While New York tries desperately to dig its way out of the Supreme Court’s consideration of its regulation by suggesting that a proposed change to its rules would moot the case, there is another group arguing in favor of guns. They’re not led by some crazed militia leader or some semi-automatic gun nut. Their spokesperson is Emily Bazelon.
When gun control advocates discuss how to restrict access to lethal weapons, they mostly talk about permit requirements and background checks. But that coin has another side: punishment for people accused of possessing guns without the state’s permission.
New York City is no gun haven. It’s not that there aren’t guns in New York. There are. They just aren’t possessed lawfully, at least according to the regulations of the New York City Police Department, charged with issuing permits for the possession and carry of a firearm. And unless you’re an ex-cop, or have some serious political connections, you’re not getting a permit. Even legit claims for the need for a gun by those carrying large and legal sums of cash or briefcases filled with diamonds are routinely turned away. NYPD does not want anyone to carry a gun, except them.
In January 2016, Mayor Bill de Blasio established a specialized gun court in Brooklyn to fast-track the city’s “remaining evildoers”—his words—to prison. Almost all of them faced the most serious possible charge for possession of an illegal loaded gun, which in New York carried a minimum sentence of 3½ years in prison and a maximum of 15 years. In theory, the mayor’s initiative was a tough-minded solution to gun violence that anti-gun liberals and law-and-order conservatives could unite behind.
Getting guns “off the streets” has been a time-honored excuse in New York. It was the foundational rationalization for the City’s “stop & frisk” tactic, even if it yielded very few guns but lots of miniscule amounts of weed. In the olden days, pre-crack epidemic, criminal possession of a weapon would result in probation for a first offense, a bullet for a second. It now carries a mandatory minimum of 3½ years in prison to prove how tough New York is on guns. Not for shooting a gun. Just possession. After all, why would anyone carry a gun unless he was going to use it?
Bazelon went to see for herself how this gun court, that took evil guns off the street and saved people’s lives, was working out.
Two and a half years ago, I started visiting the Brooklyn gun court to see how it was working.
I thought I’d find horrific stories of gun violence and hardened evildoers, like de Blasio said. Instead, over many months of my reporting, I found hundreds of teenagers and young people, almost all of them black, being marched to prison not for firing a gun, or even pointing one, but for having one. Many of them had minimal criminal records. To be precise, when I went through 200 case files, I found that 70 percent of the defendants in gun court had no previous felony convictions.
If she wanted to see cases about people firing a gun, she was in the wrong court. That would have been Supreme Court, where they try murder and attempted murder cases. That many had no “previous felony convictions” might be interpreted as a sign that the NYPD was doing its job, taking guns off the streets before they were used to kill.
Of course, she doesn’t say they didn’t have priors, perhaps a drug conviction here or there, but that they weren’t “hardened evildoers.” No one is a hardened evildoer until they do hardened evil. Gun court is there to prevent that from happening, by dealing with guns unlawfully possessed, not criminally employed.
Here’s what predicted who ended up on the benches in gun court: race and age. Black people are less likely to own guns than white people, but the defendants in gun court were almost all black teenagers and young men. An initiative that sounded like a targeted attack on America’s gun problem looked up close more like stop-and-frisk or the war on drugs—one more way to round up young black men.
There is no cite, no link, offered for the proposition that black people are less likely to own guns than white people, but if the comparison is between black people in Brooklyn and white people in Houston, it doesn’t seem too much of a stretch. But then, if the comparison is people in Brooklyn, it’s nonsensical. More importantly, if the unlawful possession of guns is wrong, or as some might suspect, the possession of guns is wrong for anyone as so many anti-gun advocates believe in their deepest hearts, what difference does it make? So NYPD is failing to bust enough gun-toting white people doesn’t mean they should let gun-toting black people do as they please.
Is age and race the predictor? Sure, but not of who ended up on the benches in gun court. Rather, it’s the predictor of who possesses guns unlawfully on the street of New York City. But why is this so?
Defendants in gun court often said they had guns for “protection,” a classic Second Amendment argument. They saw them as a means of defense. There’s a heartbreaking element to this, because the guns don’t deliver on that promise of protection. They make things more dangerous. And yet the guns retained their allure as a kind of costume—a way to signal that the person who has one is not prey.
Based on my anecdotal experience, this is largely true, that many young black men will arm themselves because they live in dangerous places and engage in dangerous conduct. They don’t have any intention to kill anyone, but they don’t intend to die either. It’s hard on the streets, when some sell drugs and others use guns to steal the money made from selling drugs. Others use guns to try to take the profitable street corner where the drugs are sold. Still others are just angry and know no other way to prove that they are to be taken seriously, feared, except with a gun.
And so, possession of a gun is often defensive. But it’s still unlawful. And they know this and make the decision to risk years of their life rather than to die. If they get caught with the gun, they end up in gun court and go to prison, with all the bad things that ensue. Are they the only ones in New York who should be given a pass on carrying weapons?
Is the issue gun court, young black men who carry illegal guns or the mandatory 3½ year minimum prison sentence? Anybody want to guess who pushed so hard for the mandatory and severe sentence that would surely serve as a deterrent to gun possession by those hardened evildoers?