How criminals get their guns

The following article was originally published by The Lima News. Republished with permission.

by Greg Sowinski

LIMA - At a shooting inside a Lima bar earlier this month that injured four, police found an expensive handgun.

Officers traced the gun to a burglary in American Township in the past year. The two men charged in connection with the shooting at Marko's bar on South Main Street were unable to legally have a gun because of their criminal backgrounds.

So how did the two men, Michael G. Thompson, 19, and Dominique K. Durr, 22, be charged with illegally having a gun in a place that sells alcohol? Police were still trying to determine who fired the shots inside the bar. Another big question is where do people involved in gun crimes get guns?

Criminals do not go into the local sporting goods store or gun shop to buy guns. The law prohibits anyone convicted of a felony from buying or owning a gun. Criminals also do not follow the law and the "no guns" signs posted on both doors to enter Marko's did nothing to stop those who brought guns in that night.

"If a criminal wants a gun, they can't go and buy it because they have a criminal record. They are going to buy it off an individual or they are going to trade for it," said Chief Deputy Jimmy Everett, of the Allen County Sheriff's Office.

Criminals instead turn to illegal means of obtaining guns such as stealing one or finding someone on the streets to sell or trade something for guns. Sometimes another person buys it for them, said Lt. Jim Baker of the Lima Police Department.

Police come across guns in various circumstances but usually not at a crime scene. If the person who committed the crime with a gun gets away from the scene, the last thing he wants to do is get caught with the gun used in the crime.

"They definitely want to distance themselves from it," Baker said.

Lima Police Department records showed officers only find about two guns a year as reported stolen compared to about 25 a year that people find somewhere and about 10 guns a year that are recovered by officers.

Guns are disposed of in creeks, reservoirs, catch basins and along the side of the road or anywhere else the guns can be tossed or disposed, Everett said.

Some criminals hang onto guns just long enough to trade it, Everett said.

The Allen County Sheriff's Office recorded 39 stolen gun reports in 2011, 106 in 2010 and 155 in 2009. For those same years, respectively, only five, 15 and 26 guns were recovered. The guns recovered were not necessarily stolen in that same year.

"A lot of times, guns get traded for drugs," Everett said, adding guns often get traded numerous times among people who often are not allowed to have guns.

But it's not unheard of for them to use the same guns in crimes over and over, Everett said.

Tracking guns

Tracking a gun, especially once it enters the hands of criminals, can be nearly impossible. Criminals illegally in possession of guns do not notify police officials when and how they obtain guns.

In fact, the only way to track a gun is if the owner reported it stolen and it's entered into a database investigators can check. There is no gun registry.

Auglaize County Sheriff Al Solomon tells people who legally own guns to record serial numbers and write down the manufacturer and model number. He also said a picture helps to identify a gun if it's ever recovered. It also helps with insurance claims, he said.

"If we can find the owner, we will return it to the owner," Solomon said.

Sometimes guns are found and turned in that may not be stolen but if the owner did not report the gun missing there is no way to track it back, Everett said.

Solomon said officers always try to track the gun's history, which means trying to find out if the gun was reported stolen. Sometimes guns remain among criminals for years without being discovered.

"A lot of times we'll find a gun that was stolen out of a home 10 or 12 years ago," he said. "Burglaries. Thefts from homes are the most common."

People can prevent gun theft during burglaries by locking their guns in a gun safe, Baker said.

While tracking guns may be hard, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine is working on legislation aimed at increasing penalties for gun crimes. During a stop in Lima earlier this month, DeWine said an investigation his agency conducted showed a very small group of people in the state committing crimes with guns and most are repeat offenders.

"We're going to put some real teeth into that and really go after these individuals," he said. "We're going to put them away."

Finding guns

While it's no secret the more populated an area and the more crime in a location, the more guns there are through illegal means such as burglaries. In rural areas and smaller towns in the area, police officials said it's rare they come across stolen guns.

Putnam County Sheriff Jim Beutler said his agency sees about a dozen guns a year and most are found during drug raids.

"Very seldom do we see much of that here," he said. "We don't have a lot of armed robberies or crimes involving guns up here."

Putnam County deputies are much more likely to see guns through inadvertent ways. People may carry guns in a car that do not conform to the law, such as having a shotgun the person was using for hunting near them in the front of a car with the ammunition next to the person, Beutler said.

Unlike Lima and other areas, Beutler said deputies come across more rifles and shotguns than handguns. Perhaps it's because it is a rural county and people typically are not trying to conceal the gun.

In Wapakoneta, police Chief Russ Hunlock said his officers, thankfully, rarely come across guns.

"Maybe two or three a year at the most. That might even be high," he said.

When police officers in Wapakoneta come across guns it's usually for the same reasons as anywhere else: drugs, Hunlock said.

"But even then, all the indictments we serve and things in relation to drug activity still yields very little in terms of weapons," Hunlock said.

The majority of those caught illegally possessing a gun have criminal records, Baker said.

"It's not their first time," Everett said.

A person who is licensed to carry a gun and has it during a traffic stop is not breaking the law. Licensed carriers are not the ones police have trouble with, police leaders said.

"Your people with the [concealed handgun] license, they are not the ones committing the crimes," Everett said. "If somebody is going to use a gun for a crime they're not going to get a license."

Sheriff deputies come across guns in a variety of ways, from traffic stops to drug raids.

"When the drug unit serves search warrants a lot of times they will find guns," he said.

Many of the guns police agencies come across that were used in crimes and the owner is unknown are destroyed. Some agencies sell the guns. It's rare that agencies put guns into use because many of the guns received are in poor condition, Everett said.

Guns the Allen County Sheriff's Office can sell are sold to a store in Columbus with the money being used for another purpose.

"What we have done in the past, it usually is for ammunition," Everett said.

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