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Top ATF agent in NYC reflects on gun violence after his mom was gunned down when he was a teen

John DeVito's mother, John Devito, and ghost guns
John DeVito's mother, John Devito, and ghost guns

The top agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) in New York City takes gun violence personally – his mom was shot to death by a deranged boyfriend who also shot him when he was 15.

John DeVito, who grew up in low-income housing in Alabama, said he can still smell the gunpowder when he thinks about his mom’s terrible demise.

“She didn’t deserve that,” said DeVito, who was shot three times in the chest when he tried to intervene.

“She was a good person, a good woman who was trying to get her life back in order.”

After her death, DeVito joined the ATF as an intern, and never looked back.

He became an official agent in 1997, serving in several posts, including Miami, Washington, D.C., Virginia, New Jersey before coming to the city in 2019.

As a street agent in Miami, he investigated armed drug trafficking organizations, armed robberies of commercial businesses, armed car-jackings, gang-related racketeering, murders and firearms trafficking offenses.

He also served over ten years as an operator on ATF’s Special Response Team, tactical groups that respond to high-risk law enforcement operations.

In New York, DeVito helped push for a stronger partnership between the NYPD and ATF – setting up daily in person and Zoom meetings about shootings in the city that grew into the Gun Violence Strategic Partnership, which now includes multiple agencies.

His goal in bringing the agencies together daily was to ensure guns used in crimes could be traced immediately and on a regular basis – instead of sporadically after ending up in a pile – to find out where they came from and if they had been used in other crimes, he said.

The ATF’s top agent in New York City takes gun violence personally – after losing his mom in a shooting and getting shot himself in the chest when he was 15. Courtesy of John B. De Vito
The ATF’s top agent in New York City takes gun violence personally – after losing his mom in a shooting and getting shot himself in the chest when he was 15. Courtesy of John B. De Vito

He counts the case of subway shooter Frank James –  who gunned down 10 people on the “N” subway in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, on April 12, 2022 – as his plan coming to fruition.

The ATF helped the NYPD track the gun James used to shoot the rush-hour commuters to a seller in Ohio and got a form that proved James purchased the firearm, helping cops and prosecutors build a strong case against him.

James was sentenced to 10 concurrent life sentences in prison for the carnage.

“Now we do this as standard operating procedure,” DeVito said.

After her death, DeVito joined the ATF as an intern, and never looked back. Tamara Beckwith
After her death, DeVito joined the ATF as an intern, and never looked back. Tamara Beckwith

“New York is looked at as a model now.”

The now 49-year-old father of 12-year-old twin girls focuses on the bad guys who end up using the guns, he said.

“Guns are not the problem,” said DeVito, who plans to retire next month.

“I’m an advocate of the second amendment. At the end of the day, the problem is guns ending up in the hands of the wrong people.”

He became an official agent in 1997, serving in several posts, including Miami, Washington, D.C., Virginia, New Jersey before coming to the city in 2019. Tamara Beckwith
He became an official agent in 1997, serving in several posts, including Miami, Washington, D.C., Virginia, New Jersey before coming to the city in 2019. Tamara Beckwith

The ATF is facing a new problem from “the plastic pipeline,” man-made ghost guns, DeVito said.

Right now, the self-made guns are a small percentage of all firearms in the city but they could become a larger problem in the future, he said, while displaying a roomful of computer generated guns on the 35th floor of the ATF’s office in Lower Manhattan.

The guns – rifles and revolvers – are a combination of computer generated plastic parts and metal parts that are purchased.

The plastic parts are made with forms that look like brightly colored toys, he explains holding one of the neon green molds.

Right now, anyone who wants a gun can use a 3-D printer to manufacture the main gun body, but still has to buy gun parts, he explained.

“You still have to buy certain gun parts because you can’t digitally print them,” he said.

But that’s about to change.

“That’s the next evolution,” he said.

“Eventually, the composite plastics will become so durable you’ll start seeing them manufacturing the slides and possibly the barrels at some point in our lifetime.”

DeVito, who plans to spend more time with his family in retirement in Tennessee, said his mom’s death has shaped who he is.

“I’ve lived every single day since then with the guilt over the fact that I wasn’t able to protect my mother and also the shame that I begged another man for my life,” he said.

“But I was very, very fortunate. I lived.”