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Police will start checking NYC bus travelers’ luggage for guns

Police will begin random luggage checks on interstate coach buses coming into the Port Authority in an effort to stop an increasing number of guns coming across state lines, Gothamist has learned.

The effort by the Port Authority Police comes after Mayor Eric Adams suggested the idea in his “Blueprint to End Gun Violence” last month. The searches will be conducted in conjunction with a new Interstate Task Force on Illegal Guns convened by New York Governor Kathy Hochul last month, an agency spokesperson told Gothamist.

The approach raises legal and civil liberties concerns, given the racist history of stop-and-frisk policing, and criminologists aren’t sure that it will be effective. But researchers say at least some guns are transported in small quantities via buses, and the searches could act as a deterrent to traffickers.

“The Port Authority Police Department is committed to keeping the region safe by working with the NYPD and other law enforcement entities including the respective task forces that have been established at the state and city level to combat illegal gun trafficking into NYC,” Port Authority spokesperson Amber Greene wrote in an email to Gothamist. She did not say when the checks would begin.

In his plan to curb gun violence, Adams called for “more detection efforts at city entry points.” Citing 6,000 guns seized by the NYPD last year, he said guns arrive by car, bus, and train, and “the NYPD will work with state law enforcement to implement spot checks at entry points like Port Authority and other bus and train stations.”

“The bus terminal is one of the biggest ways to transport guns here,” Adams said on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show earlier this month. He compared it to random spot checks that are done in airports and subways for bombs. “It’s just a random check. We’re not going to profile people.”

It is unclear if the NYPD will take part in the checks.

Guns that police recover in New York come mostly from southern states, where purchasing laws are lax, authorities say. Given that federal legislation targeting gun traffickers has failed to get the requisite support in Congress, and that broader federal gun control proposals have likewise been whittled, local authorities say they need to handle matters as best they can.

Christopher Dunn, legal director of the NYCLU, said while courts have allowed police to randomly search belongings on the way into the subway system, checking bags of those getting off the bus and headed out into the streets of Manhattan would be unlawful because it involves searching people before they’re going out in public.

“It’s a basic principle of constitutional law that police can only search people if they have ‘individualized suspicion’ to think that the person is engaged in unlawful activity,” he said. “Random searches are an antithesis of ‘individualized suspicion,’ and the police have no authority simply to search people randomly.” He also said that random searches are particularly susceptible to racial profiling.

But Port Authority travelers who were subject to routine bag checks during their commute this week said the increased security made them feel safer. The routine checks – police looking in commuters’ purses and backpacks as they board buses – have been a part of Port Authority Police security for some time. The new plan involves luggage checks for arriving passengers.

Criminologists who study gun trafficking say there’s a lot they don’t know about how guns get into the city. But law enforcement officers have arrested several people using buses to import illegal guns. Last month, a 20-year-old man from Georgia was arrested by Port Authority police at the bus terminal in Midtown with a loaded Cobra .380-caliber semi-automatic pistol, according to the Daily News. A gun-sniffing dog identified the weapon during a search of the bus after it pulled into the station.

And in August, federal prosecutors announced the indictments of nine people they said illegally brought firearms from Georgia to New York on buses and in rental cars with the intention of selling them here.

Daryl McCormick, a spokesman for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said he couldn’t provide the number of firearms transported on buses, but there was a definite increase in the flow of guns into New York City from out of state last year. He said the agency is involved in interdiction operations that use K9 dogs to sniff out weapons in baggage at bus terminals, and that there are ongoing investigations into interstate firearms trafficking.

“We have had cases and have received information from numerous sources about firearms traffickers using buses as the means to transport firearms from southern states to NYC,” he said, and the ATF “will support our partners in ‘spot checks’ in a manner that is consistent with constitutional protections and in a manner that is least intrusive.”

Even if gun traffickers do rely on buses, there are alternative ways of coming into the city — including on coach buses that let off on city streets. Checking all of those would be difficult.

As part of an academic study released in October, criminologists convened a group of 108 young people in the Bronx and Brooklyn to talk about guns in their neighborhoods — the ones they’ve carried, and the ones they’ve been shot at with. They repeatedly brought up “the South” when talking about where the weapons came from.

“Motivated people find ways to get guns,” said Rod Brunson, a criminologist at the University of Maryland who co-authored the study, which was funded by the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice. The men told researchers that they armed themselves for self-protection, relying on what Brunson described as a “loosely connected” group of friends, family, fellow gang members, and sometimes larger brokers — “friendship and kinship networks” — to secure firearms originally purchased at gun stores and gun shows miles down I-95.

“One of our respondents spoke about how ‘every summer I go down South and visit my cousins, and whenever I go, I bring back a few guns,’” Brunson said. “It’s part of their summer vacation.” Those guns are then turned around for a small profit, like $50 apiece.

Experts don’t know yet why violent gun crime has risen across the country since 2020. In New York, the 1,531 shootings in 2020 were double the number from the previous year. Last year, shootings ticked up more, to 1,561, according to the NYPD. New York is still one of the safest big cities in the country — Philadelphia, with just a fraction of New York’s population, had more killings last year — and crime rates are nowhere near highs in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Still, the city is awash in an increasing number of weapons coming from southern states, authorities and criminologists say. Unlike southern states, New York requires universal background checks for gun purchases and a license for gun owners. Just last year, 4,473 illegal guns in New York City were traced to out-of-state sources.

A 2016 state Attorney General analysis found that of the more than 50,000 guns recovered in New York state between 2010 and 2016, 74% were initially sold out of state. Most were handguns — 86% of which came from out of state. Very few were originally purchased in nearby New Jersey, which has some of the strictest gun laws in the nation, but instead came from states that, for example, don’t mandate background checks at gun shows or don’t require licenses: Virginia, followed by Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida and Ohio.

More recently, New York Attorney General Letitia James said that 90% of guns seized in the state come from “states with lax gun laws.” “I’m watching those borders,” she said. “Let everyone beware. We are checking everyone putting their guns in their trunks at gun shows in Pennsylvania and heading north … It’s going to stop right now.”

President Joe Biden brought this up in a visit to New York earlier this month to address gun violence: “Guns that are being used to kill people in New York City aren’t made in New York City, they aren’t sold in New York City, they are sold in other places.”

At that event, Mayor Adams promised to “break and destroy the Iron Pipeline that allows southern states in this country to produce weapons that end up on the streets that take the lives of our police officers.”

Brunson, the criminologist, said spot checks can only do so much. For Adams’ plan to work, it will have to come alongside better police-community relations and street-level prevention efforts — both things Adams has said he will prioritize. “I think we need to stop the flow but also the demand as well,” Brunson said.

He applauded the mayor acknowledging the potential pitfalls of racial profiling when conducting random checks. “Particularly given the history of policing in New York City, I was happy to see there was some recognition that this needs to be done with evidence-based orientation — but also not done in the most heavy-handed way to further disrupt or undermine police-community relations,” he said.

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