Arrests for illegal gun possession are up in New York City, but so too are the number of shootings. New York Police Commissioner Dermot Shea on Tuesday blasted the city’s court system for returning arrestees to the streets, pointing out that almost 90% of those arrested have been set free on bond or their own recognizance.
There are a couple of ways to look at that figure. Gun control activists will argue that the fact that nearly 90% of those arrested for violations of New York City’s draconian gun laws are back on the street means that clearly more gun control laws are needed, or at the very least there should be greater enforcement of the city’s law that makes it a felony to possess a gun without a license.
Second Amendment activists, on the other hand, will point out that if the city’s imposing a catch-and-release system for those arrested on non-violent, possessory gun offenses, maybe it’s time the city establish a way for the average resident to legally be able to carry a gun.
It probably won’t surprise you to learn where the police commissioner comes down on the issue.
“What we’re seeing is a revolving door, or maybe you can just say an open door, where 90 percent roughly of the people that we’ve arrested for guns are out on the street, whether they’re awaiting a disposition of their court case or they’re not prosecuted,” the commissioner said. “And that is a real obstacle that we continue to have to face.”
The problem, according to Shea, is not so much removing guns from the street, but “getting the people that carry guns off the street.”
“Let’s be very clear here,” he said. “We’re making more gun arrests than we ever have. But we can continue to make those gun arrests, and until we have real discussions and real follow-through on consequences, we’re going to have a tough road.”
Shea is right about the changes to the criminal justice system in New York City that allow for most defendants to be released without paying bond while they await their trial, but he’s wrong that simply arresting more people for illegally carrying a gun will dramatically reduce violent crime.
Keep in mind that Shea isn’t talking about arrests for violent crimes here. The commissioner is speaking specifically about individuals arrested simply for carrying a gun without a license in New York City; a license is almost impossible for the average resident to acquire.
Most people arrested for illegal gun possession in New York City don’t have extensive criminal histories and aren’t charged with violent offenses. At least some of them are carrying a gun because they want to be able to protect themselves in a dangerous neighborhood, not because they’re looking to commit a crime themselves. Because of the city’s ridiculously subjective and cost-prohibitive licensing standards, though, legally carrying a gun in self-defense isn’t a valid option for them, as Slate‘s Emily Bazelon pointed out in a 2019 article.
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. 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 inprison 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.
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.
Isn’t it odd that with all the talk of “reimagining policing” and reforms to the criminal justice system, New York politicos are still ardently opposed to decriminalizing the Second Amendment in the city? New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, for instance, has backed the idea of “safe injection sites” for heroin addicts, but is resolute in his objections to loosening any of the city’s gun laws, even when they put a disproportionate number of young black and brown men behind bars for non-violent crimes.
Instead, he’s content to have the New York Police Department continue to arrest large numbers of mostly young black and brown men for mostly non-violent possessory gun crimes that aren’t even against the law in many states of the Union. Instead of working to foster a culture of lawful gun ownership in New York City, de Blasio and other city officials continue to treat gun ownership as taboo for the average citizen, and by turning a right into a privilege they’re actually fueling the very culture of illicit gun ownership that they say they’re trying to prevent.
New York City’s gun laws didn’t prevent homicides from increasing by 45% in 2020, nor did they stop shootings from rising nearly 100% compared to 2019. Rather than trying to simply arrest anyone illegally carrying a gun, the city needs a severe course correction. Recognize the right of the average New York resident to bear arms in self-defense, work to create a culture of legal and responsible gun ownership in the city, and focus the NYPD’s efforts on arresting the most violent and prolific offenders on the city’s streets.
New York City’s D.A.’s, in turn, need to pursue those cases with vigor instead of automatically offering a plea deal to almost every defendant they’re prosecuting. They should refer cases involving those prolific offenders to the U.S. Attorney’s office wherever possible, ensuring longer sentences and real consequences for acts of violence.
Unfortunately the city is doing the complete opposite, and isn’t likely to change course anytime soon. Violent criminals are going to continue to feel emboldened by a criminal justice system that’s being “reimagined” in their favor. Residents in high-crime neighborhoods, meanwhile, are going to continue to wrestle with the difficult decision of whether or not to risk years in prison for illegally carrying a gun in self-defense because there’s no way for them to obtain a permit for them to do so legally.
This is a problem created entirely by the politicians in charge of New York City. They could fix these issues almost overnight if they wanted to, but apparently they don’t. Our best hope at this point is that the Supreme Court agrees to hear a right-to-carry case out of New York State called New York State Rifle & Pistol Association vs. Cortlett. The Court could decide to take up the case this spring, and a decision could help restore some real common sense and constitutionality to New York City’s carry laws.