Gun TraffickingA New Roadblock on the “Iron Pipeline”
On March 14, 2015, Brooklyn resident Michael Bassier stepped off a bus in New York City carrying a bulging black duffel bag. As he walked down the street, the hood of his sweatshirt partly obscuring his face, Bassier called his ex-girlfriend.
“Listen, I’m walking through Manhattan, right? I’ve got two MAC 10’s on me, a SK assault rifle, and four handguns and I’m walking through New York,” he told her.
“I’m selling them the right way and the wrong way. When I’m out of state, like in Atlanta and Georgia and all that, it’s all legal, it’s fully legal. But in New York it’s completely illegal. So when I bring shit up here and sell it up here, that’s illegal.”
In the conversation, recorded by law enforcement, Bassier outlined how many illegal guns get to big cities despite their stricter firearms regulations. Criminals exploit a weakness in gun restrictions by buying guns in states with looser regulations and bringing them to places like New York City, which has some of the toughest gun laws in the country.
But prosecutors in Brooklyn and Manhattan are trying to plug that hole. That’s why some of Bassier’s associates are, like him, in jail. The Brooklyn District Attorney extradited two people from Georgia and two from Pennsylvania who allegedly helped Bassier obtain weapons from firearms stores, pawnshops, and websites.
By the time he was arrested—in September 2015—Bassier had allegedly brought 112 guns, including 20 assault weapons, to New York on buses and in cars, and sold them to an undercover detective in Brooklyn. In one year, Bassier made $130,000 from the sales. Now, Bassier is behind bars awaiting a May 26 court appearance at the Kings County Supreme Court in Brooklyn. He faces up to 25 years in prison.
Michael Bassier Wiretap
Networks like Bassier’s often rely on so-called “straw purchasers,” people who purchase guns on behalf of someone else. Straw purchasers help get weapons when the actual buyer’s criminal record would prevent him or her from legally purchasing a gun, or when the buyer does not want his or her name linked to a gun purchase. Straw purchasers also enable arms traffickers to get their hands on more weapons than one person would legally be able to on his own, as some states limit the number of guns one person can purchase during a specific time period.
In some parts of the United States, the people who bought guns for Bassier might have gotten off scot-free. Not in New York City.
Prosecuting straw purchasers can be difficult, according to experts, because it is often impossible to prove that the straw purchaser bought a weapon on behalf of someone else. In addition, some states treat the crime as a paperwork violation, since straw purchasers lie on the forms they fill out at gun stores when they claim that a weapon is for personal use.
But in New York City, where some 90 percent of the guns used to commit a crime come from other states, prosecutors are cracking down. The Brooklyn and Manhattan district attorneys have worked with law enforcement to identify gun suppliers through wiretaps. Over the past three years, they have extradited at least 18 people —from Georgia, Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina—who allegedly helped gun traffickers obtain weapons.
These accomplices are a mix of straw buyers—who allegedly purchased guns for traffickers through legal means such as federally licensed firearms dealers, gun shows, and websites—and people who are accused of buying guns on the black market in other states, on behalf of traffickers moving weapons to New York City.
Regardless of how they obtained the guns, all of these out-of-state accomplices wound up behind bars in New York. They have been charged with several crimes, including conspiracy, criminal sale of a firearm, and criminal possession of a weapon. Some have pleaded guilty while others are on Rikers Island awaiting trial.
The Business of Gun Trafficking
Gun laws vary widely from state to state. A few states, like California and New York, require background checks for all gun sales, and have banned assault rifles. In contrast, 32 states do not require buyers to undergo background checks if they purchase a firearm through a private sale—one in which the seller is not a professional gun dealer. Gun stores still have to perform background checks, but a private citizen who wants to sell a firearm is not required to find out any information about a prospective buyer’s criminal record.
“No questions asked; cash, that’s it,” explained Ted Alcorn, research director at the advocacy organization Everytown for Gun Safety. Gun sales without a background check are essentially invisible to law enforcement, he said. “They can’t trace it.”
Some 50,000 guns are moved across state lines and end up in the hands of criminals every year, according to data from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) analyzed by The New York Times. The problem is particularly acute in major cities located near states with loose gun restrictions. In Chicago, for example, gun traffickers take advantage of lax gun laws in neighboring Indiana to purchase weapons destined for the city’s gangs and other criminals. Similarly, guns purchased in Arizona and Nevada are trafficked to Los Angeles and other major cities in California.
Illegal firearms have become a commodity unto themselves, a very profitable commodity.NYPD Commissioner William Bratton
“This is a national problem in a world in which gun control has been relegated to state law, because the federal government has been unable to act to comprehensively regulate gun laws,” explained Adam Winkler, a law professor at UCLA and author of Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America, a book on gun policy. “Each state is, in many ways, the victim of its sister state.”
