As it turned out, the illicit rifle was not only cheaper and easier to obtain than the legal pistol, but the seller was much more pleasant to deal with than the cops administering the official process. The police officers at New York City’s One Police Plaza, once I actually got into the place, were flat-out rude. They weren’t abusive as much as surly in a special bureaucratic way, backed up by the implied threat that they could punish back-talk with a simple nudge of your papers into the trash can. I bit my tongue, but everybody has their own limit. A “customer” at an adjoining desk in the cramped warren stood up, announced loudly that rather than put up with this treatment he’d buy his gun on the street, then stalked from the room.

Maybe he did. Maybe he didn’t. I’ll never know if that guy went to the black market. But plenty of New Yorkers have chosen to own guns outside the official system. In a city that, as I write, has roughly 37,000 licensed handgun owners and about 21,000 rifle and shotgun licenses, the running guesstimate of illegal firearms stands at two million, give or take a bit. That’s the number the U.S. Department of Justice has used in its official publications in recent years.

Basically, far more guns are owned illegally within the boundaries of New York City than are held legally. Government officials wanted tight restrictions on firearms, and they got them—but that doesn’t seem to have deterred many people from owning the things.