Darius Lee, 21, a native son of Harlem and a basketball star at Houston Baptist University, was in a large group of revelers on a Sunday night last month, enjoying a beautiful Father’s Day weekend at a barbecue, when he was killed in a flurry of gunfire.
The police now say that Mr. Lee was killed in volleys from what investigators believe were 13 guns, 53 shots in all. Three guns were recovered at the scene, the police said this week; it was determine that 10 others were used based on casings found at the shooting site.
The stunning figures emerged as New York braces for what could be a surge in gun ownership within the state’s borders after a Supreme Court decision last month overturned a law that made it difficult to own or carry a handgun legally.
“It kind of leaves the police with fewer strategies,” said Ron Avi Astor, a professor who studies gun violence at the University of California, Los Angeles. Soon, officers will most likely not only have to determine whether someone is carrying a gun but also whether or not the weapon is legal.
The shooting that killed Mr. Lee underscores what is perhaps the most unsettling unknown for New York City officials: the sheer volume of illegal guns in the streets. The Police Department does not keep figures on how many illegal guns it believes are in New York City, but officers often estimate the figure at around a million.
Officials rely on the numbers of seizures to gauge gun levels within the city. Gun arrests are at a 27-year high to this point in the year, Police Commissioner Keechant Sewell said on Thursday.
“Overall in the last six months, the N.Y.P.D. has taken more than 3,700 illegal guns off our streets,” Ms. Sewell said. “We will not take our foot off the gas.”
Recoveries of the untraceable weapons made from kits known as ghost guns have increased sharply in the past four years. So far in 2022, law enforcement agencies have recovered 175, ahead of last year’s pace.
Central to the seizure numbers, Ms. Sewell said, was the work of the department’s so-called Neighborhood Safety Teams, the reincarnated, second-generation of plainclothes units that focus specifically on gun crimes and were often the subject of accusations of biased policing and brutality in the past.
There has been not been a rush of gun permit applications in the city since the Supreme Court ruling, largely because the State Legislature passed a new round of gun safety measures that are likely to blunt the ruling’s impact in New York. It is unclear what the effect of more legal guns within the city borders will be on crime. None, some experts say.
“It won’t have any direct impact, period, on the number of guns in New York City,” Warren Eller, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said. “Legal firearms have very little do with the problems we have in New York.”
Not all people who carry illegal guns in New York do it intending to commit violent crimes. Many say they do it for protection, particularly as trust in the police has plummeted in some of the city’s most dangerous neighborhoods.
After surging during the pandemic, the numbers of murders and shootings in city has begun to abate, although not to their prepandemic levels. And even if there are fewer shootings, those that do happen are no less devastating. Mr. Lee was one of scores of New Yorkers killed by gun violence this year. An 11-year-old girl, a 12-year-old boy, and a Bronx grandmother are among the others.
Mr. Lee was months away from moving onto his post-college life when he was shot in Harlem River Park. Poised to graduate with a bachelor’s degree, he had recently been named Houston Baptist University’s male student athlete of the year when gunshots erupted early on June 20, violently punctuating what had been a brilliant Father’s Day weekend at a popular uptown picnicking destination.
Around 200 people were at a pavilion area near the Madison Avenue Bridge at the time, many of them celebrating Juneteenth, when a volley of pops sent the crowd running, said Dayandra Arriola,who was there. The picnicking area, known as the East River Waterfront Esplanade, devolved into chaos: beer bottles abandoned, red Solo cups dropped and dozens of people fleeing for cover.
“Everybody just ran for safety,” said Ms. Arriola, 23, who was grazed by a bullet. People were just trying to “hide and make sure they didn’t get hurt or hit.”
That 13 guns had been fired was “crazy,” Ms. Arriola said, adding that violence in the city was “out of control.”
“A lot of people are losing their life because of guns,” she said. “I just hope that we can all get together and just have fun without it being violent.”
When the shooting stopped, eight people were wounded and Mr. Lee was dead, killed by a wound to his chest that punctured his lungs and heart. The next day, the picnic ground was littered with coolers and party supplies and cordoned office by police tape. Police officials said they had not identified a suspect in the three weeks since then.
“An innocent 21-year-old was shot and killed here,” Chief James Essig, who leads the Police Department’s detective bureau. “Someone saw something. Someone in that crowd recorded something on a cellphone, and someone knows something.”
Téa Kvetenadze contributed reporting.