Vallone: ‘Without cocaine,’ the gun-toting Tennessee tourist is ‘just a knucklehead’

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When Mayor Michael Bloomberg was first asked to comment on the Tennessee nurse arrested for bringing a gun to the Sept. 11 memorial at the World Trade Center, his reaction was to imply that she had other problems.

"Let's assume she didn't get arrested for carrying a gun," Bloomberg said. "She probably would have gotten arrested for the cocaine that was in her pocket."

It turns out the white powder in her pocket was not drugs, according to the police, who tested it. The mayor said, before the lab reports came back negative, that the arrestee deserved no leniency and ought to be sentenced according to the existing guidelines.

The mayor's comments only added fuel to a debate about the arrestee's character, and the fitness of New York's mandatory-sentencing rules for gun violations.

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Peter Vallone Jr., chairman of the New York City Council's public safety committee, had said that the woman was a "moron" for allegedly forgetting about her gun before attempting to check the weapon with a police officer downtown.

"Whether or not it was cocaine just complicates the example I was trying to make," Vallone told me today. "If she had actual cocaine, she'd be a complete moron. But without it, she's just a knucklehead."

A knucklehead, he has said, who should not face three and a half years in prison under New York sentencing guidelines for gun possession.

The case of the Tennessee tourist, Meredith Graves, is just one of "the examples the rest of the country is using in trying to pass this reciprocity law," Vallone said, referring to a federal bill that would require every state to honor gun licenses issued in other state. The bill passed the House but not the Senate.

Gun-control critics, Vallone said, "are pointing to examples like this of law-abiding people who make mistakes and face tremendous jail sentences. And we have to fix it."

Vallone, who worked in the Manhattan D.A.'s office before being elected to the Council in 2001, said the pendulum has swung back and forth on ways to mandate jail time for gun possession here.

"The law was put in for a good reason," he said. "Back when I was a D.A., there was a one-year mandatory minimum. But there were exceptions to that law. Every time, a judge would find extraordinary circumstances, and I was a D.A. for six years, and I can count the number of people on one hand who actually went to jail for gun possession because judges were abusing the discretion. So the legislature took that discretion away and made it a three-and-a-half-year minimum."

Vallone, who represents Astoria, said, "If the mayor were the D.A. she she would be facing three and a half years in jail, and I have not met anyone other than the mayor who thinks that's a fair sentence in this case."

Asked what he thought would be a fair punishment, Vallone said, "Assuming she's a law-abiding citizen with no rap sheet and no cocaine in her purse, I don't think she should do any jail time."

I asked whether he thought there ought to be any consequences for the mayor for making what turned out to be a false insinuation about the woman who was arrested.

"No," Vallone chuckled. "That's one of the things we like about the mayor. He has his own opinions and he's not afraid to say them."