Burress case puts spotlight on how NYC enforces gun laws

NEW YORK — The Plaxico Burress shooting has cast the spotlight on the Manhattan prosecutor’s office and how it enforces New York gun laws that often require severe punishment for anyone caught with an illegal weapon.

District Attorney Robert Morgenthau said illegal guns are near the top of his priority list and he is looking hard at the New York Giants star and anyone involved with him after he accidentally shot himself in the leg at a nightclub over the weekend.

Morgenthau especially wants to know why hospital officials did not notify police that Burress had been shot, as required by law. “It’s a priority matter to get to the bottom of why this wasn’t reported,” Morgenthau said Tuesday.

Burress is charged with two counts of criminal possession of a weapon after the shooting, punishable by 3½ to 15 years in prison if convicted. The football star did not have a permit to have a gun in New York.

Burress’ lawyer, Ben Brafman, has stressed that people should not rush to judgment about the case, and denies that it took Burress a long time to come forward.

While prosecuting gun offenders is a high priority for Manhattan prosecutors, Burress’ lawyers will surely push for a plea bargain in hopes of keeping him out of jail and preserving his football career.

Asked about plea deals involving gun possession cases, Morgenthau’s chief deputy, Daniel Castleman, said: “Every case is evaluated on its own merits,” adding, “we do believe jail time is appropriate for some people who carry guns.”

He also said “there have been some instances” where his office did not believe a person guilty of illegal gun possession needed to go to jail.

One instance was the case of rapper Busta Rhymes, who pleaded guilty in 1999 to possessing a loaded .45-caliber gun and got no jail and five years of probation.

Rhymes dodged jail apparently by convincing a Manhattan judge that he kept the gun in his Mercedes because an armed robbery made him fear for his life.

Burress has not spoken publicly about what possessed him to pack a gun, but some have speculated that he was carrying it for safety reasons after teammate and fellow wide receiver Steve Smith was robbed at gunpoint three days earlier.

New York prosecutors handle hundreds of gun-possession cases a year, including one on Tuesday.

A 21-year-old man named John Thomas pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of “attempted” criminal possession of a weapon in exchange for a one-year jail sentence. He was arrested on Thanksgiving Day after police found a .40-caliber handgun — the same caliber as Burress’ — in a car he rode in with four others.

Thomas had faced the same charges as Burress, but was able to get a lighter sentence because he pleaded guilty to “attempted” criminal possession of a weapon, as opposed to the more severe possession count.

Thomas’ lawyer, Ikiesha T. Al-Shabazz, called the sentence “a fair disposition, given the facts.”

The state’s gun law changed in November 2007 to make possession of a loaded handgun outside one’s home business punishable by up to 15 years in prison. It had previously been punishable by up to seven years.

The reason for the harsher sentence now is a presumption that a person carrying an unlicensed loaded handgun in a public place intends to use it. The criminal complaint against Burress’ states he intended to use his .40-caliber handgun.

The best chance of getting away jail-free these days is hoping that a gun-possession charge will go away on a technicality, such as proving an illegal search uncovered the gun.

Prosecutors will have another set of challenges in deciding whether to charge people connected to the shooting with failing to report the incident.

Castleman said there is no time limit within which hospitals must report gunshot wounds, but it is expected they will do so “as soon as practicable.” Charges in such cases are highly rare.

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