Amid signs of a rise in illegal firearms trafficking, federal prosecutors in Minnesota have hit on a novel strategy to crack down on gun violence and get shooters off the streets. Instead of prosecuting suspects for murder, where convictions can be difficult to obtain, they charge multiple defendants with conspiracy to buy and possess guns illegally.

The strategy is rooted in the successful prosecution of 11 gang members in 2014, after what authorities called an “all-out shooting gang war” in the Twin Cities. Prosecutors built a conspiracy case that produced 10 guilty pleas and a jury trial conviction of the gang’s leader, Veltrez Black, who was sentenced this spring to 15 years in prison.

Now a Minnesota prosecutor has been asked to share the strategy with Chicago authorities, who are grappling with near nightly volleys of gunfire throughout their city.

Such crimes often go unsolved because witnesses refuse to break a code of silence, prosecutors say, but firearms conspiracy cases can be easier to build.

“If we can’t get them for the shootings, let’s get them for the guns they used in the shootings,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Paulsen, who has specialized in gang prosecutions for much of his three decades in the Minnesota district.

The strategy is timely, given the recent surge in local gun violence. Minnesota gun deaths hit a 10-year high in 2015, according to the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, and represented a greater share of all homicides (61 percent) than in 1995, when Minneapolis was dubbed “Murderapolis.”

And a new federal report shows that the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) recovered and traced 2,780 firearms in Minnesota last year — up 14 percent from a year before and also a 10-year high. That total doesn’t include all guns recovered by other law enforcement agencies; Minneapolis police inventoried an average of 681 guns as evidence per year from 2013 to 2015.

When agents fanned out across north Minneapolis one morning in late 2014 to round up suspects in the gang war, one warrant led them to Jabari Johnson, who had seven of the 65 guns that were ultimately tracked as part of the investigation.

Weeks before his arrest, Johnson was hit six times when a rival gunman opened fire on his car outside a Brooklyn Center Denny’s. Reprisal promised to be even bloodier.

“It’s a good thing you came when you did,” Johnson told the officers.

Authorities viewed the resulting conspiracy convictions as a victory against the supply side of illegal weapons, chiefly the use of “straw purchasers” — non-felons who legally purchased firearms on behalf of those who are barred from owning guns.

A year into his tenure as special agent in charge of the ATF’s Chicago division, Jeffery Magee has witnessed gun violence in the city climb to the point where 2015’s entire total of shooting victims could be surpassed by this fall.

Magee worked with Paulsen while at the ATF in Minnesota, and followed his work in building multiple-defendant gun-related conspiracy cases in recent years. In March, Magee asked Paulsen to address about 150 federal, state and local authorities and prosecutors; law enforcement officials in Chicago met again last week to discuss training on the new tactics. Though they’re not the only answer, Magee said he hopes such investigations can be another tool to curb gun crimes.

“That’s what we’re trying to do: To wrap up straw purchasers and put heat on the guy pulling the trigger,” Magee said.

Not that conspiracy cases are simple. Paulsen said investigators combed arrest reports dating back five years, linking weapons to members of the conspiracy. Using ballistics-matching technology, investigators connected dozens of seized guns with shell casings from crime scenes and scrubbed DNA from multiple defendants from the same gun.

While the technique ruled out narrowing crimes down to one shooter, Paulsen said the evidence “proves exactly what we’re saying: This is a conspiracy case. They pass these guns around.”

The office also charged two people with buying up to 10 weapons for others in the group and later reporting the guns as stolen.

Antonio Lewis, formerly of the Stick Up Boys gang, testified at Black’s October trial. Asked how gang members with lengthy rap sheets got their guns, he replied, “cash, drugs, whatever.”

“Grab people that don’t have felonies,” Lewis continued. “Sisters, brothers, cousins, mothers, whatever.”

At Bill’s Gun Shop & Range, owner John Monson is among the numerous Twin Cities sellers to occasionally find that a straw buyer passed through their doors. Monson said each of his five locations logs suspicious activity from any of the 100,000 customers who visit each year and passes along information to law enforcement agencies when necessary. Investigations can also evolve from mandatory reports to local police and the ATF whenever a customer buys two or more handguns in a week.

“We can’t stop all [straw purchasing],” Monson said. “But we can stop it in conversations in the process that happens before they do buy the gun.”

While military-style rifles used in mass shootings often drive the debate over gun laws, handguns account for the majority of gun violence in the United States. Each of the 18 firearms named in the 2014 indictment was a pistol, and pistols represent more than half of all guns traced by federal agents in Minnesota each year.

And though they seldom get headlines, handguns take a terrible toll. From 2011 to 2015, Minneapolis averaged more than 239 gunshot victims a year, with victims concentrated in the Fourth Precinct. Gun deaths have also disproportionately affected black Minnesotans, with blacks representing more than 44 percent of all homicide victims last year despite making up just 6 percent of the state’s population.

The 2014 conspiracy arrests seemed to tamp down violence on the North Side for about six months, Paulsen said. “But memories tend to be short.”

A federal grand jury recently indicted eight members of the south Minneapolis 10z and 20z street gangs on charges including conspiring to possess firearms in furtherance of drug trafficking. Prosecutors say the case is related to an investigation that produced charges last year against seven other gang members tied to a 2014 shootout outside the Hennepin County Medical Center (HCMC).

“The long-term solution is to get these kids early before they get in a lifestyle,” Paulsen said. “Prosecuting alone won’t solve the problem.”

If Black’s 2015 trial is any indication, convincing current or former gang members like Lewis to testify remains crucial. Kibbie Walker, a member of a gang known as the Taliban, who opened fire on a rival outside HCMC in a separate 2014 incident, also took the stand at the trial. He told jurors he did so in an effort to escape a life of court hearings, prison time and gunshot wounds. He has been shot a half dozen times.

“Do you think that’s about enough?” Paulsen asked.

“That’s more than enough,” Walker said.


Twitter: @smontemayor