By Chris Francescani
NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York City authorities on Monday trumpeted the largest gun seizure in city history, capturing 254 weapons and arresting 19 people from smuggling rings that are accused of running guns northward from the Carolinas.
"There is no doubt that the seizure of these guns has saved lives," New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg told a news conference, using the opportunity to defend the New York Police Department's controversial "stop and frisk" tactic, which a U.S. judge last week ruled was unconstitutional.
Two smuggling rings are alleged to have acquired guns that had been stolen or purchased illegally in North Carolina and South Carolina, taking advantage of a premium on guns in New York due to stricter gun control laws, New York City Special Narcotics Prosecutor Bridget Brennan told reporters.
"The marketing strategy was very simple," said Brennan. "Buy low, sell high and keep a low profile."
The grand jury indictments, which include 552 counts against the 19 defendants, were unsealed on Monday.
For years, Bloomberg and NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly have decried what is known in law enforcement circles as the "iron pipeline" - a gun smuggling route on the U.S. East Coast, moving guns from states with more lax firearms laws, such as those in North Carolina and South Carolina, up to New York and other Northeast states, where black-market guns fetch at least three times their retail price.
Flanked on either side of the podium by long folding tables lined with handguns, semi-automatic weapons, and at least one assault rifle, authorities identified the two lead suspects as: Walter Walker, 29, of Sanford, North Carolina; and Earl Campbell, 24, of Rock Hill, South Carolina.
The names of their attorneys were not immediately available.
Each was arrested in his home state earlier this month. While the pair are accused of running separate gun-running operations, police tied them together through the same middleman, who officials said ran a music recording studio in Brooklyn.
According to Kelly, Campbell shifted sales from Brooklyn to Manhattan earlier this year out of fear of being caught up in the NYPD's "stop and frisk" police stops in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, one of the city's high-crime neighborhoods.
"I can't take them (guns) to my house ... 'cause I'm in Brownsville," Kelly quoted Campbell as saying in a January phone call captured on a wiretap. "We got, like, whatchamacallit, stop and frisk."
A U.S. district judge last week ruled "stop and frisk" unconstitutional for unfairly targeting of minorities and ordered changes to the tactic. [ID:nL2N0GD0GY] The city has appealed the ruling, saying the practice has helped reduce crime by 30 percent.
(Reporting by Chris Francescani; editing by Daniel Trotta, G Crosse)