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Using gun database to target negligent firearm makers not so easy, ATF tells NYC Mayor Adams

August 1, 2022 Mary Frost
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When New York City Mayor Eric Adams met with Steven Dettelbach, the newly confirmed Director of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives on July 28, he asked Dettelbach to do something that ATF has never done before — revoke the firearms license of a leading gun manufacturer, Polymer80. 

Polymer80 has been called the nation’s largest supplier of untraceable ghost guns. At a news conference in May, NYPD officials said nine out of 10 ghost guns the NYPD seizes are made from Polymer80 kits. 

Adams had additional requests: he asked that Dettelbach double the number of ATF agents stationed in New York City, and increase data sharing between NYPD and ATF. In a video provided after their meeting, Adams said Dettelbach “was receptive to these requests, and we will be continuing the conversation in the weeks ahead.” 

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But Adams’ request to use the ATF database to go after the license of a gun manufacturer would be a major change from the established practice of ATF, an agency that has a dual mandate: It is both a law enforcement agency and the agency responsible for inspecting and licensing gun dealers. 

To accomplish their mission, ATF must work cooperatively with not only law enforcement partners, but also gun manufacturers and federal firearms licensees.

Panel members at the Protecting New York Summit, “Keeping New York Safe” panel, from left: Anil Chitkara, Evolv Technology; Kieran Carroll, ZeroEyes; Michael Joy, Cellebrite; John DeVito, SAC ATF; Ben Max, Gotham Gazette, moderator. Photo: Mary Frost, Brooklyn Eagle

Using gun data to go after manufacturers? Probably not

On July 20, Adams met with other big city mayors to discuss the possibility of sharing database information to go after negligent gun makers, saying that five manufacturers — Glock, Taurus, Smith & Wesson, Ruger and Polymer80 — produced more than half of the guns used for crimes in major U.S. cities last year. 

The notion of targeting gun manufacturers was also the subject of a hearing held on July 27 by the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, chaired by Carolyn Maloney. The committee focused on negligence by manufacturers of AR-15 style rifles.

The five major gun manufacturers collected a total of more than $1 billion dollars from the sale of assault rifles alone over the last decade, Maloney said. Their marketing tactics include “marketing to children, preying on young men’s insecurities, and even appealing to violent white supremacists,” along with arranging easy credit, she said. 

But the difficulties of going after the gun makers was made clear at a recent security conference held in New York City, where the special agent in charge of New York’s ATF shot down Adams’ hopes to target gun manufacturers using the shared database.

“It’s unfortunate he made that statement before he was educated by me,” SAC John DeVito told the crowd at the Protecting New York Summit, sponsored by City & State New York on July 21.

“Everybody wants to vilify the gun manufactures,” DeVito said, adding that one of his biggest jobs is “to educate officials, law enforcement partners and prosecutors exactly what this information means and how they can utilize it — and  how they shouldn’t utilize it. And I do that on a daily basis.

“Everybody thinks there’s some holy grail with all this data … So Glock’s your number one gun — it could be this year. But it could change next year, it could be Smith & Wesson,” DeVito said. “We do track that information, but at the end of the day, manufacturers are operators in a free market economy. They’re selling an item that is not contraband, it’s not dope. It’s a firearm. Whatever your views are on the Second Amendment, we live in a pro-Second Amendment world in this country.” 

Going after the manufactures and dealers because their firearms are being used in crimes “is a fruitless battle … They’re adequately protected in Congress,” DeVito said.

One of the largest distributors of firearms in the Southeast sells more than 300,000 guns a year, he said. “Twelve of which were recovered on your streets over the course of two years. Are they negligent? Or did they actually do a damn good job?”

And while there are thousands of federal firearms licensees in the state, less than one percent are negligent or criminal, DeVito said. Licensed gun dealers are, for the most part, “the first line of defense. They are the ones I count on to provide me with the information on those who are coming in and buying six Glocks.

“I explained that to the mayor,” he said.

Following the conference, DeVito told the Brooklyn Eagle that “the partnership between ATF New York and the Mayor’s Office is stronger than ever before. Mayor Adams and I make a concerted effort to have honest and straightforward conversations to reduce gun violence. We look forward to the continued collaboration.”

