I doubt I ever would have gone to the black market to purchase an illegal assault weapon if it wasn’t for New York’s annoyingly restrictive gun control laws. Wait. Let me back up a bit. New York State passed the Sullivan Act back in 1911. The law required people to get a government permit to own or carry any weapon small enough to be concealed—handguns, in particular. Issuing the permit would be a matter of official discretion, which is a policy continued to the present day.
The motivation for passing the law was no secret. During debates leading to the ultimate passage of the gun control law, The New York Times editorialized:
Such a measure would prove corrective and salutary in a city filled with immigrants and evil communications, floating from the shores of Italy and Austria-Hungary. New York police reports frequently testify to the fact that the Italian and other south Continental gentry here are acquainted with the pocket pistol, and while drunk or merrymaking will use it quite as handily as the stiletto, and with more deadly effect. It is hoped that this treacherous and distinctly outlandish mode of settling disputes may not spread to corrupt the native good manners of the community.
Well … guilty as charged. My family (I’m descended from immigrants originating in those suspect regions of Europe) has long had a habit of owning, and often carrying, weapons in and around New York City.
But we got to this country—most of my ancestors, anyway—just about the time the Sullivan Act became law. Which means all that carrying and brandishing of weapons took place despite the law, because nobody in my family bothered to get a pistol permit through several generations of residency in New York City.
There are downsides to owning guns illegally. The big one, from my perspective, was that I couldn’t go shooting at a range. The folks at the Westside Rifle and Pistol Range probably had as dim a view of permits and registration as I do, but they weren’t about to risk their own freedom just to let me put a few holes in paper targets.
So I applied for a permit to purchase a .45-caliber Model 1911 and keep it at home.
The sales clerk at the gun shop was helpful—he should have been. I paid a premium to have my paperwork submitted to the proper city paper-pushers by experts retained by the store. Although the term was never used, I assumed that meant the store made use of New York City’s peculiar breed of middlemen known as “expediters” to get the permit processed. Eternally controversial, expediters are known for their detailed knowledge of the city’s byzantine regulatory procedures, their working relationships with bureaucrats, and their willingness to grease palms to make sure clients are given favorable consideration.
Even so, I waited. And I waited. And I finally blew my stack.
As the saying goes, I knew a guy who knew a guy. It took an email, a phone call, and a friendly meeting, and for less than 300 bucks, I was the proud owner of a semi-automatic variant of an AK-47—the famed assault rifle of the old Soviet bloc and of guerrilla fighters everywhere. It was legal in much of the United States, but strictly verboten in New York City.
And it cost me about a third of the ultimate price of that legal pistol.
As it turned out, the illicit rifle was not only cheaper and easier to obtain than the legal pistol, but the seller was much more pleasant to deal with than the cops administering the official process. The police officers at New York City’s One Police Plaza, once I actually got into the place, were flat-out rude. They weren’t abusive as much as surly in a special bureaucratic way, backed up by the implied threat that they could punish back-talk with a simple nudge of your papers into the trash can. I bit my tongue, but everybody has their own limit. A “customer” at an adjoining desk in the cramped warren stood up, announced loudly that rather than put up with this treatment he’d buy his gun on the street, then stalked from the room.
Maybe he did. Maybe he didn’t. I’ll never know if that guy went to the black market. But plenty of New Yorkers have chosen to own guns outside the official system. In a city that, as I write, has roughly 37,000 licensed handgun owners and about 21,000 rifle and shotgun licenses, the running guesstimate of illegal firearms stands at two million, give or take a bit. That’s the number the U.S. Department of Justice has used in its official publications in recent years.
Basically, far more guns are owned illegally within the boundaries of New York City than are held legally. Government officials wanted tight restrictions on firearms, and they got them—but that doesn’t seem to have deterred many people from owning the things.
New York City officials blame states with looser laws for the flow of illicit guns. Mayor Bloomberg has famously waged a campaign of “straw-man” purchases against gun shops in states such as South Carolina, Georgia, and Virginia to which firearms found in New York City have been traced. The mayor’s proxies purchased guns in their own names, illegally intended for transfer to other people. Lawsuits followed against the stores where the purchases were permitted. That raises interesting questions about why mere citizens who make such purchases get sent to prison, while government agents acting far outside their jurisdiction get a free pass.
But if guns are currently coming from legal dealers in more permissive jurisdictions, there’s nothing to say that’s the only possible source, or that imposing tighter laws elsewhere will cut off the flow. After all, cocaine, marijuana, heroin, and other drugs find their way to New York City in generous quantities in the absence of any legal source within the United States—or outside it, for that matter.