Opinion: ‘Big Tim’ Sullivan and the controversial origin of New York’s gun law

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His speech “was crude and illiterate, but it was human, energetic and filled with sympathetic illustrations drawn from real-life East Side,” the Brooklyn Eagle newspaper said of Sullivan, a powerful Tammany district leader. Hall, famous for thousands of people. of meals, pairs of shoes and jobs he gave to his immigrant constituents, but also known for his thinly veiled connections to the underworld. The Legislature passed what quickly became known as the Sullivan Act with only a handful of noes.

Now, the Supreme Court’s June 23 ruling found the law violated the Second Amendment by giving authorities broad discretion to decide who gets a license to carry a concealed weapon. The lead plaintiff in the case, the New York State Rifle and Pistol Association, argued that the licensing process was in fact designed to discriminate: “The law was passed with an avowed intention, supported by all world, from City Hall to the New York Times, to disarm newly arrived immigrants, especially those with Italian surnames.” His memoir says that, according to the Times, 70% of those arrested under the Sullivan Act in his first three years “had Italian surnames.”
Judge Clarence Thomas echoed this anti-minority theme in the court’s majority opinion, writing about how black people were disenfranchised in the post-Civil War South. In an amicus brief, public defender groups representing indigent defendants drew a direct link between historic discrimination and today’s predominantly black and Hispanic defendants. “New York enacted its gun licensing requirements to criminalize gun ownership by racial and ethnic minorities,” they argued. “That remains the effect of its enforcement by police and prosecutors today. The consequences for our clients are brutal.”

The origin of the Sullivan Act is more complicated than that, although it is true that the bustling New York press highlighted its use against Italians, stereotyped under the racist eugenics of the time as inherently prone to violence. .

The Times did not publish an article saying that more than 70% of those charged under the Sullivan Act had Italian names (at least none that I discovered in my research on the subject), although the number is often used in the gun debate. . It is based on a 1990 study published by the Second Amendment Foundation, which opposes gun control laws. The study reviews all firearm arrests reported in The Times after the law was passed; the discovery can only prove that the newspaper took a special interest in publicizing the crimes of people whose names ended in a vowel. The Times seemed to have an anti-immigrant streak at this time.
More reliable data can be found in a New York State report on convictions during the year ending October 31, 1912: 35% of the 381 people convicted of carrying a concealed weapon in New York were born in Italy. This was still more than double the percentage of Italian-born residents in the city, but the Italian population was skewed towards young men, the group most likely to be arrested for a firearms offence.
The drive to toughen New York’s gun laws intensified with two shootings that had nothing to do with immigrants. James Gallagher, enraged at the loss of his $2-a-day city job, shot New York Mayor William J. Gaynor in the summer of 1910 as he stood on the deck of a ship on the point of leaving for a cruise to Europe. Once considered presidential material, Gaynor returned to City Hall two months later, a broken man suffering from the bullet still lodged in his throat.
Then, in January, the murder of popular novelist David Graham Phillips on the north side of Manhattan’s Gramercy Park – and the accompanying suicide of the attacker, a mentally ill violinist from a socially prominent family – shocked the public. Soon after, the New York coroner called for tougher gun laws due to an increase from 68 gun-related homicides in 1909 to 108 in 1910.

Sullivan had already begun campaigning for an anti-gun law. The Tammany man has allied himself on the issue with his sworn enemies, the reformers who normally saw him as a symbol of corruption, gambling, prostitution and electoral fraud.

Say what you want about Sullivan’s motives, but he was not anti-immigrant. A dapper six-foot-200 pound with steely blue eyes, “the Big Feller” courted the Jewish and Italian immigrant voters who dominated his Lower East Side neighborhood.
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Sullivan pushed the gun bill during his 1910 election campaign, telling voters crowded into a local theater, “The gun shooter and the tough man – I don’t want his vote, for I’m going to put him in jail as soon as I get back to Albany.” He knew his people and their needs; it is clear that his position was acceptable to them.

But it’s true that many of his allies on the gun law — good government groups, business leaders and pro-reform newspapers — saw the measure as a tool to go after Italian immigrants.

“It was the intention of this beneficent law to prevent impetuous and impulsive persons of the temperament of your race from bearing arms,” Judge Warren Foster told the first defendant convicted under the law, laborer Marino. Rossi. The quote earned the judge an accolade in The Times: “The judge’s warning to the Italian community was timely and exemplary.”

From the start, there were dubious “sweeps” of gang territory – targeting Irish, Jewish and Italian thugs – and unnecessary arrests of people like the worker Rossi, foreshadowing contemporary controversies over arrest tactics and police search. But the new law has also helped police arrest dangerous gangsters accused of crimes without the long-term task of persuading witnesses to testify against them.

We see it in an arrest made by Detective Charles Carrao, the first recipient of the NYPD’s highest honor, the Medal of Honor, four days after the law took effect. He caught the elusive leader of a gang of extortionists with a bomb under his coat (considered a concealed weapon at the time). This was the rare occasion when a gang leader was sent up river to Sing Sing.

The Sullivan Act survived numerous legal challenges, but the die was cast when the Supreme Court deciphered the ambiguous syntax of the Second Amendment in favor of gun advocates. In a 2008 decision, he found that the right to own a firearm was guaranteed to Americans and “unrelated to service in a militia.”
Sullivan, still a mystery, died in 1913 in murky circumstances, his body identified at the morgue after being missing for nearly two weeks. Big Tim has done a few justices in his day and would no doubt have viewed the Supreme Court’s decision as a strictly political matter. Then he would have gone to work to find a way around it.
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