State police seizures of illegal guns double

New York State Police Superintendent Kevin Bruen listens as Gov. Kathy Hochul speaks about seizure of the illegal firearms on the table beside her Thursday, Aug. 4, 2022, in Albany.

New York State Police Superintendent Kevin Bruen listens as Gov. Kathy Hochul speaks about seizure of the illegal firearms on the table beside her Thursday, Aug. 4, 2022, in Albany.

ALBANY — Seizures by state police of illegal firearms have more than doubled in a year, Gov. Kathy Hochul said as she gave an update on efforts to fight gun trafficking and crime in the state.

At a news conference Thursday with New York State Police Superintendent Kevin Bruen, she displayed 30 guns recently seized by a new state police unit as an example of the work the agency is doing.

State police and other agencies statewide have seized more than 6,000 firearms in just the first half of this year, Hochul said.

“But we still have a long way to go,” she said. “I want to thank this very elite group of people that was [assembled] toward the end of last summer. I put the money behind it, so we have people that are dedicated to ensuring that we get these guns off the streets, out of the hands of criminals and stop the loss of life that results when people are using these on our streets.”

The announcement comes amid an election campaign in which Hochul is being criticized for a violent crime rate that is significantly higher than the average of recent years in New York state.

The 20 police agencies participating in the state Gun Involved Violence Elimination initiative show a 60% increase in fatal shootings and a 33% increase in non-fatal shootings in the first six months of 2022 compared with the first-half average in the preceding five years. 

The first half of 2022 was a bit less violent than 2021 in total, but more people have been shot in each successive month of 2022 than in the month before, preliminary GIVE data show.

When Hochul took questions, reporters immediately zeroed in not on gun seizures but on the bail reform policies pushed through by the state’s all-Democratic leadership, which many Republicans charge has caused the increase in violent crime that New York has suffered since the onset of the pandemic.

Hochul countered that some offenses have decreased while gun violence rose in New York; that violence also has risen in other states that didn’t change their bail protocols; and that the original bail reform package has been amended twice. The most recent changes took effect less than three months ago, she added, and should be given a chance to work.

There is no single step that will reduce violent crime in New York, Hochul said, but the 30 pistols, assault-style rifles and various other firearms arrayed on a table at the state police Forensics Lab in Albany won’t contribute to more mayhem.

“These are guns that are no longer in the hands of violent criminals who would use them to perpetrate a drug trade or their gang warfare against each other or whatever purpose they had, they can’t do that right now,” the governor said.

It’s a team effort, working across multiple agencies at a combined cost of $227 million in the current state budget, and together with other measures it will allow the state to win its war on violence, Hochul said.

The new 14-member state police Gun Trafficking Interdiction Unit is one that works patiently and takes time to produce results, Bruen said. 

Gun seizures have traditionally been a byproduct of other investigations, particularly narcotics cases, he said. Now, the GTIU is taking bits of intelligence gleaned from those other investigations and looking for signs of organized efforts to bring guns from states with more lax gun laws into New York, where Hochul recently pushed through a new series of restrictions.

“They’re going to focus on the source of the guns and try to work that back,” Bruen said. “That takes a lot of work, it takes a lot of investigative techniques, it takes cooperation … to then work up these big cases. This case in and of itself took months, it wasn’t a flip-the-switch.”

Troopers on patrol, he said, have been trained to “look behind the gun … is there a trafficking component?”

That’s the seed that grows into a major case like the one discussed Thursday, Bruen said. 

Details of the case were not released, as the investigation continues, but search warrants have been executed in multiple locations as it progressed.

Bruen said one relatively new wrinkle in the fight is the proliferation of personally manufactured firearms — the so-called ghost guns, sold as build-it-yourself kits with no background checks, no registration, and none of the serial numbers that investigators can use to trace a murder weapon to its source.

“This concept of personally manufactured firearms — it just didn’t exist in New York five years ago,” Bruen said. “It’s an exponential growth. When you see that kind of growth in one area, you get concerned. So this is another focus that [the GTIU] can have.”

The White House earlier this year said ghost guns are the weapon of choice for many violent criminals. It said law enforcement agencies nationwide reported seizing about 20,000 last year, a tenfold increase from 2016, but were able to trace only a handful.

President Biden in April imposed restrictions on ghost guns via executive order that, barring a successful legal challenge, will take effect later this month.

Multiple retailers currently sell parts and entire kits online for knockoffs of popular designs such as the AR-15, Colt 1911 and Sig Sauer P320. They offer encouraging messages to potential buyers of what are nicknamed “80% guns” or “80 lowers.”

“Luckily in the interest of making a buck us red blooded americans have made it pretty easy for most people,” one website advises. “If you have access to a palm router you can get this done if you’re willing to spend money on a jig. After that, it’s legos for adults, pick your parts slap it together, make sure everything fits and feels the way you want.”

Another advises:  “Most of our parts can be turned into a fully functional firearm with just a jig, drill press, and the appropriately sized drill bits. Not only does buying our parts and accessories — which are fully tested by our team — allow you to own a handgun without the hassle, but our DIY approach gives you the chance to learn about the function and assembly of your weapon.”

The “hassle” eliminated includes background checks to ferret out felons and mentally incompetent people who aren’t legally allowed to buy guns. Another hassle averted is exposure of names and serial numbers to a government scrutiny, which is a bugaboo for a subset of law-abiding gun owners.

Ghost guns are illegal in New York, and the retailers quoted above won’t ship to New York or other states with bans. But that doesn’t stop their products from arriving here.

Hochul made passing reference to “people loading up trunks” of cars at gun shows in Pennsylvania and heading north to Rochester or east to the Bronx.

“That’s exactly the flow of guns that we’re trying to disrupt,” she said.

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