January 16, 2012


In 1903, the Battle of Rivington Street pitted a Jewish gang, the Eastmans, against the Italian Five Pointers. When the cops showed up, the two underworld armies joined forces and blasted away, resulting in three deaths and scores of injuries. The public was clamoring for action against the gangs.

Problem was the gangs worked for Tammany. The Democratic machine used them as shtarkers (sluggers), enforcing discipline at the polls and intimidating the opposition. Gang leaders like Monk Eastman were even employed as informal “sheriffs,” keeping their turf under Tammany control.

The Tammany Tiger needed to rein in the gangs without completely crippling them. Enter Big Tim with the perfect solution: Ostensibly disarm the gangs — and ordinary citizens, too — while still keeping them on the streets.

In fact, he gave the game away during the debate on the bill, which flew through Albany: “I want to make it so the young thugs in my district will get three years for carrying dangerous weapons instead of getting a sentence in the electric chair a year from now.”

Sullivan knew the gangs would flout the law, but appearances were more important than results. Young toughs took to sewing the pockets of their coats shut, so that cops couldn’t plant firearms on them, and many gangsters stashed their weapons inside their girlfriends’ “bird cages” — wire-mesh fashion contraptions around which women would wind their hair.

Ordinary citizens, on the other hand, were disarmed, which solved another problem: Gangsters had been bitterly complaining to Tammany that their victims sometimes shot back at them.

So gang violence didn’t drop under the Sullivan Act — and really took off after the passage of Prohibition in 1920. Spectacular gangland rubouts — like the 1932 machine-gunning of “Mad Dog” Coll in a drugstore phone booth on 23rd Street — became the norm. . . . Every state but Illinois has some form of concealed-carry permission — although some, like New York, California and New Jersey, are heavily restricted. Some sort of reciprocity is needed.

Meanwhile, savor the irony of an edict written by a corrupt politician to save his bad guys from the electric chair’s now being used against law-abiding citizens from other states.

Of course, we’ve seen some of this in the scholarship, too. As Markus Funk points out:

For example, the 1911 Sullivan Law was passed to keep guns out of the hands of immigrants (chiefly Italians–“[i]n the first three years of the Sullivan Law, [roughly] 70 percent of those arrested had Italian surnames”). Two New York newspapers reveal the mind-set which gave rise to the Sullivan Law: the New York Tribune grumbled about pistols found ” ‘chiefly in the pockets of ignorant and quarrelsome immigrants of law-breaking propensities,'” and the New York Times pointed out the “affinity of ‘low-browed foreigners’ for handguns.”

Corrupt and racist. And vigorously supported by Mayor Bloomberg. Barbaric indeed. New York needs to join the mainstream of states enacting sensible gun laws — laws that don’t oppress minorities or entrap honest citizens.

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