Last year, New York lawmakers declared Times Square a gun-free zone, a move intended to respond to a U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down the state’s firearms law and to protect the blazingly lit tourism magnet as it rebounded from the pandemic.
But at about 5:30 p.m. Thursday, as workers were hurrying to catch trains home and tourists were ambling toward hotels and Broadway theaters, a 22-year-old Bronx man was fatally shot near a Shake Shack restaurant on Eighth Avenue at West 44th Street.
The shooting was the first since the creation of the expansive, signposted zone, the police said in a statement, and it immediately renewed questions about whether such a designation can truly protect the area.
“People feel emboldened to carry guns on the street,” said Tom Harris, a retired New York police inspector and the president of the Times Square Alliance, which promotes businesses and coordinates major events.
“A gun-free zone is not going to stop a criminal from carrying a gun,” Mr. Harris said.
The shooting victim, identified by the police on Friday as Idrissa Siby, was struck in the chest and pronounced dead at Mount Sinai West hospital. Hours later, the police said they were searching for two gunmen. As of Friday, no arrest had been made.
Mr. Harris praised Mayor Eric Adams and the Police Department for more than doubling the size of the unit that patrols Times Square to 137 officers from 65. The beefed-up patrols have led to a promising dip in crime, Mr. Harris said.
In the last three months of 2022, the police were reporting one felony every three days, compared with every two days in 2021, Mr. Harris said.
“It’s unfortunate that some of these high-profile crimes take away from a lot of the progress that we made,” he said.
One such crime occurred on New Year’s Eve, when, the authorities said, a man from Maine whom they described as a would-be jihadist wielded a machete against three officers, including one who had just graduated from the police academy and sustained a fractured skull in the attack.
For residents and business owners, the shooting on Thursday was a reminder that the Times Square area can be dangerous despite the increased police presence — and the gun-free label.
Ross Hallock, a 48-year-old lawyer, was walking from his apartment to the gym on Thursday evening when he saw paramedics giving aid to the shooting victim.
“Nobody seemed to care, thousands of people were walking past,” Mr. Hallock said. “A couple of people stopped to watch, but most people were just walking right past him.”
Mr. Hallock said that when he walks to the grocery store on 43rd Street, he often sees people making drug deals, apparently unconcerned about being arrested. The problem, he added, had “gotten much worse since 2020.”
“They’re not even really hiding it,” he said. “I personally am not frightened because I’m a man and I’m not small but this area is very dangerous now.”
Ibrahim Md, who runs a newsstand around the corner from the Shake Shack, was working when he heard gunshots Thursday night. He shut the door and stayed inside his stand until police officers came and told him it was safe to leave.
“It’s scary, still,” Mr. Md said. He has worked at the stand for five years, but crime has gotten worse recently. Still, he said, he remains in Times Square.
“What can I do?” he said. “That’s my job. I do it.”
The state passed the law establishing the zone after the Supreme Court’s June decision striking down New York’s century-old gun law, which had placed strict limits on the public carrying of firearms.
The measure designated government buildings, places of worship, health care providers, libraries, playgrounds, public parks, the subway and Times Square specifically as places where people would be prohibited from carrying guns.
In October, Mr. Adams, who has said he owns three guns, signed a City Council bill that defined Times Square broadly and made it illegal to carry a gun between Sixth and Ninth Avenues and 40th and 53rd Streets. He said the legislation would help “dam those rivers that” are bringing firearms into New York.
“This is the heart of our city,” Mr. Adams said at the time, noting that 56 million people were expected to visit the city in 2022, with many of them likely to come through Times Square.
“We want to make sure that they’re safe,” the mayor said, explaining that the law would create an environment where visitors “won’t have to be paralyzed with the fear of knowing that someone is carrying a gun in this area.” In a statement on Friday, Mr. Adams said that under his administration, the police are removing illegal guns off the street daily and the sale of untraceable firearms without serial numbers — known as ghost guns — to the city through five online retailers had stopped.
“But this shooting underscores the need to ensure Times Square remains a sensitive location” under the state’s law, he said.
It is not clear, however, how safe these laws make the cities and towns that pass them, according to the RAND Corporation, which has studied such regulations across the country.
“A nationwide database on gun-free zones does not exist, and different decisions about how to classify these areas can lead to widely differing conclusions,” the study said.
Mr. Harris said the shooting on Thursday showed the need for a more holistic approach to fighting crime at the state level, such as imposing stronger punishments on repeat violent offenders.
Still, he said he did not anticipate that the shooting would affect the size of crowds at Times Square, which has recently been drawing about 330,000 visitors a day, about 85 percent of what the area saw before the pandemic.
“My sense is that while it’s a tragedy, it’s not going to have an impact,” Mr. Harris said.
Outside the Shake Shack on Friday, people strolling in and out of the restaurant appeared to share that sentiment.
Bridgette Parrish, 54, who was visiting from Atlanta with her daughter and her best friend, said that while she felt uneasy learning that there had been a shooting the night before, it would not stop them from wandering around Times Square, at least during the daytime.
“We definitely don’t have a lot of plans to be out at night,” she said.
Maryna Fostenko, 32, and her husband, Igor Fostenko, 34, had come to New York five days earlier from Irpin, Ukraine, on a weeklong business trip. Mr. Fostenko said that the couple had not been in the city long before someone had offered to sell them drugs.
And while the shooting had unnerved them, coming from Ukraine, which was attacked by more than 70 Russian missiles on Friday, they had a different perspective from most of the other tourists walking around Times Square.
“In Ukraine,” Ms. Fostenko said, “we feel ourselves less safe.”