The scene at a Lake Street gang shootout last summer gave Minneapolis police a valuable piece of evidence: a single gun whose transaction history wove a complicated web.
The handgun was one of five to turn up at metro-area crime scenes last year that police later traced back to a 23-year-old St. Paul woman who had legally bought more than a dozen guns online. Her boyfriend — whose felony record barred him from possessing guns — later resold them on the street. The guns represented a tiny fraction of the record 3,909 firearms confiscated by Minnesota law enforcement last year, according to a new report from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).
Since 2014, seizures of guns used in crimes or otherwise discovered by police have surged 61%.
Most of the guns tracked by law enforcement last year were purchased in Minnesota, said William Terry Henderson, special agent in charge of the ATF’s St. Paul office. “Which is an indication of, OK, if those guns that are coming into contact with law enforcement are being sourced right here in the state — what’s leading to that?”
The mass shootings in Texas and Ohio last month intensified calls for new gun-control laws, including proposals to expand background checks for firearms sold on websites like Armslist.com, where the gun in the Lake Street shootout was purchased. Police have long known that criminals often get their guns through “straw” purchases using friends and associates with clean records. The Minneapolis case illustrates how the internet has made that process easier, contributing to the glut of illegal weapons.
But while the recent mass shootings renewed scrutiny of semiautomatic military-style rifles, more than half of all the guns seized in Minnesota last year were pistols, according to the ATF. “Almost all the shootings we have had in Ramsey and Hennepin Counties are handgun-related, and an enormous percentage of cases where a gun was used in a crime, it’s a handgun,” said Roy Magnuson, a spokesman for the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office. “They are the tool of choice.”
The Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office was partly responsible for last year’s surge in gun traces: Deputies recovered a cache of dozens of firearms, ammunition and explosives from the home of a boy threatening to shoot up his school shortly after the Parkland, Fla., high school shooting that claimed 17 lives.
But police also are encountering more machine guns, or fully automatic weapons. The ATF reported that 21 machine guns were recovered in Minnesota last year, up from 6 in 2017. Last year’s take was the highest recorded in the state since police reported taking 18 such guns in 2013. The ATF said police also tracked 712 rifles, 477 shotguns and 433 revolvers.
What most often prompts gun traces remains unchanged. Illegal gun possession cases continue to be most common (898), followed by guns found during unrelated interactions with law enforcement (807) and drug-related cases (672). Minneapolis, where 867 firearms were recovered, and St. Paul, which logged 737, were the top cities for gun seizures and are poised to stay that way. Minneapolis Police Sgt. Darcy Horn, a department spokeswoman, said Minneapolis is up 18% in recovered firearms so far this year compared with the same period in 2018. Steve Linders, a spokesman for the St. Paul Police Department, said the removal of one or two guns per week was a big deal for the department a decade ago. “Now we’re finding guns on a seemingly daily basis.”
“Where in the past, groups would deal in drugs, now we’re seeing groups deal in guns,” Linders said.
Nearly 100 people have been shot in St. Paul so far this year, Linders said, putting the city on pace to match or exceed the 145 shot in 2018.
Minnesota law enforcement also investigated 76 firearms used in suicides last year, almost matching the number tracked in 2017. However, the vast majority of guns used in suicides are still not being traced each year. According to Minnesota Department of Health data reviewed by the Star Tribune, nearly 79% of the state’s 2,094 gun deaths since 2014 have been suicides.
Failing to take a closer look at guns used in suicides may represent a missed opportunity.
“That’s certainly an emotional situation that occurs anytime you have someone take their own life with a firearm,” Henderson said. “But it’s one way that law enforcement can use that tool to look at … was that person, whether they were adjudicated [mentally ill] or not, how that firearm got into the hands of that individual.”
Minnesota law enforcement leaders have testified before the Minnesota Legislature in support of universal background checks and “red flag” laws making it easier to remove guns from people who might be a danger to themselves or others. Republican opponents and gun rights activists argue that those proposals lack due process and would be ineffective at curbing gun crimes.
Gun-control proponents point to a recent study by the Everytown for Gun Safety group that found more than 28,000 ads for firearm sales on Armslist that don’t legally require background checks. That’s where Daisha Sharpe, the 23-year-old St. Paul woman awaiting sentencing this month on federal gun charges, found the 15 guns her boyfriend, Charles Campbell, later resold on the street.
Prosecutors say Sharpe’s participation was “borne from a misguided devotion” to Campbell and are calling for prison time for her role “in a scheme that, by its very nature was calculated to place firearms in the hands of individuals who were not supposed to have them: felons, gang members, and violent offenders,” according to a sentencing memo written last month by Assistant U.S. Attorney Ruth Shnider.
“Although only five of the guns have since been recovered by law enforcement, one can only imagine where the others are or what they may be used for,” Shnider continued.
Shnider argued that Sharpe’s case is the latest in a long line of examples of romantic partners agreeing to help loved ones barred from getting guns on the belief that they won’t suffer legal trouble if caught.
In this case, according to attorney Joshua Johnson, Campbell found the guns he wanted Sharpe to purchase on Armslist and arranged for their purchase using Sharpe’s name, e-mail account and an image of her state-issued identification. Sharpe would meet the seller, make the purchase and later transfer the firearms to Campbell for resale at a profit on the street. Sharpe didn’t have “even a cursory understanding” of the different types of firearms and which were most sought after.
“She is guilty of endangering the public safety in a very real and serious way and at this time in our nation we, perhaps more than ever before, appreciate just how dangerous guns can be when in the wrong hands,” Johnson wrote in his sentencing pleading to the court. “Yet, Ms. Sharpe comes to the court as a young, impressionable and good hearted defendant who likely had no idea of the severity or consequences of her actions.”
Data editor MaryJo Webster contributed to this report.