The scourge of illegal guns

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With more than three months left in 2021, Rochester has already been the scene of more than 250 shootings. In 2020, the number for the entire year was 267.

“We are dealing with a violent gun problem on the streets. The shootings are taking place on a daily basis,” says John DeVito, special agent in charge of the New York Field Division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms and Explosives.

So far this year, the Rochester Police Department database lists 303 shooting victims; 37 have died. Illegal firearms are a key part of the problem, gun violence experts and community activists say. 

“We don’t know where the guns are coming from,” says Wanda Ridgeway, executive director of the nonprofit Rise Up Rochester, which seeks to reduce street violence and help its victims. “How can they get a hold of weapons like that?”

Those weapons could come from out of state or the house next door.

The United States is awash in guns. Manufacturers made close to 10.7 million firearms in 2020, and importers brought in millions more. The number of background checks the FBI conducted on those wishing to purchase guns from federally licensed dealers rose to roughly 39.7 million, nearly 30 percent more than in 2019. The agency has conducted nearly 28 million background checks for firearms purchases so far this year. 

While these numbers indicate the numbers of guns that are legally sold in the U.S., they don’t detail how many of them end up in the hands of criminals.

“The only way we can actually give you the number of crime guns out there is by the tracing process,” DeVito says.

ATF’s National Tracing Center is tasked with tracing, or determining the origins, of crime guns—firearms that have been connected in some way to criminal activity. Law enforcement agencies send the serial numbers of the weapons they confiscate to the NTC. With that in hand, the agency can determine the gun’s original manufacturer or importer, the retailer that sold it, and the person who initially purchased it. What happens to a gun after that can be much more difficult to determine.

“We have no idea how many guns that are (legally) sold on the commercial marketplace ultimately end up on the street as crime guns,” DeVito says.

Rochester has consistently placed third among New York’s major cities for the number of crime guns recovered, behind New York City and Buffalo. From 2015 to 2019, the last year for which ATF has released data, 2,681 crime guns were recovered in the city. That number could easily be low. 

“We’re always out there looking for more, because we’re always investigating violent gun crime,” DeVito says.

‘Garden hoses’

Criminals can obtain firearms that had been legally purchased by various means. As a state with some of the most restrictive laws for gun ownership and sale, New York is a prime market for smugglers.

“Guns are basically being purchased, or somehow diverted, from the legal marketplace to the criminal marketplace in those states with less-restrictive gun laws,” DeVito says. “Then they’re being funneled to the (New York State) market.” 

There is no “iron pipeline” through which a torrent of firearms flows into the state, as has sometimes been assumed. Instead, what DeVito calls “an unknown number of garden hoses” serve New York’s illicit market.

John DeVito

“It’s not 300 guns here, 400 guns there,” he says. “It’s one or two guns here, three guns there, five guns here, but it’s taking place dozens upon dozens of times across the state.”

Those “garden hoses” have fed criminals’ desires for firearms. Of the 40,344 requests for tracing that New York’s law enforcement agencies submitted to the ATF during 2015-2019 period, more than 84 percent of the weapons involved came from out of state. Of the guns that law enforcement agencies recovered in this state during that time, 2,681, or 6.5 percent of the total, were found in Rochester.

Reach beyond Rochester’s limits, and the problem of illegal firearms grows. According to a report from the state attorney general, law enforcement agencies throughout Monroe County recovered 4,536 crime guns from 2010 to 2015. Of that total, 44 percent originated out of state. 

Firearms thefts also feed the market for illegal firearms. Those from individual gun owners result in the loss of an estimated 380,000 guns nationwide each year. Some are Monroe County residents.

“One of the things that we’re seeing is an uptick in thefts of firearms,” says Sgt. Matthew Bottone, public information officer for the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office. “Somebody that has left a gun in their vehicle and that gets stolen from their vehicle, or a gun is stolen from a burglary of someone’s house.”

Sheriff’s deputies investigated the thefts of 39 firearms from county residents in 2020, a more than 62 percent increase over 2019. Altogether, 186 guns have been reported stolen in the county since 2016. While those numbers might seem tiny in comparison to other measures of firearm thefts, every stolen gun increases the risk of violence to a community, and those who protect it.

“Anytime that we do have an encounter with someone … something that is always back in a law enforcement officer’s mind is, ‘Does this person have a weapon on them?’” Bottone says.

Figures for gun thefts in Rochester were not available from the RPD.

Losses and thefts from U.S. gun dealers also account for an appreciable number of the illegal firearms on the streets. Though thefts from gun shops do not appear to occur frequently, when they do, thieves can net quite a few weapons. Burglars broke into Chinappi’s Firearms & Supplies in Spencerport on Aug. 12 and Aug. 16, 2018, and made off with about 94 firearms. ATF worked with the sheriff’s office on the cases, which involved the same culprits.

“We jump on those immediately, and we work them as hard as we can to try to recover those crime guns, as well as bring those individuals to justice,” DeVito says.

The three burglars were convicted and sentenced, but only 31 of the stolen guns had been recovered by June of this year. New York’s firearms dealers reported the theft or loss of 1,305 firearms from 2016 to 2020. Nationwide, licensed firearms dealers report the theft or loss of about 18,700 firearms each year, according to ATF.

Gun violence surged in 2020 as the coronavirus raged through the nation. Homicides by firearm and non-suicide shootings took the lives of about 19,300 Americans in 2020, a 25 percent increase over the previous year. Of the 267 shootings Rochester police responded to last year, 42 were fatal. The totals respectively represent a 70 percent increase in incidents and a more than 90 percent increase in fatalities compared with 2019. 

Behind the numbers

Researchers say a complex set of circumstances could drive up the number of shootings.

