NOAH HAGLUND, The Post and Courier
New York City is suing 15 out-of-state gun sellers, including pawnshops in Summerville and Orangeburg, saying illegal firearm sales have fueled violence on its streets.
The federal complaint filed Monday in the Eastern District of New York accuses the dealers of negligently selling guns to people who legally shouldn’t have them. The suit cites more than 500 guns that were traced to dealers in five states: South Carolina, Georgia, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio.
The lawsuit seeks to halt illegal sales and to recover monetary damages.
«Today, we are sending a clear message to rogue gun dealers across the nation: straighten up and follow the law or face the consequences,» New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in a statement. «We can’t afford to allow out-of-state dealers to sell illegally. Too many people die every year because they do. This lawsuit is (a) major step forward in our efforts to keep illegal guns out of our city.»
The suit claims that 49 guns from Mickalis Pawn Shop in Summerville turned up on New York City streets between 1994 and 2001. Some of the guns were in the hands of people who weren’t supposed to have them; others were used in a variety of violent crimes, some of them weeks after being sold in South Carolina, the suit states.
Also named in the suit is Woody’s Pawn and Jewelry in Orangeburg.
Larry Mickalis, who owns the shop that bears his name on North Main Street, said he was surprised by the allegations, which he considered unfair and irresponsible. In 30 years in business, Mickalis said, he never knowingly has sold a gun to anyone who would have used it in a crime. He suggested that the guns in question could have been stolen from legal owners before making their way to New York.
«It’s upset my family and my employees,» he said. «I’ve always had a moral commitment to the community. I think I’ve handled gun sales properly, legally.»
Mickalis said he had received more than 50 calls after the suit made national news Monday, many from supporters. «They feel that this is just another attack on people who are legally purchasing handguns,» he said.
Mickalis wondered why the allegations didn’t include more recent data.
«I think this information should have been shared with me years ago to try to prevent this type of thing from taking place because I don’t condone this type of thing either,» he said. «I don’t know how these handguns got there. I know that I didn’t sell them illegally.»
As it is, state and federal authorities already keep a close watch on his sales, more so since instant background checks went into effect, he said.
New York’s lawsuit contends that the dealers allowed «straw purchasing» of guns, a practice in which a convicted felon will use a friend or family member to buy a gun.
The felon provides the money for the gun and directs the purchase. The straw purchaser fills out all the required paperwork, posing as the buyer.
Before filing the lawsuit, New York hired private investigators with hidden cameras to test the theory of straw purchasing. All 15 dealers named in the suit sold to undercover buyers and didn’t notice obvious warning signs, a press release states.
In each case, the investigators from the James Mintz Group entered the stores in teams of two. One person would make all the inquiries about the gun, then a second person uninvolved in the sales process would fill out the required forms for the background check.
They visited Mickalis’ shop last month. He said he wouldn’t have sold to anyone with an out-of-state identification. He thinks the undercover buyers employed unfair deception.
New York officials disagreed.
«The only reason the straw purchasers did what they did is because the gun dealers weren’t paying enough attention,» said Eric Proshansky, an attorney with the city’s law department. «The straw purchaser can’t make his purchases unless the dealer is either in on it or just sloppy.»
Investigators targeted stores that had the highest number of guns traced to the city. Part of the reason more recent data weren’t included was that Congress recently passed laws restricting access to trace information, Proshansky said.
«The gun lobby is always telling the municipalities to go out and enforce the laws that are on the books,» he said. «At the same time, they’re saying you can’t have the trace data you need to enforce the law.»
The suit remains under investigation. Proshansky said other dealers likely would be named. A team of 10 pro-bono litigators from the law firm Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman will help New York City with the litigation.
Mickalis said he would need help fighting the suit.
«I certainly don’t have the money to defend myself against a New York law firm,» he said.
Reach Noah Haglund at
firstname.lastname@example.org or 937-5550.
May 16, 2006
NOAH HAGLUND, The Post and Courier