Despite a drop in shootings this year, Minneapolis police say the number of rounds fired are on the rise because of a growing number of assault-style weapons and high-capacity magazines that are winding up in the wrong hands.
According to the most recent police crime data, the city has logged 229 shootings so far in 2017 — 25 of them homicides. That total is roughly 21 percent fewer than last year’s decade high of 341.
But concern remains about the increased visibility of the larger magazines, sometimes called “extendos,” on city streets. Such add-ons can turn any semiautomatic handgun into an efficient killing machine, allowing a user to fire more shots before having to reload, authorities say.
“When they have these large capacity guns, they’re not taking the time to aim real accurately; a lot of time it’s that ‘spray and pray’ kind of shooting,” said Assistant Police Chief Mike Kjos, using cop slang for shooting indiscriminately.
Kjos, the former inspector in the North Side’s Fourth Precinct, said he has noticed that some shooters are carrying drum-style magazines capable of feeding 100 bullets into a gun’s chamber in the blink of an eye. “We’re actually pretty fortunate that, at times, it’s property that’s getting hit and not actual victims,” he said.
Police and residents in high-crime areas say they’ve noticed more gunfire on the streets than before.
Through Sept. 15 of this year, Minneapolis police recovered at least 10 spent casings at 70 of the total 519 crime scenes where cartridge casings were found, a Star Tribune analysis shows. In all of 2016, 10 or more casings were recovered at 118 of 772 shooting scenes.
Police are also seeing enhanced firepower on the streets.
A recent study by the Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy at George Mason University found that high-capacity magazines — which can hold more than 10 bullets — or guns capable of using them, were disproportionately found at violent crime scenes in three cities: Baltimore, Hartford, Conn., and Minneapolis. Researchers found that in Minneapolis, about a quarter of illegal guns seized between 2012-2014 were capable of carrying a high-capacity magazine, but for weapons used in shootings that percentage jumped to 46.3 percent.
The result, authorities say, is more gunfire.
That trend was underlined by several recent shootings across the city.
In January, a man was driving down Monroe Street in northeast Minneapolis when a gunman pumped 26 bullets into his car. Officers chased the suspect’s car with lights flashing, but lost it on the North Side.
Six months later, a late-night shootout in the 4200 block of Knox Avenue N. left the street blanketed with .40 caliber and 9mm casings — 32 in all.
Then last month, a gun battle broke out on a sleepy street in the Near North neighborhood, with dozens of shots fired before police showed up. One bullet grazed a passerby in the arm, while another pierced the window of a 71-year-old woman’s house.
In 2016, Minneapolis police collected 4,237 spent casings at crime scenes across the city, which were later cataloged and entered into a sprawling database so they can later be matched to guns used in other shootings. Through mid-September of this year, they collected 2,908 spent rounds. In each year, police recovered about 5.5 spent rounds per shooting scene, the data shows.
Most were fired from small arms.
In both years, nearly half of the casings recovered were a variation of 9mm ammunition. But from time to time, police recovered larger caliber cartridge casings like 7.62x39mm, principally used for Kalashnikov assault rifles and medium machine guns.
Deputy Minneapolis Police Chief Erick Fors said that while they’ve noticed the uptick in weapons with high-capacity magazines, the majority of shell casings they’ve recovered still come from common handguns — and that in some shootings there are multiple perpetrators.
“We continue to send investigators to speak with residents in the area of every shooting that occurs in the city, and by also leveraging ShotSpotter technology and federal partnerships, we’ve made some progress combating gun violence,” he said.
ShotSpotter technology detects the sound of gunshots and determines where they came from. Fors added that police were taking many more guns off the street than in recent years.
Kirk Howard, acting special agent in charge of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosive’s local field office, said the agency has aggressively gone after people accused of illegally possessing firearms. Making comparisons about gun crime from past years is difficult, he said, because casings weren’t always inventoried.
Previously, an officer who showed up to a shooting and couldn’t find a victim may have kicked the empty bullet casings into the gutter instead of going to the trouble of collecting each one. Now, officers respond to most shooting scenes, sometimes accompanied with an ATF sniffing dog, to collect casings that are later entered into the ATF’s National Integrated Ballistic Information Network, or NIBIN, which allows local and state law enforcement agencies to compare ballistics evidence.
The total amount of gunfire doesn’t necessarily correlate with the number of people shot, Howard said.
“Whether you have round one round in there or 20 rounds in there, I think it’s equally dangerous,” he said. “There is certainly a significant amount of gunfire in Minneapolis.”
St. Paul has also seen an increase in shots fired. Reports of shots fired are up 37 percent over the same time frame last year, officials say.
“I’ve read reports where officers have found 20-30 rounds, casings lying on the ground,” said Steve Linders, a police spokesman there, while adding that the department has no reliable statistics on the number of casings recovered at crime scenes. “We get reports of community members hearing 10, 12 gunshots at a time.”
Identifying most dangerous
With the number of shootings climbing in each of the past five years, gun violence has emerged as a centerpiece issue in the hotly contested races for mayor and City Council in both cities.
Shooters are also bolder, willing to risk heavier penalties for killing someone or seriously injuring them, said Hennepin County attorney Mike Freeman.
“The brazenness of people has increased manifold,” he said last week. “Many of these folks in the streets using weapons are crappy shots and, praise the Lord that they are, they miss people at short range.”
Freeman said that state gun laws — “some of the weakest in the country” — have done little to quell the violence.
“The price that we’re paying for some of that is the number of people who are getting shot,” he said.
Rev. Nancy Nord Bence, executive director of Protect Minnesota, a gun violence prevention organization, thinks the focus should be on tightening laws to keep assault rifles and expanded magazines out of the hands of criminals, not more police enforcement.
“If I’m a private seller in Minnesota, I can sell to someone, and it’s a legal sale, even if it’s an illegal buy,” Bence said, advocating that lawmakers close the private-sale loophole by requiring background checks for nearly all gun transfers. “Right now the system we have, we put the onus on the buyer to go through the background system.”
Minnesota’s “pre-emption” laws, which enforce uniform rules across the state, prevent a city like Minneapolis from passing stricter gun laws on its own, Bence said.
Law enforcement officials should work on identifying and going after the most dangerous people and places, according to James Densley, an associate professor of criminal justice at Metropolitan State University who has studied gun violence. Such an approach, known in academic circles as “focused deterrence,” proved successful in other cities in reducing gun crime.
“The likelihood of being a gunshot victim is not just geographically associated, but it’s socially associated,” said Densley. “So instead of focusing on hot spots, we need to be focusing on hot people.”