Even When the Subject Is Gun Control, Our Government Wins When Justice Is Done

The quality of mercy is not strain'd...
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
Shakespeare, The Merchant Of Venice

My brother committed suicide with a gun. When New York City's murder rate was 4 times its current level -- guns were often involved, and they're still involved in many of the city's crimes. It's no surprise I'm an advocate of gun control, and a knee-jerk opponent of the National Rifle Association (NRA).

It's extraordinary that I find myself concurring with the NRA about 2 tourists recently arrested in NYC. Ryan Jerome is from Indiana, and Meredith Graves from Tennessee. Each had permits from his or her home state to carry concealed weapons. Ryan was visiting the Empire State Building, and Meredith the 9/11 Memorial, when each became aware that NYC does not permit the carrying of concealed weapons. In each incident, they found a security officer, informed the officer about the gun, and voluntarily offered to hand it in. Each faces prosecution and potentially years in prison for illegal gun possession -- because NYC doesn't recognize out-of-state gun permits and the prosecutor won't use his discretion to drop the charges.

Ryan, currently a jeweler, is a third generation Marine honorably discharged in 2005. Meredith is a fourth year medical student. Neither has a prior criminal record, and there are no allegations of criminal intent or threatening behavior regarding their gun possession. They appear to be two law-abiding citizens whose honesty has resulted in their prosecution.

NY County District Attorney Cyrus Vance should either: explain why these two are being prosecuted, or use his prosecutorial discretion to dismiss the charges. Here's why:

  • Precedent: Vance's office routinely runs gun buybacks, combined with amnesties, to encourage people to hand in illegal guns -- no questions asked. After a recent buyback, Vance said: "Our gun buyback took 139 dangerous weapons out of our neighborhoods, and will hopefully save lives." Ryan and Meredith made our neighborhoods safer by handing in their weapons to the authorities. They should qualify for the same amnesty.
  • Public Safety: It's desirable that law-abiding citizens, without valid NYC permits, turn their guns over to police. NYC's gun-control regime isn't about preventing honest citizens from having guns -- but making sure weapons don't end up in the wrong hands. A policy that encourages unsafe gun disposal is a bad policy. The clear message for visitors to NYC who legally own a gun in their home state (but inadvertently bring it to NYC) is to dispose of that gun -- secretly, in a potentially unsafe manner (e.g., tossing it in a garbage can).
  • Maintaining long term support for gun control: Prosecutions of non-criminals provide support to foes of gun control. They provide poster children for why states should be forced to recognize each other's gun permits (however lax the requirements in obtaining them) -- a policy NYC opposes.
  • Treat the 99% the same as the 1%: Where the 1% are concerned, NY's prosecutors have used their prosecutorial discretion to not pursue victimless crimes; Meredith and Ryan should qualify for the same treatment.

It appears the cases are proceeding against Ryan and Meredith as part of a zero-tolerance policy on illegal weapons -- enforced on everyone, equally and automatically. In reality, NY's prosecutorial establishment often decides not to prosecute when it believes it's not in the public interest to do so. The earlier-mentioned gun amnesties are one example.

Another example is the decision to drop prosecution of then-NYS Governor Spitzer. The relevant prosecutor announced: "on multiple occasions, Mr. Spitzer arranged for women to travel from one state to another state to engage in prostitution." Despite clear evidence available from an FBI investigation, the prosecutor "concluded that the public interest would not be further advanced by filing criminal charges in this matter."

Unlike Ryan and Meredith, Spitzer had mens rea (guilty knowledge). His actions were intentional (not inadvertent), with full knowledge of the law as a former NYS Attorney General.

Further, Ryan and Meredith voluntarily contacted the authorities. Spitzer didn't voluntarily come forward to disclose his conduct. He was caught during an FBI investigation.

Vance should use the discretion granted to his office to drop prosecution of Ryan and Meredith. It's not in the public interest. If prosecutorial discretion could be invoked to not charge Spitzer (Harvard Law graduate, former prosecutor, heir to one of NY's richest families) who knowingly transported prostitutes across state lines while Governor -- Vance can (and should) decide not to prosecute two people who accidentally violated NYC's gun control laws.

To paraphrase former U.S. Attorney General Reno -- the prosecutor's job is not to win as many cases as possible, but to do justice in every case the prosecutor handles. The published facts in this case demand that Vance dismiss these charges at the earliest opportunity.

Unless, of course, Vance's point is that we now officially have two standards of justice in this country: One for the rich, powerful and well-connected; another for the remaining 99% (including people like Ryan who -- unlike Spitzer -- honorably served his country as a Marine, without causing public embarrassment).

More generally, NYC should have clear rules about when out-of-state visitors with inadvertently-illegal weapons will be prosecuted (e.g., prior criminal record) and when they qualify for amnesty (e.g., no criminal record, voluntary weapon handover).

About the Author: Steven Strauss was founding Managing Director of the Center for Economic Transformation at the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC). He is an Advanced Leadership Fellow at Harvard University for 2011-2012. He has a Ph.D. in Management from Yale University and over 20 years private sector work experience. You can follow him on twitter at: @Steven_Strauss.