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Gun Nuts

Can Bloomberg�s firearms initiatives hit their target? Turf wars, slander suits bedevil crusade.

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Mayor Bloomberg’s high-profile campaign to keep illegal guns out of the city is drawing return fire. Earlier this year, he dispatched teams of private eyes to collect evidence against what he called “the worst of the worst” of small-time gun dealers in states like Georgia, South Carolina, and Ohio. In the process, he has set off a turf war with the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, which normally handles the interstate gun beat. And some criminal charges Bloomberg initiated against New York gun dealers are mired in the courts.

Joe Green, a senior special agent and the New York spokesman for the ATF, questions the initiatives’ effectiveness. “It was useless,” he says. “We didn’t even know they were doing this until the day of the press conference” in May, when the mayor announced his sweeping civil lawsuit against fifteen out-of-state gun dealers he claims sold guns that were traced to New York crimes. “They never told us at all.” Green says that federal authorities subsequently had to sort out whether their own undercover investigations may have been jeopardized. Then again, the ATF might just be angry at Bloomberg for calling it “asleep at the switch” in a news conference

It’s hard to argue with the mayor’s calling attention to the lack of enforcement of gun laws. James Jacobs, director of the Center for Research in Crime and Justice at NYU, called it a “symbolic gesture.” He points out that most guns used in crimes are not purchased from licensed dealers who look the other way when making a sale, but are either stolen or bought secondhand. He believes the real purpose of the initiatives is to trigger a national movement among city leaders who seek to sidestep gun-friendly federal laws and keep wayward gun dealers in check. And Bloomberg is trying to do just that, drafting his own gun-violence legislation and pressing his case across the country. So far, almost 100 mayors have vowed to take a more aggressive approach.

Back in New York, charges against one dealer in Queens were downgraded and a measly $1,000 fine was paid. In another case, against a Brooklyn dealer, months have passed and prosecutors have yet to go before a judge. All guns have been returned, and emboldened lawyers for the dealers are dismissing the campaign as a “publicity stunt.” John Feinblatt, the mayor’s criminal-justice coordinator, bristles at this idea. Two southern outfits are suing the city, claiming the mayor slandered their names and his undercover operatives broke the law by buying guns in their stores under false pretenses. And the firearms Establishment is, of course, gunning for Bloomberg. Gun-industry lawyer John Renzulli is now representing six dealers named in Bloomberg’s civil suit. Renzulli argues the city had no legal jurisdiction to perform the undercover work and should have reported the incidents to the Feds. Expect more cases and out-of-state lawsuits against gun dealers. The $800,000 contract for the James Mintz Group, the P.I. firm hired by Bloomberg, lasts until June 2008.

Have good intel? Send tips to intel@nymag.com.


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