Report Tracks NY Crime Guns to Many States

The report by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives traced 8,793 guns from New York crimes or investigations

By Michael Virtanen
|  Monday, Jul 30, 2012  |  Updated 1:39 PM EDT
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Most guns recovered from New York crimes last year originated in states with fewer legal restrictions, though the largest single source remains New York itself, where 1,595 were first purchased, federal data show.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives — which traced 8,793 guns from New York crimes or investigations — reported that many came from southern or Eastern Seaboard states, though some originated in recorded retail sales from nearly every other state.

ATF officials say the report shows that New York's restrictive gun laws have made it a "market state" for guns from elsewhere at a time when recent shootings have reignited the national debate on regulations. Authorities said the main weapon used in the killing of a dozen moviegoers in Aurora, Colo., was an AR-15 rifle modified with a high-capacity magazine that allowed firing many bullets without reloading. That gun would be illegal in New York.

New York laws prohibit machine guns and possessing handguns without a license.

"We call New York a market state because it's so highly regulated that it's easier to get a gun in another state and bring it back," said ATF group supervisor Robert Cucinelli.

While buying a single-shot rifle or shotgun generally follows the same federal rules as the rest of the country, New York's handgun license applications involve a vetting process that can take six months. In addition, New York City requires a special permit to own a rifle or shotgun, and its pistol permits expire every three years.

The ATF report did not specify the sources of nine machine guns from New York crimes. Possession of a machine gun under New York law is a felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison. Having another firearm "simulating a machine gun and which is adaptable for such use" or having a "large capacity ammunition feeding device" is punishable by up to seven years.

Federal law requires owners to register machine guns with ATF, prohibits individuals from buying any that weren't registered before May 19, 1986, and bars interstate transfers.

New York City police said the weapon used earlier this month in Queens to kill three men may have been an AK-47 assault rifle that rapidly fired at least 63 rounds, littering the area with shell casings.

"There certainly is an underground market," State Police Maj. Wayne Olson said. It's fed by out-of-state guns, including "straw purchases" by buyers fronting for others, by lost or stolen guns and even some falsely reported as stolen, he said.

Licensed gun dealers nationally are required to submit information to the FBI for an instant computer background check of a buyer's known felony convictions, mental disability or domestic violence restraining orders, conditions that can block a sale. In New York, handgun licensing generally requires fees, fingerprinting, a safety course, background checks, character references and approval by a judge or other designated official. Nassau, Suffolk and Westchester counties require five-year renewals.

Gun dealers here advertise semiautomatic AR-15s, a variation on the U.S. military's former M16 rifle, which automatically feeds bullets from a magazine but fires one shot at a time.

"It's not very difficult to alter a semiautomatic firearm to fire as a fully automatic," said ATF special agent Walter Kudron. There are parts and instructions available, he said.

However, the large majority of crime guns in New York are handguns, which accounted for more than two-thirds of the weapons ATF traced last year. Altogether, the state had less than one-third of the 30,364 crime guns ATF traced for California last year, and half the 19,140 in Florida.

Data show guns used in roughly 20 percent of New York's violent crimes, which have dropped overall in the past decade, despite recent upticks. In New York City, arrests where gun possession was the top offense rose to 6,795 last year from 4,994 in 2002. In the rest of the state, they rose to 2,426 last year from 1,975 nine years earlier, according to the Division of Criminal Justice Services.

"There's a split in the state. Crime guns from upstate tend to come from the state. Crime guns in the city tend to come from states along the Atlantic Seaboard," said Richard Aborn, president of the Citizens Crime Commission of New York City. Aborn, like Mayor Michael Bloomberg, advocates tougher federal gun laws, similar to New York's.

Federal law has one mechanism for policing interstate gun trafficking, Cucinelli said.

"The crime that's actually occurring in the store is lying on the form. When you buy a gun you have to pass a background check and fill out the form. Is this gun for you? He checks off yes. If he checks no, he can't transfer that gun."

So-called "lying and buying" is a federal felony that can lead to up to five years in prison.

Cucinelli said there are also sales at gun shows or flea markets in other states where private individuals, who are not licensed gun dealers, can legally sell them without instant background checks on the buyer.

New York added a background-check requirement in 2000. Attorney General Eric Schneiderman last year charged 10 people in six counties with misdemeanors, accusing them of selling long guns, including three AR-15s, while failing to do buyer background checks at gun shows. Nine have settled their cases for penalties up to a $200 fine and 100 hours of community service.

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