Suspected subway shooter purchased gun legally, despite long criminal record

·5 min read
John Minchillo/AP Photo

NEW YORK — Frank James, who was arrested for opening fire in a subway car Tuesday morning, used a legal handgun in the attack that injured 23 people, authorities said Wednesday. Despite his lengthy criminal record, James was able to buy the firearm because he'd never been convicted of a felony, they said.

Meanwhile, Mayor Eric Adams attempted to restore a sense of calm to the city that was sent into a tailspin for over 24 hours after the shooting while hundreds of detectives searched for the suspect.

“My fellow New Yorkers, we got him. We got him,” said Adams as he tuned in to a press conference about the arrest at NYPD headquarters Wednesday afternoon from Gracie Mansion, where he has been quarantined since testing positive for Covid-19 over the weekend.

“I said to New Yorkers, we are going to protect the people of this city and apprehend those who believe they can bring terror to everyday New Yorkers,” the mayor added. “Thirty-three shots, but less than 30 hours later we are able to say, we got him.”

After detonating smoke canisters and shooting passengers with a 9mm Glock handgun he bought in Ohio 11 years ago from a licensed dealer, James hopped onto another train and traveled one stop, NYPD Chief of Detectives James Essig said at the press conference. The Glock was uncovered at the crime scene.

His lengthy arrest record includes nine charges in New York from 1992 through 1998, including a criminal sex act and possession of burglary tools. He was also arrested in New Jersey three times, from 1991 through 2007, Essig said. But he was never found guilty of more serious crimes.

"You can't have a felony conviction and purchase a gun, so he had no felony convictions," Essig explained.

Police arrested the 62-year-old at 1:42 p.m. Wednesday on a street corner in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, about seven miles from the Brooklyn scene where he shot 10 people and injured 13 others on a rush-hour train. James was transported to a police facility.

A 21-year-old Manhattan man named Zack Dahnan told reporters he saw James in the East Village and called the police. Police officers drove Dahnan away from a sidewalk press conference he was giving Wednesday as a crowd who'd gathered to hear his story broke into applause.

“He will be charged with committing yesterday’s appalling crime in Brooklyn,” said NYPD Commissioner Keechant Sewell — who confronted one of her first major tests in her relatively new role leading the nation’s largest police department. “We hope this arrest brings some solace to the victims and the people of the city of New York.”

Police were under pressure to quickly make an arrest in the case, after James was able to escape from a crowded train station in broad daylight — calling into question the operability of subway station cameras.

As the manhunt continued, Adams sought to assure New Yorkers the vital underground rail system was safe enough for commuting, while warning of the increasingly grave dangers illegal handguns have been posing across the five boroughs. He too was facing a major test, as he campaigned almost exclusively on a promise to restore safety to the city after a Covid-era spike in crime that only worsened during his first 100 days in office.

Sewell said officers “used every resource at our disposal” to gather evidence linking James to the crime. “We were able to shrink his world quickly. There was nowhere left for him to run,” she added.

Police officers viewed video of James entering the Kings Highway subway station in Brooklyn before the shooting, with a black cart that was recovered at the crime scene. They also found the U-Haul truck he had rented in Philadelphia three blocks away, and the key to the truck at the crime scene, according to an account from Essig.

James will now be arraigned in federal court in Brooklyn. If convicted, he faces a lifetime sentence, said U.S. Attorney Breon Peace, whose office is handling the case. It's unclear if James has an attorney and a local public defender group did not return messages.

Peace said James intended to “cause death and serious bodily injury to passengers and MTA employees on the New York City subway system.”

“The government will prove, among other things, that James traveled across state line in order to commit the offense and transported materials across a state line in aid of the commission of the offense,” Peace added.

The shooting — aspects of which are still under investigation — also raised questions about the city’s use of controversial technology in law enforcement.

Adams, who has embraced an expansion of facial recognition tools, initially suggested he would support metal detectors in subway stations but altered his position during TV interviews Wednesday morning.

Meanwhile, Essig applauded the use of technology in the case and police officials blamed the ineffective subway camera on the state-controlled MTA.

MTA Chair and CEO Janno Lieber on Wednesday said the NYPD did use footage captured by the transit authority.

“In the one location by the turnstile there was apparently a server problem which they had been working on the day before,” Lieber said in a TV interview before news of the arrest. “But the bigger issue is there’s so much video evidence from all of the stations on the line that there are images of this fellow that are going to be found.”

Danielle Muoio-Dunn contributed to this report.