The number of guns tracked in Minnesota has hit a record high, largely because of a massive jump in weapons seized in Minneapolis.
In a new report, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) said that it traced 3,662 firearms in the state last year, up 14 percent from a year earlier and the most reported in the state to date.
Federal gun traces are used to pinpoint a firearm’s original sale to help law enforcement reconstruct the weapon’s pathway to the street and provide investigative leads. The data corresponded with an 11 percent jump nationwide, which the ATF attributed to increased participation in its tracing program by law enforcement agencies. But officials cautioned that the numbers are not necessarily reflective of a corresponding surge in gun violence. “It could have been somebody pulled over for a DWI who had a firearm in the vehicle or something unrelated to an actual gun crime,” said Ashlee Sherrill, a spokesperson for the ATF’s St. Paul office. “You can’t directly attribute these numbers in a rise of guns on the street. But it is data we can use to help lead us in the direction of possible trafficking or different gun-related crime.”
Sherrill said the ATF has urged local agencies to participate in its electronic reporting system in recent years. But the trace reports are often just a starting point: Sherrill said that guns sold privately, given as gifts or stolen are not tracked through the reports.
Law enforcement traced 1,017 firearms seized in Minneapolis last year, up more than 43 percent from 2016 and the most traced out of the city since 2008. Meanwhile, the ATF traced 596 guns seized in St. Paul, up roughly 9 percent from the previous year.
Minneapolis Police Department spokesman Scott Seroka said the city’s spike was not linked to a single operation that skewed the data, but rather likely related to more collaboration between the department’s various investigative and patrol divisions.
“A number of teams were better coordinated last year than they have been in the past and that may have led to the increase in illegally possessed firearms seized,” Seroka said.
More than half of all firearms traced in Minnesota were pistols (2,142), matching national trends recorded by the ATF. Minnesota law enforcement also traced 621 rifles, 477 shotguns and 387 revolvers last year. Guns were most frequently traced in cases of illegal possession (832), after a gun was recovered during an unrelated interaction with law enforcement (726) and in drug investigations (633).
Minnesota authorities also performed 78 traces on firearms used in a suicide, the most since 2009.
More than half of all firearms traced in the state last year were first sold in Minnesota, with Wisconsin (160) and North Dakota (72) identified as the next most-common source states. In an unusual jump, the ATF reported that 72 traces, or about 2 percent, failed to identify a source city for the gun — up from just 7 in 2016 and 3 in 2015.
Federal cases rising
U.S. Attorney Erica MacDonald has identified targeting gun and gang violence as a top priority since taking office last month. Even before MacDonald’s swearing in, federal gun cases have been on the rise.
According to data from MacDonald’s office, prosecutors are on track to charge more than 110 defendants in federal gun cases for the 2018 fiscal year, which ends in October. That would be more than any of the past six years and the first time more than 100 people have been charged with federal gun crimes in Minnesota since 2015.
On Thursday, MacDonald announced the sentencing of six members of a St. Paul street gang convicted of conspiring to illegally possess firearms during a three-year gang war that led to shootings, and deaths, on multiple fronts of the conflict.
Senior U.S. District Judge Ann Montgomery sentenced the men, each 23 to 25 years old, to terms of up to 4 to 5 years in prison. According to court papers, the group sought at least a dozen weapons through thefts, trades and cash exchanges and jointly possessed firearms despite being barred from owning guns because of past convictions.
The case was brought as part of the revived Project Safe Neighborhoods initiative designed to bring together federal, state and local agencies in confronting gun and gang activity.
“As this case demonstrates, our concerted effort to keep guns out of the hands of criminals is ongoing,” MacDonald said in a statement Thursday. “By leveraging the strong relationships we have with our federal, state and local law enforcement partners, we will remain steadfast in our duty to keep communities safe.”