Gun Possession Law: I, the Jury

July 15, 2022
Posted by Jay Livingston

I thought that the Supreme Court decision in the recent gun-possession case was a bad decision. I still do, but as I listened to a recent podcast — Lulu Garcia-Navarro’s “First Person” (here) — my thinking about it changed. 

Sharone Mitchell Jr.  is a prosecutor. He’s Black. He grew up on the South Side of Chicago. He knows the dangers of guns. When he was in middle school, a classmate of his was shot. Another kid he was friendly with had a gun.

And yet, as he says on the podcast, he supports the Supreme Court’s recent decision that allows people to carry guns. His reason is that gun-possession laws are used mostly against Black men who are not criminals and who are merely trying to protect themselves.

There is just the random threat of violence growing up in the neighborhood, right, this idea of gangs and getting jumped, getting jumped for your Jordans or getting jumped for your Starter jacket. I think people had an interest in keeping themselves safe. My friend who showed me my first gun was of that same mindset. Like this is what I’m going to do to make sure that I protect myself.

Mitchell’s experience as a prosecutor provided him with more evidence to support that view.

As I became a more experienced attorney, more and more of our cases, my cases, involved guns. . . actually gun possession cases. They are people who are accused of illegally possessing a firearm. That was the vast majority of my cases.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro: And just to be clear, that’s the only crime these people are being charged with a quarter of the time, just having a gun?

Sharone Mitchell Jr.: Illegally having a gun, yeah.

I remembered my own encounter with gun laws. In the 1980s, I served as a juror on a gun-possession case. The defendant was a young Black man, and the case sounded very much like the ones Sharone Mitchell prosecuted.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro: So can you talk me through the circumstances in which people are being arrested for gun possession not involving another crime? What typically draws the attention of the police in the first place?

Sharone Mitchell Jr.: Typically a search, you know, an encounter. Police could pull people over in a car. They could stop people on the street. We know that certain communities are policed very heavily. There’s lots of contact folks will have with police. So we’re talking young Black men in very particular neighborhoods.

That was my case all right. Harlem, one a.m.. Three Black men in a gypsy cab, two in the back seat, one (the eventual defendant) in the front passenger seat. The driver too is black. They make a brief stop for cigarettes, and as they pull out from the curb, the cops pull them over. They say that the cab had pulled out from the curb illegally, but that was clearly a pretext. The real reason was what Mitchell says: Black men in a Black neighborhood.

The driver, the DA’s main witness, testifies that when the man in the passenger seat saw the flashing light, he said, “Oh, shit,” and put something under his seat. The cops searched the car and under the seat they found a gun.

It seemed like a strong case, and I wondered why it hadn’t been pleaded out to some lesser charge. I knew that in New York illegal possession carried a mandatory one-year minimum sentence. So my first assumption was that our defendant was a bad guy, a criminal well-known to the police, a guy with a string of arrests and maybe a few stretches in prison, but that the gun charge was what they would get him on. At least he’d be off the streets for a year.

Instead, he seemed much more to fit Sharone Mitchell’s typical case. He took the stand in his own defense, and while the DA could not bring in any criminal history, she could ask about employment history. But our defendant had no long gaps between jobs that would indicate prison time. Even the DA allowed that the defendant was carrying the gun for protection. He had been mugged recently, and he was going to Harlem at one in the morning. But the law is the law.

In the jury room several people asked pretty much the same question that Mitchell raises: Hey, this is New York City.  Murders, robberies, assaults. Bad people doing bad things. Why are they wasting our time with a case like this?

We deliberated for about an hour.

Not guilty.

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