On Tuesday, a man boarded a New York City subway train in Brooklyn, and, according to police, a few stops later, detonated a smoke grenade and opened fire on unsuspecting passengers with a nine-millimeter handgun as the train pulled into the 36th Street station in Sunset Park, where he then made his escape. Ten people were shot, and several others suffered injuries from smoke inhalation and the stampede that ensued as the train doors opened. Thankfully—amazingly—no one was killed.
Gun violence has been on the rise in New York for more than two years. Most of the carnage doesn’t generate the wall-to-wall coverage Tuesday’s shooting did, perhaps because most of it takes place where better-off New Yorkers don’t spend much time. Nevertheless, it’s not hard to understand why a mass shooting on the train, during rush hour, might prove a turning point for city residents, who were already worried about escalating subway crime. Thanks to the expansion of remote work, they can now avoid the subways in much larger numbers.
This new reality poses a real threat to the Big Apple’s future, which Mayor Eric Adams is tasked with securing. As a candidate, Adams hit many of the right notes on the crime issue, and he has continued to say many good things as mayor. But with crime continuing to increase throughout the city, Adams’s efforts have hit roadblocks erected by city and state Democrats. For Adams to deliver on his promise to cut crime, his colleagues on the left will have to make structural changes they don’t yet seem willing to make.
As I’ve written before, New York City and State have seen their criminal-justice systems watered down over the last several years by “progressive” prosecutors, lenient judges, and misguided reforms to bail, discovery, parole, and juvenile justice. Those changes were almost exclusively championed by Democratic lawmakers and voters, as opposition to law enforcement became a core element of the party’s brand.
The palpable tension between Adams’s mission to reduce crime and progressives’ commitments to decarceration and depolicing raise a question that the mayor can’t avoid for much longer: Will he take on his own party, or will he pivot to the talking points that Democrats across the country have resorted to when confronted with the crime issue? Adams’s remarks after Tuesday’s attack are not encouraging on this score.
Shortly after the shooting, Governor Kathy Hochul spoke at a press conference near the scene, telling reporters that she was “committing the full resources of our state to fight the surge of crime.” Of course, the governor’s commitment is limited, given that she has not yet been willing to reverse course fully on policies that make it easier for dangerous defendants to be released pretrial, that make it more difficult for prosecutors to manage caseloads, and that make it harder to send parole violators back to prison. These are changes that Adams called on her and lawmakers in Albany to make a few months ago—rightly identifying recent policy shifts as barriers to crime control.
But on Tuesday evening, while the alleged subway shooter was still at large, Adams struck a different tone. Appearing virtually at a press conference, the mayor seemed to shift some of the blame for New York’s crime problems from bad policy—where it belongs—to the availability of guns. He made the factually absurd claim that “buying weapons of mass destruction is as easy as picking up a piece of plywood or a garden shovel” and lamented that, in the United States, guns outnumber people. It was as if Adams were laying the groundwork for a political self-defense to be deployed later, should crime keep moving in the wrong direction.
The mayor’s argument-by-implication, however, is undermined by three key facts. First, Glock 17s—the alleged shooter’s presumed weapon, which authorities recovered at the scene—are not weapons of mass destruction. They are issued as the standard sidearm to police officers around the country. Second, gun violence was a much bigger problem in New York City back when there were tens of millions fewer guns in private circulation, and when private handgun ownership was more heavily restricted (and in some cases banned outright) in many American cities. And third, New York was able to cut homicides by an astonishing 87 percent between 1990 and 2017 (a trend also reflected in the shooting data), even as the number of guns in private circulation sharply increased during that period—illustrating how good policing and smarter criminal-justice policies could take (and keep) shooters off the street.
When New York City gun crime was at its peak a generation ago, the availability of guns wasn’t considered an acceptable excuse for failing to achieve public safety gains. And it shouldn’t be acceptable today.
The truth, as I suspect Mayor Adams knows full well, is that what really matters is not the number of guns in circulation but the willingness of our political leaders to ensure that criminals are swiftly arrested, prosecuted, and incapacitated, as opposed to released back into the public with a slap on the wrist. Wherever one stands on gun rights, the issue remains a distraction from what New York ought to be doing to control crime: strategically increasing the number of working CCTV cameras in public spaces, expanding access to facial-recognition technology for NYPD investigators, boosting the number of high-quality officers on the beat, and, yes, rethinking reforms that have made criminality less costly—and more likely.
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images