Southern Brooklyn Councilmember Inna Vernikov is going to be cleared of an illegal gun charge, the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office told THE CITY on Friday — despite social media photos from last month that appeared to show the Republican with a gun on her waist at a counter-protest against pro-Palestinian college students.
A New York law, passed last year, prohibits the possession of firearms at “sensitive locations” including protests — even for licensed gun holders like Vernikov. But state case law holds that for prosecutors to prove a possession charge, the firearm must be operable.
NYPD officers monitoring the rally did not arrest Vernikov or seize the weapon at the time. Instead, police took possession of the gun when she voluntarily turned herself in and handed over the weapon the following morning. When the NYPD inspected the firearm a few weeks later, they found it was missing a key part — the recoil spring assembly — making the gun inoperable, according to a law enforcement source.
As a result, the prosecutors had to drop the charge, a spokesperson for the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office said. It was the first time the charge had ever been brought forth under the new state law in Kings County.
“Peaceful protest is the right of every American, but bringing a gun to a protest is illegal and creates an unacceptable risk of harm that has no place in our city,” said Oren Yaniv, a spokesperson for Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez. “In order to sustain this charge, it must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the weapon in question was capable of firing bullets. Absent such proof, we have no choice but to dismiss these charges.”
After Vernikov’s arraignment earlier this month, her attorney Arthur Aidala alluded to the possibility of this specific issue.
“As of today, there is no evidence that the gun works and there is no evidence that someone actually saw her with the gun,” Aidala, a politically-connected lawyer, told reporters at the time.
In response to the district attorney’s announcement, Aidala said in a statement “Councilwoman Vernikov has an outstanding reputation serving her constituency which since her re-election she will continue to do for the next two years.”
“She is pleased to have this all behind her and looks forward to continuing her fight on behalf of all New Yorkers to keep this city the greatest city in the world,” he said.
Ali Najmi, a criminal defense and election attorney who frequently works with Democrats in the borough, argued that the NYPD could have acted faster.
“I’m shocked that the NYPD failed to arrest her at the protest,” said Najmi. “The NYPD should have removed the gun off of her themselves and carefully preserved the evidence at the scene of the crime. There were a lot of police officers present at the time of the protest.”
Aidala did not respond to questions about whether the gun was already inoperable at the time of the rally, or whether someone removed it afterwards.
A request for comment to the NYPD on the department’s actions in the case was not immediately returned on Friday.
The case is still pending, however. According to the district attorney’s office, it will be dismissed on or before their next court date, scheduled for Jan. 24.