A South St. Paul teen shot dead outside his home in a botched drug deal. Bullets peppered throughout a crowded St. Paul bar. A gun stolen from a Ham Lake home fired at motorcyclists less than a half hour later.

Legally bought firearms are showing up at crime scenes in Minnesota — and nationally — faster than ever, in part a reflection of a more concerted effort by law enforcement to trace guns used in crimes back to those who, in some cases, helped deliver them to the shooters.

"These are not the people who pulled the trigger, but the trigger doesn't get pulled without them," said U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger, who chairs a violent crime committee of top federal prosecutors around the country.

Luger, who started his second term vowing to make violent crime and gun cases a top priority, said in an interview last week that he believed his office will now bring forward more cases against people who buy firearms for those banned from owning them — often referred to as "straw purchasers" — "than ever before."

Recent federal straw purchasing cases have been linked to high-profile fatal shootings from around the metro in the past year. Federal law enforcement leaders also remain concerned about stolen firearms later being used in violent crimes.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives (ATF) is continuing to recover and trace a record number of firearms used in crimes in Minnesota. The ATF reported recently that it recovered and traced 4,605 firearms in Minnesota last year — up from 4,072 in 2020.

Among those firearms, the ATF is tallying an ongoing, precipitous decline in the average time between a gun's legal purchase date and the date it turned up at a crime scene. That figure was 6.27 years in 2021, down from 7.34 in 2020 and 8.43 years in 2019. Minnesota's average is dropping in a pattern consistent with the national trend over that same period: from a little more than 8 years before the pandemic to just over 6 years in 2021.

Luger and other local federal law enforcement supervisors are careful to qualify that the startling data is at least partly attributable to more work by investigators to determine how shooters first got their hands on the guns they're using.

"We're trying to put as many links on that chain together to find out exactly how it left the lawful stream of commerce and got into its status as a 'crime gun,'" said William McCrary, special agent in charge of the ATF's St. Paul division, which also covers Wisconsin and the Dakotas.

A spike in new firearm owners during the pandemic has made the job of trying to spot problematic gun buyers trickier, said John Munson, whose Bill's Gun Shop & Range operates five locations between Minnesota, Wisconsin and North Dakota.

"We follow the letter of the law with reporting," Munson said. "I think most do. There's some human error here and there, but the reality is it is hard to catch people sometimes. Sometimes it's very easy."

Staff at Frontiersman Sports in St. Louis Park last year helped law enforcement piece together the case against Jerome Fletcher Horton Jr. — who has since been convicted and sentenced to two years in prison for supplying a pistol used the October 2021 Seventh Street Truck Park shooting that killed one woman and injured 14 others.

Horton bought that gun from a Fleet Farm in Blaine before it made its way to the eventual shooter. He aroused enough suspicion at the St. Louis Park store last year that an employee took handwritten notes on his conduct that was later turned over to law enforcement. Criminal charges against Horton also noted surveillance footage showing him waving two gun boxes in the air at people waiting for him outside the store after a successful purchase.

According to court documents, a review by investigators showed that federally licensed firearms sellers documented the purchase of 33 firearms by Horton from stores around the Twin Cities metro between June 15, 2021, through October 17, 2021 — a week after the Truck Park shooting.

James Becker, a federal defender representing Horton, wrote in a pre-sentencing memo that "this case is about a young person who agreed to purchase firearms for other people who were prohibited from doing so, without initial regard for the consequences of doing so."

Luger said it was his view that "some of the straw purchasers delude themselves into believing that they are not connected to the actual violence that ensues."

"We need to be very public about this connection: If you put this weapon into an illegal stream of commerce, you are responsible for what happens to it," Luger said.

Two new federal criminal cases charged this month further highlight just how quickly firearms can transfer from legal possession to instruments of violence.

The Springfield Armory Hellcat 9mm pistol used in the May 8 fatal shooting of 17-year-old Anthony Skelley outside his South St. Paul home was later traced to a legal purchase 159 days earlier by Wayne Danielson, 200 miles away in Virginia, Minn.

An ATF agent then linked Danielson to multiple other firearms seized by law enforcement and documented 50 guns purchased by Danielson from licensed dealers between May 2019 and August 2022. The agent noted that Danielson bought the same firearms multiple times throughout that period.

When law enforcement searched his home earlier this year, Danielson admitted to buying firearms with the intent to resell them online using Armslist — a classified advertisements website devoted to firearms.

He told investigators that he would use the site to find purchasers before doing business together via text message. Danielson said that he would sell guns when he needed extra funds, adding "guns are just like money," according to a search warrant affidavit obtained by the Star Tribune.

Federal prosecutors charged Danielson last week via criminal complaint with dealing firearms without a license.

Also last week, prosecutors charged Carson Thomas McCoy with illegally possessing a firearm after he stole a Springfield Armory .45 cal Model XD Mod-2 handgun and other items from a Ham Lake home in August. Less than a half hour after the burglary, according to the criminal complaint against McCoy, a BMW sedan stolen and driven by McCoy became involved in an altercation with a group of motorcyclists in which someone from the BMW fired shots out of the car's sunroof at the bikers.

McCoy and a female passenger were later arrested after the vehicle crashed into an Anoka County Sheriff's Office squad car and a tree during a pursuit.

A federal defender representing both men declined to comment on their cases when reached last week.

The case comes amid an ongoing plea from law enforcement supervisors such as McCrary, who is urging lawful gun owners to do all they can to safeguard their firearms.

"Please don't leave your guns in your car," McCrary said. "If you're going to carry a gun, use your permit and carry it. Bring it in at night and if you keep one in your house and you're going to leave your house for something, put it in a lockbox to secure it."

"That would do a lot toward keeping a significant number of guns off the street."