A New York City Ghost Comes to Snellville, GA

“Big Tim Sullivan” of New York’s Tammany Hall

Geographically and culturally, it’s a long way from New York City to Snellville, Georgia. But irrespective of size or location, cities across the nation face many of the same concerns. One of those is the manner in which local ordinances and state law addresses firearms. Such discussions are never without controversy.

That was clearly demonstrated in June of this year, when proposal by the mayor of Snellville, Georgia, (Kelly Kautz) to draft an ordinance that would ban citizens from carrying a firearm in the city’s parks, sparked a firestorm of local protests. (http://www.examiner.com/article/snellville-considers-gun-ban )Aside from the fact that in Georgia, it’s illegal for a municipality to preempt state firearm laws, protesters were enraged by the mayor’s willingness to abridge their 2nd Amendment rights. Although its scope is far smaller, and the motivations different, this incident in a small Georgia town, has a philosophical connection to the type of legislation that has kept guns out of the hands of law-abiding New York City residents for over a century.

The concept of gun control legislation (laws that make it difficult of impossible for law-abiding citizens to own or carry a firearm) has the appearance of being simple and logical. It would seem that if only members of law enforcement agencies are allowed to carry a gun, firearms will not be used in the commission of crimes. But there’s a fatal flaw in this concept. A criminal intent on committing a robbery, burglary, assault, rape or homicide, isn’t likely to change plans, and decide to go to a movie, upon learning he or she doesn’t have a proper weapons permit. So it isn’t surprising that crime statistics from states and municipalities across the nation prove that gun control is completely ineffective as a means of reducing violent crime.

On the other hand, a criminal’s easiest targets are those with minimal capacity to defend themselves. In fact, that’s exactly the principal that prompted a New York politician and thug known as “Big Tim” Sullivan to ramrod the law that bears his name. In what is perhaps the ultimate irony of gun control legislation, the true intent of the Sullivan Act was to protect criminals, not law-abiding citizens.

To fully appreciate Sullivan’s audacity, you have to take a mental journey to New York City during the waning years of the 19th century. Irish immigrants and first generation Irish Americans largely controlled the city’s corrupt Democratic Party, which headquartered itself at Tammany Hall, a building on East 14th Street. By the late 1800s, “Tammany Hall” had become more than a mere building; it stood as the symbol of New York City political corruption.

Like many of his Tammany Hall colleagues, Sullivan turned to politics as a means of expanding the scope of his illegal activities. Concurrent with Sullivan’s rise to power, “the neighborhood went to hell”, as a wave of Italian immigrants, many of whom brought Mafia connections with them, flooded the city. Ethnic diversity being unheard of at the time, the reigning Irish/American criminals never welcomed their newly arrived Italian counterparts into the fold. Instead they saw the budding Mafia types as competition and law-abiding immigrants as an additional source of potential victims.

The advent of Italian “bad guys” seriously altered New York City’s criminal landscape. Instead of being able to run their illegal operations without challenge, Sullivan and his cronies had to confront the fact that an arduous day of racketeering and strong-arming would likely be interrupted by challenges and preemptive strikes from armed competitors. Certainly, life would be much easier for Tammany Hall’s elite if they were the only ones carrying guns.

Using his political connections, Sullivan managed to win election to the New York state senate. As a legislator, he was then able to push passage of a law that empowered local authorities to issue or deny gun ownership permits at their own discretion. The “genius” of the Sullivan Act is that as a state law, as opposed to city ordinance, its true purpose was more easily disguised

Sullivan’s act became law in 1911. Since its passage, New York City’s police department (which at the time was under Tammany Hall’s thumb) has controlled the issuance of permits, and during that time, NYPD has issued permits almost exclusively to retired police officers and well-connected residents. Apparently, in the land of bleeding heart liberals, if you’re rich and/or famous you should be able to protect and defend yourself, but if you’re not, you don’t deserve that right.

Philosophical arguments aside, the measure of any law’s effectiveness resides in the statistics that accumulate following its passage. With gun ownership having been essentially illegal for almost 100 years, the logical conclusion is that no handgun-related crimes are committed within New York City. In what is certainly a shock only to the terminally naive, statistics tell an entirely different story.

According to New York State’s Division of Criminal Justice Services, in 2007 firearms were used in 47.4 violent crimes per 100,000 residents, outside of New York City. (The Sullivan Act applies to all counties in New York State, but many jurisdictions are more willing to issue permits than those within New York City.) Within the counties that comprise New York City, firearms were used in 68.6 violent crimes per 100,000 residents. So, in New York City, which has the tightest gun control, the rate of crimes committed with firearms is 44% higher than in the rest of the state.

New York City’s statistics are not unique. Whenever subjected to the harsh light of objectivity, strict gun control legislation tends to lead to an increase—not a decrease– in gun-related crimes. Whether you’re in a Snellville, GA, or New York City, restricting citizens’ options for defending themselves expands opportunities for criminals. Tim Sullivan proved that over 100 years ago.

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