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More illegal guns on Minneapolis streets
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(MPR photo/Dan Olson)
Police say the number of illegal guns on Minneapolis' streets is increasing. As well, the quality of the guns is better and they pack more firepower. Still in place, police say, is a strategy developed five years ago to quell gun violence in neighborhoods. However, the supply of guns available to criminals is hampering efforts to make neighborhoods safe.

Minneapolis, Minn. — The number of illegal guns confiscated by Minneapolis police is up. So far this year, police say, they have taken 319 weapons from people. This time last year police had confiscated 276.

Inspector Sharon Lubinski commands the Minneapolis Police Department's third precinct on the city's south side.

"In the first four months just in the 3rd precinct alone we've taken in more than 125 guns off the street which is more than what we were at the last two years at this time," Lubinski said. "So there's something going on, the gangs are more active, more violent, and that there's also more guns, and we're certainly taking the guns from them but there's still a lot out there."

Lubinski says gangs are using guns in fights over territory and to settle old scores. The proliferation of more powerful guns in the hands of criminals causes neighborhood residents to worry about being caught in the crossfire. The violence and the fear undermine the stability of their communities.

Kerstin Hammarberg, supervisor of the Minneapolis police department's property and evidence unit says some of the confiscated guns are rusty old castoffs or illegally modified firearms. Standing in a room filled with confiscated weapons she describes some of the weapons.

"This is a sawed-off shotgun, this is a .12 gauge shotgun, it's a Remington and it's actually had the stock cut off of it and it's shortened in the barrel and that's what makes it illegal," Hammarberg said.

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Image Minnesota Gang Strike Force deputy commander John Boulger

The room in the basement of Minneapolis City Hall is the size of a large walk-in closet. The shelves are filled to the ceiling with hundreds of confiscated handguns in paper bags. Hammarberg shows some quality weapons.

"This is a Beretta, this a fairly nice gun. This is the type of thing we're seeing on the street," Hammarberg said.

Minnesota Gang Strike Force deputy commander John Boulger says burglary and illegal purchases are the main sources of illegal weapons. Boulger became a police officer in l966. It was unusual then, he says, to find a gun at a crime scene. Now, Boulger says, investigators are surprised when they don't find firearms.

"We're seeing the .40 calibers the .45 calibers, the Intratec 9 mm with the illegal magazines in some cases that allow them to fire more bullets more quickly than a normal type of handgun," Boulger said.

Some of the guns confiscated are so-called straw purchases; guns bought by people with a clean record who then illegally resell them to criminals. Boulger says a north Minneapolis man who will be sentenced soon is convicted of buying 55 guns in just over a year. The tip came from a gun store employee suspicious of the man's multiple purchases. Boulger says several of the firearms were used in Chicago crimes.

"And then here in Minneapolis there have been about nine of the guns recovered in a variety of situations, one in a shootout at a gas station on the north side of Minneapolis last September." Boulger said. "A couple of times guns were thrown from cars when police officers tried to stop the cars on the north side of Minneapolis."

Police were able to track the weapons using serial numbers and permits used to buy them.

Boulger says the case is not unique. In a St. Paul case, a buyer legally bought more than 80 guns later resold to criminals.

U. S. Attorney Tom Heffelfinger says burglary is another source of weapons that end up in criminal's hands. He says Minnesota's new concealed carry law will encourage more law abiding citizens to buy high quality firearms.

"I'm concerned that with some new legislation that will allow more people to posess handguns outside of their home that we will see an increase in stolen weapons on the street and I fear that with that we'll see an increase in sophisticated weapons," Heffelfinger said.

In the mid-1990's Minneapolis was wracked with gun violence. Police, elected officials and business leaders borrowed a plan from Boston. Gang-related shootings there had also mushroomed. The strategy included identifying gang members. Police accompanied by probation officers visited them. Many were career criminals out of prison on probation. They were warned not to use guns to settle scores or they'd face going back to jail.

The plan worked. From l997, Minneapolis' murder rate plummeted and has remained down. Last year 46 people were killed, half the rate of the mid 1990's.

So far this year, Minneapolis' homicide rate is slightly ahead of last year's pace at this time.

Third precinct Inspector Sharon Lubinski was the coordinator of the strategy adopted 5 years ago. She says it's still in use.

"On a weekly basis the officers from the precincts will go out with probation agents and again we're still focusing on those that have a track record of being violent and currently active creating a huge problem in the neighborhood," Lubinski said.

Even so, the gun violence continues.

One reason is the massive supply. Last year, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives officials say, U. S. manufacturers turned out nearly 3 million new guns, added to the tens of millions already in circulation.

Another reason for the proliferation of guns in the hands of criminals, Jim Kessler says, is lax enforcement. Kessler is research director for the Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, Americans for Gun Safety. He says the federal government prosecutes felons who own guns and goes after people who commit a crime with a gun. He says however, prosecutors mostly ignore cases that would help shut down dealers who knowingly sell guns to criminals.

"The crimes that are uniquely federal, gun trafficking, dirty gun stores, lying on the criminal background check form, possessing a gun with an obliterated serial number, transferring selling or possessing stolen firearms those laws uniquely under federal jurisdiction, there is virtually no enforcement whatsoever," Kessler said.

Kessler says Minnesota's prosecution of gun laws is among the lowest in the country.

Heffelfinger disagrees. He says he hasn't seen Kessler's study and doesn't know what statistics he's using. He says he and his predecessors have made prosecuting gun crimes a top priority for the past decade.

On the same day the American's for Gun Safety report was released U. S. Attorney General John Ashcroft said the federal government will spend nearly one billion dollars and add 600 more prosecutors and agents to fight gun crimes.

However, guns are but one component of the violence. At the root, Chuck Wexler says, is the money to be made from the illicit drug trade.

Wexler is executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank whose members include some of the country's police chiefs. He was hired by Minneapolis in l997 to help the city combat gang violence. He says gangs with guns fight for drug dealing territory and then take revenge on one another for casualties suffered.

"When you have that much money and that much activity when it's gang related you inevitably have competition among gangs for turf and space and it's as much about turf and space as it is about economics," Kessler said.

The proliferation of more powerful guns in the hands of criminals causes neighborhood residents to worry about being caught in the crossfire. They say violence and the fear undermine the stability of their communities.

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