In October 2010, after a clerk at a New York City bodega was killed during a botched robbery, Ramon Murphy, the president of the Bodega Association of the United States, urged the city’s store owners to apply for gun permits. “We need protection,” he said.
For New Yorkers, however, legal gun ownership is no simple thing. The city follows what’s known as a “may issue” system for handgun licenses, requiring applicants to meet strict criteria. It so happens that small-business owners — security guards and former law enforcement officers are also on the list — may qualify. (The city also issues a “special carry” license for qualifying individual residents, who’ve been known to include celebrities.) But then applicants have to navigate a vetting process that can reportedly take up to eight months: Forms must be filled out, interviews conducted, affidavits turned in, identification provided, a $340 license fee (plus a $90 fingerprint fee) paid.
Which is why New York City store owners sometimes find themselves talking to a second set of entrepreneurs, who have gone into the business of helping gun-seeking New Yorkers maneuver the New York City Police Department’s notorious Licensing Division.
The whole process is “inherently designed to discourage,” James Condoluci, a 20-year NYPD veteran — including three years with the Licensing Division — and private investigator who runs Sure Shot Consulting, tells The Trace. “Most people, if you’re not familiar, you’re gonna make mistakes.”
Michael Marten, a retired police lieutenant who, per his website, supervised the NYPD’s License Division for eight years, charges $300 to help people with their handgun-license applications. “If they’re honest with me, I can tell them what their chances are,” he says. “I’m not gonna take somebody’s money if they’re not gonna get a license.”
While none of the websites of permit consultants reviewed by The Trace made any outright promises or guarantees, the NYPD’s License Division has issued a warning about such firms.
“The License Division is aware that there are consulting companies which guarantee the issuance of a New York City handgun license or rifle and shotgun permit if a prospective applicant uses their services to complete the application form,” reads the caveat. “The License Division does not guarantee the issuance of a handgun license or rifle and shotgun permit to any individual who uses the services of a consultant.” (The NYPD did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)
Consultants get their clients in different ways. An employee at one bodega in Bedford-Stuyvesant says that a retired cop has been coming around the neighborhood for at least 20 years, offering to help business owners with the application and paper work. Unfortunately, he couldn’t remember the man’s name. (“I don’t mess with guns,” this employee says.) Ali Ali, of NY Grill & Deli in Harlem, says that he’s received cold calls from at least one such consulting firm, offering their services to help him apply for a handgun. He’s always declined. “Why would anyone want something like that in the store anyway? It’s not a bank. It’s crazy,” he says. “[The police] come right away. You say it’s an emergency? Not even a minute.”
Jerold Levine, a firearms and weapons attorney in New York City, confirmed that some consultants do prospect for new customers by phone. “That’s an old technique, been happening for 30 years,” he says. “The police department hates it. They don’t want anybody to have guns! Both as a matter of policy, and because it means more paperwork.” Levine said his firm advertises their services, but does not cold call.
“We work by reputation and referral,” says Steve Bennett, of Gun Permits, Inc. “There’s always an increase after crime statistics are published,” he said, asserting that applications were already up after the stop-and-frisk drawdown began in early 2012.
If people are indeed applying for pistol permits at higher rates, though, they aren’t yet getting approved. Asked whether he’s been seeing more civilians in his store, Charlie Chen, of John Jovino, the city’s oldest gun shop, said, “No, I don’t think so.”
Levine said his firm has seen an increase in inquiries about the application process, but not necessarily an increase in clients. “Usually people call for information, and then file the application themselves,” he says. “People always want free information.” Levine said he’s also recently noticed an increase in inquiries from people who are trying to go legit with firearms that they’ve acquired without a license — the example he gave was inheriting a gun from a family member — which is impossible in New York City.
“It’s not for everybody,” Bennett says of owning a gun. “It’s an option for those who choose to take control of their own lives.” (Gun Permits Inc.’s in-house counsel, John Chambers — “The Top Firearms Licensing Attorney in NYC,” according to one of his two websites — did not respond to multiple interview requests.) “People are nervous,” Bennett says. “If you call 911 or you call Domino’s, who’s going to come first? You’re better off protecting yourself.”
Condoluci, the former cop, has a partnership with the West Side Rifle Range, referring clients whose licenses are approved to the facility for the requisite training; in turn, he uses the range to meet with clients. Sometimes, he said, he will invite small-business owners from around the city — people who own jewelry and drug stores, he said, by way of example — to West Side, where he will deliver seminars on crime and law enforcement issues. “If you pick up the phone and call 911, it could take between 37 seconds and two minutes for someone to come,” he tells shop owners, echoing Bennett’s concern. But, he added, “The point is not to frighten people.”
Since 2010, when he told the Times that bodega owners should be armed, Ramon Murphy’s view has changed. “I don’t have a gun in my house, I don’t want one in the store. I don’t want my kids to see I have a gun,” he says. “If a thief is coming to your store, if they know you have a gun, they might just shoot you first. No gun — they just rob you, and they walk away.”
For Murphy, it’d be preferable to have a positive relationship with police officers who are walking the beat in his community than to have a gun in his store. “The police department, they should be doing their work. When a cop comes to my store, I want to see a friend,” he says. “It’s much better to have a police friend than a gun.”
[Photo: Flickr user ‘Nino” Eugene La Pia]