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'Iron Pipeline' a conduit for illegal weapons to New York

'Iron Pipeline' a conduit for illegal weapons to New York
New York City Police Commissioner William J. Bratton anounces arrests in a suspected gun-trafficking ring. (Andrew Gombert / European Pressphoto Agency)

Michael Bassier was on a roll and proud of it.

He stepped off the bus that had carried him from Georgia to New York, a route dubbed the Iron Pipeline because of its popularity with gun runners, and called an ex-girlfriend to boast.

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"You wanna know what I do now?" he said to her in a secretly recorded conversation. "I sell guns."

Bassier was a regular on the Iron Pipeline, according to prosecutors who announced his arrest this month on charges that could send him to prison for 25 years.

But he was far from the only Pipeline regular, authorities say, and satisfaction over his arrest has been tempered by anger at the ease with which illegal firearms make it to New York, Connecticut and other states with some of the nation's toughest gun laws.

Law enforcement officials say 90% of the guns seized in connection with New York City crimes come via the Iron Pipeline from Virginia, Georgia, Florida and other states linked by Interstate 95, the heavily traveled corridor favored by gun smugglers.

The Iron Pipeline is not limited to the highway, however. Last year, Brooklyn Dist. Atty. Ken Thompson announced the arrests of five men, including a former Delta Air Lines ramp worker, in connection with the transport of weapons on Delta flights from the airline’s hub in Atlanta to New York.

In the last 11 months, four New York City police officers have been killed on duty with guns that arrived via the Pipeline. In December, a gunman used a weapon bought at a Georgia pawn shop to kill NYPD Officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos. Five months later, a gun stolen from another Georgia pawn shop was used to kill Officer Brian Moore.

On Oct. 20, Officer Randolph Holder died after being shot in the head with a handgun that officials say originated in South Carolina.

"We have a spigot that's wide open down there," Police Commissioner William J. Bratton said at a Tuesday news conference, which was called to announce the takedowns of two more gun-smuggling rings.

Beside him were tables laden with 74 newly seized illegal firearms, including six assault weapons, that undercover officers bought from six men named in two criminal indictments. The defendants collected more than $52,000 in the sales, the indictments say.

Officials have not yet determined where the weapons originated, but the Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus Vance Jr., said if this case was like most, the weapons would be traced back to the Southern states whose laws make it far easier for people to get access to weapons.

The disparity in state gun laws has become the latest focus of gun-control advocates, led by President Obama, who say the federal government must step in to fill gaps created by the patchwork of legislation that allows things like the Iron Pipeline to thrive.

"It is easier in some communities to find a gun than it is to find some fresh vegetables at a supermarket," Obama told the International Assn. of Chiefs of Police in Chicago on Tuesday. "That's just a fact."

Opponents of gun control, led by the National Rifle Assn., say there is no evidence that tougher gun laws reduce gun violence. They oppose laws passed in New York and Connecticut in the wake of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, laws that ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.

The NRA also fought, and defeated, Obama's post-Sandy Hook effort to get Congress to mandate universal background checks on all gun sales. The group says various state and federal regulations make additional legislation regarding the transport of firearms across state lines unnecessary.

Prosecutors on the northern end of the Iron Pipeline disagree. They point to cases like Bassier's, and to the latest police killings, as proof that current laws are failing. Bassier, 31, was charged in a 541-count indictment, along with seven others, and accused of leading a ring that transported guns to Brooklyn on discount buses.

After his last ride up the Iron Pipeline, Bassier waited until he was off the bus, out of earshot of other passengers, before calling his ex-girlfriend.

"It's legal and it's illegal at the same time," Bassier told her, explaining that he purchased the weapons legally in Georgia before reselling them illegally in New York.

As he spoke, in an expletive-laced recording played for reporters, Bassier boasted that he was walking through Manhattan with four handguns, an assault rifle, and two Mac-10 submachine guns in his gym bag.

Bassier told the woman he wasn't worried about being overheard. "I'm talking into my phone," he said confidently, adding that police "can't hear me."

Police said an undercover officer paid more than $130,000 during a yearlong investigation for guns provided by Bassier. Most of the transactions took place in a Walgreens parking lot in Brooklyn.

"We had guns in a car, guns in a plane, now guns on a bus," said Thompson, the Brooklyn district attorney, alluding to other Iron Pipeline cases. "How many different ways do we have to get to these guns before we wake up as a country and realize we have to stop the bloodshed?"

His frustration was echoed as officials in New York prepared for Holder's funeral. Thousands of officers from across the country attended Wednesday's service, which was to be followed by burial in the slain officer's native Guyana.

One local congresswoman, Rep. Nydia M. Velazquez, is proposing legislation that would include a $100 federal tax on retail gun sales. The bill was to be introduced in the House this week.

Bratton, though, is not optimistic about any change coming from Washington. He made no attempt to hide his disdain for lawmakers who have failed to strengthen federal gun laws.

"It still amazes me, the insanity of the U.S. Congress, that they just don't get it," he said at Tuesday's news conference. "I don't know why they don't get it other than they're basically constantly down there with their hands out to the NRA. It's just insanity."

Twitter: @tinasusman

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