More illegal firearms, many of them semiautomatic handguns, are turning up in evidence rooms across Minnesota, according to federal authorities who’ve tracked their origins.
The number of unlawfully possessed guns traced in Minnesota last year was the highest ever — matching a yearslong increase in the seized weapons nationwide — and federal authorities here say it reflects a troubling rise in shootings among rival gang members eager to reach for a gun.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions, after a summer visit to Minneapolis, told U.S. attorneys last week to take the lead on local violent crime strategies. In the meantime, federal prosecutors here say the new directives match a surge in gun-related indictments filed so far this year in Minnesota.
The figures arrived amid renewed debate surrounding assault rifles and the so-called “bump stocks” used by gunman Stephen Paddock in the Oct. 1 killings of 58 people in Las Vegas. But the numbers also tell a story about the ubiquity of handguns in day-to-day bloodshed across the U.S.
“While the country understandably focuses on the horrific shootings in Las Vegas, unfortunately we seemingly ignore the daily toll of gun violence … in communities across the country,” said Josh Horwitz, executive director of the nonprofit Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. “And this is largely fueled by semiautomatic handguns and how easily they are available to people involved in criminal activity.”
A broader picture
The 3,209 firearms that the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) traced for Minnesota law enforcement agencies last year was up 15 percent from the year before. Handguns represented more than half of that total at 1,694 — which is up 56 percent from 2008. The ATF also traced 581 rifles, 491 shotguns and 399 revolvers last year.
Ashlee Sherrill, a spokeswoman for the ATF’s St. Paul office, attributed part of the rise to gang violence and to authorities stepping up enforcement to confront imminent gunplay in their communities. Nationally, the ATF has had to urge more police departments to submit firearms for tracing, but Sherrill said police in Minnesota have consistently participated in recent years. “It helps us gather a broader picture of how these firearms are being handed around,” Sherrill said.
Guns submitted for ATF analysis can reveal where the firearms were made and sold, but authorities say the tougher task is finding where, and how often, the guns changed hands leading up to the crime. According to the ATF, both the state and national average between purchase and recovery of a firearm is nearly 10 years.
Minneapolis has meanwhile already blown past last year’s 708 firearms recovered by authorities. Police have seized 722 guns in the city through Sept. 25. In St. Paul last year, 548 firearms were recovered and police say they’ve so far recovered about 430 as of Sept. 28.
The attorney general has made violent crime a steady drum beat in remarks to law enforcement throughout the year. While addressing a room full of county attorneys in Minneapolis in July, Sessions emphasized his demand for a “substantial increase” in federal gun prosecutions.
But that rise was already happening when Sessions met with federal authorities in Minneapolis in his summer visit.
The U.S. attorney’s office charged 125 people with violent crimes in its most recent fiscal year — Oct. 1, 2016 through Sept. 30, 2017 — up more than 13 percent from the previous year. A spokeswoman described the numbers as conservative because they don’t include drug cases, which can also involve firearms charges.
On Thursday, Sessions announced that he would be reigniting a George W. Bush-era strategy to further crack down on gun and gang crimes, dubbed Project Safe Neighborhoods. U.S. attorney’s offices are being tapped to take the lead on working with other law enforcement and community groups while ramping up cases that carry longer possible prison sentences.
In a memo, Sessions told Gregory Brooker, the district’s acting U.S. attorney since March, and the country’s other 93 U.S. attorneys that their adoption of Project Safe Neighborhoods will be regularly evaluated, including the number of cases being charged and their ability to identify locations with the “greatest need of comprehensive violent crime reduction efforts.”
Federal and local authorities in Minnesota say the state is already in the midst of efforts to curb gun crimes, suggesting that Sessions’ expectations won’t represent a radical departure from work already being done. Brooker said his office has participated in the program since its 2001 launch.
Late last month, city and federal officials convened a dinner speaking event for about three dozen young men identified as at risk of either being victims of or involved in gun violence. Community and civic leaders spoke about job opportunities and services available to steer the youths away from violence. But Brooker also offered a cautionary tale about the tougher penalties that await at the federal level.
Introduced late last year, the Group Violence Intervention program has taken a targeted approach to finding the relatively small number of people most at risk of perpetrating or falling victim to the majority of gun crimes in Minneapolis. In that sense, the local-federal collaboration is already in line with one of five mandates Sessions outlined last week.
“It involves an honorable exit from a group lifestyle that’s harmful to them,” Deputy Minneapolis Police Chief Erick Fors said.