Why Brooklyn Has a Big Stake in the Gun-sales Debate

Despite having almost no legal firearms business, the borough's traffic in guns is deeply affected by other states–and Washington

A display of some of the 217 illegal weapons seized last year in Brooklyn's biggest gun bust in history (Photo by Colleen Long/AP)

In many states, if you want to buy a gun, it’s as easy as pie. You have loads of retail stores to sell you one–and very few laws standing in your way. Brooklyn is virtually the opposite. New York City’s gun laws are among the toughest in the U.S., and there are few places in Brooklyn to buy one legally, including just one traditional retail space, DF Brothers Sports Center in Bensonhurst.

In a place with 2.6 million people, Brooklyn’s per-capita availability of gun retailers could hardly get any lower. And yet the issue of gun control isn’t over in Brooklyn. Many of the borough’s politicians, activists and students plan to embrace the rising fervor for stricter gun laws in the coming days and weeks, when school walk-outs and marches will be taking place across the U.S. “I realized that we are in a unique period in history and if you don’t have an eye for it, it’ll pass you by,” said Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, who has planned a rally in Prospect Park on Wednesday to coincide with the national school walkout.

Brooklyn, despite a huge drop in gun violence from decades ago, has a stake in gun legislation in Washington, D.C., and state capitals because, as Vox put it, “guns can travel.” A 2016 report from New York’s attorney general found that 74% of the guns used in crimes in 2010-15 came from states with lax gun laws. In fact, most of Brooklyn’s gun business is illegal, fed by what law-enforcement officials have called the “Iron Pipeline” from a handful of states including Virginia, the Carolinas and Pennsylvania.

Last year, police made the biggest gun bust in Brooklyn history, breaking up a Virginia-based gun ring and seizing 217 firearms, including AK-47 and AR-15 assault weapons. “Over and over again, New York City finds itself the final destination for illegal firearms,” said NYC Police Commissioner James O’Neill.

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Hundreds marched across the Brooklyn Bridge last July to observe National Gun Violence Awareness Day (Photo by Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/Alamy Live News)

Brooklyn’s first local skirmish over gun control in the aftermath of the shootings at Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School was stirred by a planned National Rifle Association fundraiser in Coney Island. The event quickly became a target for outrage. John Wasserman, president of Brooklyn Young Democrats, prepared to mobilize his group when he heard the news that Gargiulo’s, a renowned restaurant in Coney Island, would be hosting an event where rifles and pistols would be the prizes in a raffle.  

A year earlier, Gargiulo’s had hosted the same group, Brooklyn’s Friends of the NRA, with no backlash. But this year is different, with the #BoycottTheNRA movement gaining steam and corporations backing away from their NRA affiliations. “This was never about the restaurant. Our target was the NRA,” said Wasserman, who felt some sympathy for a local business getting caught up in a national political debate. “As a kid, my family would take me to Gargiulo’s every week,” he told The Bridge. “Gargiulo’s means a lot to me. It brings back my childhood.” He said the owners, the Russo family, lived around the corner from his childhood home. “They’re a good family,” he added.

Reaction to the event was swift from the city’s elected officials: “We know that Gargiulo’s has always had the best interests of the Coney Island community at heart, which is why it is so disappointing that they are hosting the NRA,” read a statement from City Council Member Mark Treyger, Congressman Hakeem Jeffries, Public Advocate Letitia James, Comptroller Scott Stringer and State Senator Diane Savino.

The restaurant faced a mounting storm. While the Young Democrats didn’t call for a boycott, they joined the fracas on social media and started plans for a protest against the NRA in Coney Island on April 12, the scheduled date of the fundraiser. “Our goal is not to ruin a business,” said Mallory McMahon, co-founder of Fight Back Bay Ridge, another group condemning the event. “If Gargiulo’s goes forward with this fundraiser, they will be the ones ruining their business.”

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A flyer for the NRA-affiliated event in Coney Island that was cancelled after an outpouring of protest

Within days, Gargiulo’s released a statement saying they had decided to cancel the NRA fundraiser. Co-owner Rachel Russo told The Bridge, “We’ve never seen a political climate like this. We had to take care of our business.” Last week, a similar NRA event was dropped by its planned venue in Staten Island, but given that borough’s more conservative politics, the cancellation wasn’t welcomed with the same consensus as in Brooklyn. “I think we are setting a new precedent when we applaud the use of intimidation and bullying to coerce a business owner to turn away service to any group,” Joe Borelli, a Republican City Council member, told SILive.com.