On Monday, ATF tweeted a photo of DeVito sitting down with the Mayor’s Office for International Affairs to discuss firearms trafficking. 

A crowd of security professionals gathered on July 21 at the all-day 2022 Protecting New York Summit, sponsored by City & State New York. The summit was held at the Museum of Jewish heritage in Manhattan. Photo: Mary Frost, Brooklyn Eagle

A ‘dirty little secret’

A New York Times report published in May, 2021 described how the National Rifle Association, along with Congress, has systematically stymied ATF for years. To give just one example, NRA blocked ATF’s plans to modernize the agency’s paperwork with a searchable database. There was so much unprocessed paper at ATF headquarters that the floor actually caved in.

DeVito confirmed the limitations he is working under.

“I regulate the firearm industry here in New York. And here’s the issue. I have 2,245 federal firearms licensees in New York State … and I only have 11 regulators. That’s the dirty little secret that no one tells you — that they purposely keep ATF small so we don’t interfere with firearm sales in this country… [The establishment] is doing everything to promote firearms sales in this country.”

Crime Gun Intelligence Center

Despite its tight budget and dual mandate, ATF can boast about its successful rollout of the city’s Crime Gun Intelligence Center. This is a partnership between ATF, NYPD and other agencies to create a shared data hub that consolidates evidence related to guns used in crimes. 

Building this tool required changing the culture of federal, state and local partners, which have long “siloed” their data, he said. 

“When I arrived in 2019, I went to my folks and said NYPD deserves everything ATF knows about [gun] trafficking. All I ask in return is that you share your information in kind, and what we will do is layer that information … to identify that one percent that is driving violent crime in the communities, and figure out who’s supplying them those firearms,” DeVito said.

The database can help focus in on the worst offenders, DeVito said. “There are 500 million-plus guns in circulation [in the U.S.] right now. There’s more guns than people —  there’s a never-ending supply of new guns.” 

With that number of guns, it makes more sense to target the small percentage of the population that causes the most trouble and find out who’s supplying them with their firearms, he said.

“I can go to any grizzled sergeant on any street and asked, ‘Who’s the real badass, the alpha. It’s that gentleman, sometimes a lady, that scares the hell out of everybody else in that neighborhood. The one that’s willing to take a shot.”

Panel members at the Protecting New York Summit, “Protecting New York’s Infrastructure” panel, from left: State Sen. Kevin Parker; Daniel Krantz, SWAC; Jackie Bray, Commissioner, NYS Homeland Security; Jeff McLeod, Deloitte, moderator. Photo: Mary Frost, Brooklyn Eagle

‘Keeping New York Safe’

DeVito made his comments as part of a panel called “Keeping New York Safe.” Others on the panel included NYPD’s Chief of Department Kenneth Corey; Cellebrite Product Specialist Michael Joy; ZeroEyes Chief Strategy Officer Kieran Carroll; and Evolv Technology’s Co-Founder Anil Chitkara. The panel was moderated by Gotham Gazette editor Ben Max. 

In the following panel held at the same event, called “Protecting New York’s Infrastructure,” DeVito received some pushback from Jackie Bray, commissioner of New York State Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services. 

“With all due respect to my colleagues on the previous panel, let me just start by saying I don’t think we’re a strong pro-Second Amendment country. I think we’re a country [where] an off-the-charts majority of us look for far more stringent and strict common sense gun safety laws, but that our politicians haven’t caught up or are far more regressive than the rest of us,” Bray said. 

State Sen. Kevin Parker (Flatbush, Park Slope), chair of the state Senate Energy and Telecommunications Committee, pointed out that in other locations, “fewer guns meant less violence.”

Parker recently backed the comprehensive gun violence package signed into law by Governor Kathy Hochul. The bill prohibits the sale of semiautomatic weapons to people under 21, bans body armor sales to civilians, closes some gun law loopholes, restricts sales of body armor to professionals and strengthens Red Flag laws.

Parker said that he had joined Adams in pushing for a social media background check before New Yorkers would be allowed to get a gun license. 

On Friday, the U.S. House passed the first assault weapons ban in nearly 30 years. The measure now must move on to the Senate.

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