‘Gun Free’ Times Square Scheme Loaded With Uncertainties and Delays
From backlogged permits to spotty signage, New York’s preparations to keep firearms out of the densely packed Midtown zone remain full of holes.
At midnight Thursday, Times Square will become a “gun free zone” — where most owners with New York permits will face the possibility of criminal charges if they bring their firearms.
Hours before that deadline, however, it was tough to tell where that zone begins and where it ends.
The NYPD had promised “Gun Free Zone” signs at every single entry to the designated Times Square zone but as of mid-day Wednesday THE CITY walked the perimeter and found not one in sight.
And a map released by Mayor Eric Adams Wednesday illustrating where the signs will go up did not address multiple exits from Sixth Avenue subway stations and the Rockefeller Center concourse that deposit transit riders inside the Times Square zone.
Also not on the map is a midblock entrance into the zone at West 53rd Street: “6 1/2 Avenue,” a pedestrian walkway that runs through a private building.
The Times Square “gun free zone” is part of New York’s response to last June’s Supreme Court’s ruling striking down the state’s strict firearms carry permit laws as unconstitutional. The invalidated law had required applicants to prove they had “proper cause” for a license and gave the authorities great latitude to deny it.
The decision noted that authorities could create “sensitive places” where permitted guns are not allowed, but did not define such places, other than to suggest that they can’t be overly sweeping. Wrote Justice Clarence Thomas in the majority opinion: “[T]here is no historical basis for New York to effectively declare the island of Manhattan a ‘sensitive place’ simply because it is crowded and protected generally by the New York City Police Department.”
Responding to the highest court’s ruling, Gov. Kathy Hochul and the state legislature enacted a law declaring wide swaths of the state and city as “sensitive locations” where legally permitted firearms would still be barred. It also implemented new requirements — including training and more extensive background checks — to obtain a carry permit.
Those new requirements for those who are seeking permits go into effect after midnight Thursday.
Anyone who applies starting Sept. 1 must submit to an in-person interview with the NYPD, complete 16 hours of training, provide the department with four character references and turn over every social media handle they’ve used in the last three years to the NYPD’s licensing division. Those who applied before Sept. 1 won’t be required to go through the training, police officials said.
The new policies came as a surprise to City Council members holding a hearing Tuesday on the Times Square zone, and who complained that the public had not been adequately updated on the new firearms permit landscape.
“It sounds like we’re going to need a lot more police officers in Times Square,” said Councilmember Robert Holden (D-Queens), one of several Public Safety Committee members who probed for last-minute details from the NYPD and City Hall officials about how the zone would be enforced.
A key question was how will the police deal with gun owners who have carry permits but are exempted from the new rules — including licensed security guards, retired police officers, residents who live within the zone and business owners who are allowed to have a gun in their establishment.
Those questions are particularly pressing in the Diamond District along 47th Street, which is directly adjacent to the new “gun free” Times Square on Sixth Avenue, and where many in the industry already had special permits to carry firearms.
“It is one of the most heavily armed areas in New York City,” said Jerrold Levine, an attorney who specializes in obtaining permits for clients. “Lots of diamond merchants have carry permits.”
During Tuesday’s hearing, Robert Barrows, executive director of the NYPD’s Legal Operations and Projects, said business owners with carry permits passing through or into the Times Square zone would have to transport their firearms unloaded and kept inside locked carry cases. The same holds for residents living in the zone who have permits.
On Tuesday Joseph Gebhardt, a Brinks guard, walked up Sixth Avenue along the western edge of the new zone just above the entrance to the Diamond District. At that spot, as was the case with the entire perimeter, there were no “gun free zone” signs to inform him of the changing rules right around the corner.
“I didn’t hear anything about that,” he said. “They’re going to have signs, right? How else are you going to know?”
When the new rules for applicants kick in after midnight Thursday, it’s not clear how the NYPD will handle what is already a major spike in the number of new applications that started at the beginning of the pandemic and has already created a huge backlog.
So far this year, the NYPD has received 3,925 new applications, already more than the 3,766 the department handled in all of 2019. As COVID swept across the city and crime surged, the number of new permit applications jumped to 9,395 in 2020 and 4,665 last year.
“They were already one year behind in processing applications because of the virus,” Levine noted. “Now they’ve got tons more applications. People are calling the precincts. The precincts are telling them what I’m telling my clients: Don’t call me for six months.”
Levine predicts the Times Square zone will be challenged in court, along with many of the other new requirements he says are “intended to be impractical and to be an impediment to people with carry licenses. That’s the whole point.”
And at Tuesday’s hearing, Council members questioned how owners with legal permits will know when they’ve strayed into a gun-free zone. After Barrows held up the small sign the city intends to place at every entry point to Times Square, Councilmember Joann Ariola (R-Queens), said, “I’m assuming it’s going to be much larger.”
How, for example, will permit holders see the small “gun free” signs in Times Square, amid all the confusing signs for parking, “Raise Plow,” street names, bike lanes, bus lanes, “Rough Road,” and “Jerry Orbach Way”?
Barrows promised the small signs were just temporary, and he noted a large electronic billboard the city will be deploying on a flatbed driven around the perimeter.
At a press conference Wednesday, Police Commissioner Keechant Sewell — noting of Times Square, “It is iconic, it is dense, it is complex” — indicated the NYPD had no plans to institute checkpoints at the perimeter or to add more officers to the area.
Barrows, the NYPD attorney, also promised that the department would eventually provide all licensees with a comprehensive list of sensitive locations and “restricted areas,” which include all subways, public parks, hospitals, schools and entities with liquor licenses. Privately owned locations will be considered “gun free” by default unless they notify the NYPD that they are opting out of the rules and accepting firearms on their premises.
Except for Times Square, the city has no plans to place “gun free”signs in any of the restricted zones that go into effect at midnight Thursday.
While questioning how the new “sensitive area” in Times Square will be enforced, most committee members praised the idea of it. And Council Speaker Adrienne Adams (D-Queens) — noting that there have been 900 shootings with 1,000 victims in New York City so far this year — went one step further.
“I’d like to see those signs in a lot more areas around New York City,” she said. “Not just the sensitive areas.”