In New York City, which has some of the country’s most restrictive gun laws, illegal guns are typically brought up Interstate 95, known as the “Iron Pipeline,” from states to the south, including Virginia, Pennsylvania, Georgia, and the Carolinas. In 2013, for example, 325 guns recovered by law enforcement in New York City were traced back to Virginia, and 462 were traced back to North and South Carolina, according to ATF data. Another 350 guns came from Georgia and Florida. In contrast, just 306 of the 2,248 guns recovered in New York City that year that were able to be traced (the source state was not identified for 1,409 guns) had originally been purchased in New York state. (See map below.)
Top Source States for Guns Recovered in New York City
Data from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives
Some of the guns that end up on New York City streets are brought across state lines by gang members, drug traffickers, and their associates, who want weapons to protect their criminal enterprises, according to the ATF. In general, however, gun trafficking is motivated by profit, said Reinaldo Roldan, the group supervisor of the intelligence section at the ATF’s New York field division. “This is a business. You’ll always be looking for the lowest cost and the highest return,” he explained. “Other states have very loose firearms restrictions and New York City happens to be a place where the price of firearms is very high.”
In fact, weapons purchased in the southern United States can be sold for at least three times as much in New York City, according to prosecutors. In recent cases, gun traffickers were able to sell handguns for at least $500 and assault weapons for between $2,000 and $2,500 in New York.
Traffickers can bring the firearms into New York City cheaply by transporting them on buses and in private cars. Three recent cases saw traffickers move guns on the low-cost inter-city buses colloquially referred to as the Chinatown Bus.
Traffickers have also been able to enlist straw buyers for a fraction of the price for which they are able to sell the guns. In the Bassier case, the defendant allegedly paid his straw buyers $50 per gun for their services. This is likely because, until recently, being a straw purchaser appeared to be a low-risk endeavor.
Going After the Source
In April 2013, a gun trafficker from South Carolina named Earl Campbell was haggling over prices with one of his accomplices. According to the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, Campbell was running a trafficking ring that brought guns on buses to New York City, where Campbell would proceed to sell them in Brooklyn and Manhattan. His accomplice, Larick Michaux, wanted a larger share of the profits for his role obtaining the guns in South Carolina.
Campbell told Michaux—in a conversation recorded by law enforcement—to stop complaining about money, because Campbell was the one taking all the risks. Michaux, Campbell said, would never have to worry about getting caught.
Five months later, Michaux and Campbell were both behind bars in New York, along with others from South Carolina who had helped Campbell obtain guns. In total, Campbell had sold 90 guns to an undercover detective over a nine-month period, earning $75,000.
Around the same time, the Manhattan District Attorney extradited five people who had helped another gun trafficker get 116 guns in North Carolina that were later sold in New York City. One of the trafficker’s accomplices, Iesha Carmichael, had served as a straw purchaser. Carmichael had undergone a background check to get ten permits from her local county sheriff’s office so she could legally purchase ten guns, according to prosecutors.
A total of 19 people pleaded guilty in New York as part of the North and South Carolina gun trafficking schemes. Combined, they will spend more than 100 years behind bars.
Prosecuting gun traffickers and their accomplices is not an easy task. For one, there are no federal laws specifically aimed at gun trafficking. Instead, prosecutors rely on a hodgepodge of state and federal laws restricting the purchase and sale of guns. In addition, suspected gun traffickers and straw purchasers can sidestep blame when firearms recovered at a crime scene are traced back to them by claiming that the weapon was lost or stolen.
U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) has proposed legislation that would create a federal firearms trafficking law, and U.S. Representative Nydia Velazquez (D-NY) has proposed another law that would mandate the reporting of lost or stolen guns. Both bills are still in committee.
In New York, however, the Brooklyn and Manhattan district attorneys are making do. Working with the New York Police Department and the ATF, prosecutors have used wiretaps and undercover agents to ensnare gun traffickers and gun suppliers.
Just last month, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr. announced the arrest of three men from Virginia and one from Georgia who allegedly bought firearms at stores and gun shows for a Manhattan-bound trafficker.
“We don’t just focus on the gun dealer in Brooklyn. We go up on wiretaps to identify the source of the guns,” explained Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson in a November interview on MetroFocus. “Until they fear being arrested, prosecuted, convicted, this is not going to stop.”
Some advocates and gun policy experts said they would like to see a similar effort on a national level. “Investigations don’t happen anywhere near as often as they should,” said Lindsay Nichols, a senior attorney at the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence in San Francisco. “It’s really important for states to be very explicit in their own laws—that straw purchasers are illegal and that it isn’t a mere paperwork violation, but a serious crime.”
A tougher stance on gun trafficking could make a difference nationwide, according to experts. “There are parts of the gun problem we won’t be able to fix because we’ve chosen to live in a world with 300 million guns,” said Winkler of UCLA. “But what we can do is crack down on the gun suppliers who are selling guns on the black market.”