Now Brooklyn’s gun-control advocates, having persuaded the restaurant, will direct their message to elected officials in Washington, D.C., as well as Albany and other state capitals. Inspired by the outspoken young survivors of the shooting in Parkland, Fla., students across the U.S. plan to walk out of their classrooms at 10 a.m. this Wednesday, in a 17-minute protest and memorial to the 17 students and faculty members killed in Florida. The response among school administrators around the U.S. has been mixed, with some allowing the action and others threatening to suspend students who take part.

In New York City, schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said in a note to families that students won’t be marked absent for participating, adding that “it is important to do so in a safe and respectful manner. Staff members from each school will be assigned outside their school buildings during the walkout to help ensure safety and order.”

The same day at 2 p.m., Adams plans his rally at the Prospect Park bandshell in support of the student movement. “The greatest experience in growth academically and intellectually is getting involved in a moment of change. This is an extension of the school day, this is not anti-education, this is real education,” he told the Daily News. The Brooklyn Public Library said it will install 17 symbolically empty school desks in the grand lobby of its Central Branch on Wednesday in support of the student action.

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A flyer for the rally planned for Wednesday by Borough President Eric Adams

The next major event is the “March for Our Lives,” planned for March 24 on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., with about 500 “sibling marches” expected to happen in other cities. What remains to be seen is whether the events will provide any major boost for stricter gun legislation in Congress, where proposals have focused on school-safety measures, like arming teachers, rather than on restricting guns. On Wednesday, one month after the Parkland shooting, the House is scheduled to vote on the STOP School Violence Act of 2018, which would provide more training for school officials and police to respond to mental-health crises, as well as deterrents like metal detectors and locks, but contains no restrictions on guns.

With gun control stymied in Washington, advocates have turned to state capitals for action. In a dramatic turnaround last week in gun-friendly Florida, Gov. Rick Scott signed into law a package of gun limits that included raising the minimum age to buy a gun to 21 and extending the gun-purchase waiting period to three days.

In Albany, the legislature’s recent response to the issue has been described by the New York Times as “lots of action, to little effect,” with the Republican-led Senate focusing on security and school safety, and the Democrat-led Assembly emphasizing gun limits. Two Brooklyn politicians, Assembly Member Jo Anne Simon and Senator Brian Kavanaugh, proposed a bill to keep guns out of the hands of potentially dangerous people through a legal measure known as an Extreme Risk Protection Order. The bill passed in the Assembly last week and now moves to the Senate. Said Simon: “This legislation empowers families and law enforcement to help prevent these needless gun tragedies by applying to a court to temporarily restrict an individual’s access to firearms.”



City Council Member Jumaane Williams of Brooklyn, who is running for lieutenant governor, told The Bridge he wants to see tighter legislation. Gun owners, especially those with children, should be required to own lock boxes for storing their weapons, he said. Williams also supports the implementation of fingerprint-recognition technology on guns, keeping them from being fired by anyone besides their owners, and microstamping of bullets, which could help law enforcement track their origins. Williams, who co-chaired the council’s Task Force to Combat Gun Violence, described the NRA’s positions as “indefensible” and “evil work.”

In most cases, rising anti-NRA sentiment has prompted faster action in the corporate world. Dick’s Sporting Goods, which has stores in Queens and Staten Island, announced it would cease selling assault rifles and hiked the minimum age for buying firearms at its stores from 18 to 21. Companies ranging from Delta Airlines to MetLife insurance announced plans to end various privileges offered to their NRA-enrolled clientele.

At DF Brothers Sports Center, the Brooklyn gun retailer, a store manager reached by The Bridge declined to give his name but said he favored stricter gun limits. He said he supports raising the minimum age to buy firearms to 21 and stronger background checks. Gargiulo’s, for its part, was back in good graces on the internet. A reviewer on Yelp named “Anna M,” who had been calling for a boycott of the restaurant, updated her review: “The NRA event was cancelled. Good for you! Will be stopping by for some pizza.”

Michael Stahl is a freelance writer and editor. A former high school English teacher, he has written for Rolling Stone, Vice, the Village Voice, Narratively, Splitsider, Outside Magazine and other publications.