About 40 people gathered aboard a large white party bus on Thursday night, celebrating a birthday as the bus roamed Brooklyn and made its way to Times Square. Some in the crowd shared pictures on social media, posing with firearms while inside.
Police officers took notice. For more than three hours, investigators surveilled the rolling party as it traveled from Brooklyn to Manhattan and then to the Dumbo neighborhood of Brooklyn.
Around 12:30 a.m. on Friday, the police stopped the bus near Front and York Streets, recovering eight loaded handguns and arresting 14 people, including three juveniles, on weapons possession charges.
Officials are now investigating ties between some of the revelers arrested and Brooklyn’s Road to Riches gang, according to a law enforcement official briefed on the investigation.
The arrests on Friday underscored the prevalence of illegal guns on the city’s streets that the police say are fueling a spike in shootings. Since last year, the police have grappled with a deep-rooted gun culture in parts of the city, some already devastated by the pandemic.
New York City, like several other large cities across the country, has seen a rise in gun violence even as other violent crimes have fallen. The city reported 1,531 shootings in 2020, according to data from the police, nearly double the previous year’s total, though overall crime numbers in the city remained well below the violence of the 1980s and 1990s.
“I’d like to ask all New Yorkers to help us in this important mission,” Assistant Chief Miguel Iglesias said on Friday afternoon, standing in front of a backdrop of a photo of the weapons recovered the night before. “We need all of you, community members, clergy and business owners and also our families to help us work and get guns off the streets every day.”
Shootings in the city are up compared with last year — from 88 to 104 as of Feb. 7, according to the data, though some experts say year-to-year comparisons can be misleading, particularly amid the pandemic. The police say feuds between street crews over turf and drug deals have been driving most of the violence.
In January the police arrested 486 people who were carrying illegal firearms, Chief Iglesias said, a 61.5 percent increase from the same period a year ago and the most gun arrests in any single January in two and a half decades.
“Why are there so many firearms in New York City right now?” he wondered aloud. The authorities, experts and some young men who carry guns in the city have offered a variety of explanations beyond criminal intentions, including misguided efforts to fend off street rivals and feelings of power and invincibility.
For the party bus revelers, the arrests came after officials began to “hear rumblings” just after 9 p.m. on Thursday that several passengers on board were carrying firearms, Chief Iglesias said. Investigators then began to trail it from Brooklyn into Manhattan, he added, and monitored the vehicle for more than three hours.
After the bus had re-entered Brooklyn, Chief Iglesias said, officers with the violent crimes squad waited for a “tactical safe location” before ordering it to stop about a half an hour after midnight. Inside, investigators found an arsenal that included six 9-millimeter handguns, one .380 caliber and one .22 caliber firearm and 58 rounds of ammunition, Chief Iglesias said.
Investigators were still determining Friday afternoon whether additional passengers would face criminal charges, Chief Iglesias said. The bus operating company, Party Bus Express, did not return requests for comment on Friday.
In a study published in 2020 about the prevalence of guns in New York, the Center for Court Innovation found that young people who carry guns often say it is because they feel abandoned by authority figures like community leaders, elected officials and the police.
In the study, which focused on the motivations for carrying illegal firearms, 81 percent of the 330 people interviewed told researchers that they had been the target of a shooting, and nearly 90 percent said a family member or friend had been a victim of gun violence. Many of them obtained their illegal guns when they were as young as 14, the study found.
“They feel like they have to protect themselves, because the city and the infrastructure has completely abandoned them,” one of the researchers, Elise White, told The Times last year.
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