per 100,000 people. (The highest were Mississippi with 18.3 gun deaths per 100,000 and Arizona, with 15 per 100,000.)
Hilly believes the fact that gun violence is relatively low is also attributable to the fact that New York has purchasing requirements that are even tougher than the nine categories identified by the Brady Law. In New York, a person who wants to get a license to carry a concealed weapon must apply to a licensing agent—either local police or county clerk—who may investigate whether the applicant should be permitted to carry a gun.
Hilly said that in her own town there’s a man who roams the streets who is mentally unstable and who, while not otherwise posing a public threat, would clearly be dangerous if armed.
“There are red flags about whether people should be permitted to possess guns, but they don’t necessarily rise to the level of a mental adjudication,” she said.
She also argued that if the New York-style system were in place in Arizona, which has a less stringent requirements for granting concealed-carry licenses, Jared Lee Loughner—who had a record of mental instability and drug use and who shot and killed six people and injured 14 others, including U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords on Jan. 8, 2011 in Tucson, Ariz.—would have had a more difficult time getting the guns to commit his deadly act.