“We do know it is not just one thing, but it is a combination of factors,” says Janelle Duda-Banwar, senior research associate with Rochester Institute of Technology’s Center for Public Safety Initiatives. 

Those factors could include pandemic-induced unemployment, the stresses that have hit health care, educational, and social services institutions and businesses, and the social unrest that has flared in the U.S., and locally, in the last few years. Racial unrest led to looting in Rochester in May 2020.

“Individuals who have been treated as ‘less than’ through structural disadvantages don’t trust institutions that claim to be working for them, so disagreements may be settled outside of the traditional law enforcement system,” Duda-Banwar says.

The availability of firearms also appears to be a factor. A 2016 U.S. Department of Justice survey of 287,400 state and federal prison inmates found that one in five who possessed a firearm while committing their crimes obtained it with the intent to use it. Among the state prisoners, 27 percent used their guns to kill someone.

Shootings, gunshot wounds, and deaths by firearm affect communities in many different ways. A 2019 U.S. Senate report states that the criminal use of firearms costs New York $5.6 billion annually, or $286 per resident. That includes $1.7 billion in lost income for those affected, $12 million to their employers and $203 million in expenditures by law enforcement agencies and the courts. The cost of treating gun violence victims came to $106 million.

Look beyond New York, and the economic effects of gun violence balloon. An examination of the costs of treating firearm injuries in the country from 2006 to 2014 found that the average per-person charges for emergency department and inpatient treatment were $5,254 and $95,887, respectively. The annual cost of both forms of treatment combined came to approximately $2.8 billion.

Law enforcement response

Law enforcement agencies are taking steps to reduce gun violence in the Rochester area.

“The Rochester Police Department has been working on several initiatives to target known offenders,” says Officer Carlos Alvarado, the department’s public information officer. “A ‘known offender’ would be someone who has been arrested several times for gun-related crimes of violence in the past.”

The department is working with the Monroe County district attorney’s office, the New York State Police and other law enforcement agencies to take such people off the streets. Alvarado says their efforts have produced results, but did not detail them. 

“It’s going to be a work in progress before we can give exact numbers,” he says.

On July 7, the newly-created federal Violence Prevention and Elimination Response Task Force began a 60-day,multiagency effort to remove violent offenders who use guns from the streets of Rochester and Buffalo.

“We’ve got basically all the federal agencies working in conjunction with our state and local partners,” says DeVito, ATF’s representative on VIPER. 

VIPER’s membership includes RPD, the Monroe County district attorney’s office, the county sheriff’s office and the Buffalo Police Department, along with ATF, the FBI, the U.S. Marshals Service and other law enforcement agencies. Working under the overall direction of James Kennedy, the U.S. attorney for the Western District of New York, all pool their information and resources to get results. 

“We’ve broken down all the silos of intelligence, and we’re really working hand in hand,” DeVito says. “We want to make sure that there’s no limitations to the amount of intel that we’re collecting and there’s no hinderances to us being able to be effective on the street.”

As of July 30, VIPER’s members had made 125 firearm-related arrests and seized 68 firearms, 51 of which were recovered in Rochester. 

Some lawmakers are working to ensure that illegal guns never make it to Rochester’s streets. Willie Lightfoot, Rochester City Council vice president at-large, chairs the ROC Against Gun Violence Coalition, a collection of local law enforcement agencies and nonprofits that are seeking to eliminate gun violence in Rochester. To that end, Lightfoot and his group are pushing for stricter laws regarding legal firearms trafficking.

“We believe there needs to be stricter gun reporting,” he says. “We try to work with our federal partners, state partners and county partners to help us look at instituting such laws that allow us to do that.”

Nonprofit action

Local nonprofits are trying to mitigate the effects of illegal firearms. Community Engagement to Reduce Victimization, a nonprofit based at Rochester General Hospital, seeks to reduce gun violence, help its victims deal with the resulting trauma and guide the development of effective responses to it. One of its principal aims is to reduce the risk that a victim will retaliate for the violence he or she suffered.

Wanda Ridgeway

“When a victim or their family comes into the hospital, whatever dispute brought them in here is what we try to resolve before the victim leaves,” says Sabrina LaMar, CERV’s project coordinator. 

Five organizations with strong ties to Rochester’s communities—Pathways to Peace, Rise Up Rochester, Action for a Better Community’s Save Our Youth program, the United Christian Leadership Ministry and RIT’s Center for Public Safety Initiatives—work together to help CERV accomplish its mission. 

CERV works with 18- to 30-year-olds who have been shot, stabbed or received some type of blunt force trauma, and have sought treatment at RGH. 

When CERV first swung into operation in 2019, it dealt only with incidents that occurred in the 14609, 14605 or 14621 ZIP codes, which are north or east of downtown Rochester. The increasing level of violence in the community has since led CERV to broaden its reach across Monroe County. Of the 274 CERV-eligible victims who presented at RGH from May 30, 2019, to Jan 31, 2021, about 75 had gunshot wounds.

Here’s how CERV works: When someone who has been shot, stabbed or suffered blunt force trauma comes into RGH for treatment, a clinician, with the victim’s permission, contacts Pathways. Someone from that program comes to the hospital, assesses the risk that the victim might retaliate for the injury, and sends the results to LaMar. If the victim is CERV-eligible, she dispatches a representative of one of the nonprofit’s community partners. Ridgeway has answered that call about 20 times.

“We respond to the hospital and create safety plans for those individuals,” Ridgeway says.

A safety plan could include a number of measures. 

“Sometimes, that includes providing safe housing straight from the hospital bed,” LaMar says. “If it’s not safe for them and their family to go back home, and they need to move out of town, we would provide those wraparound services for them.”

The program could also pay for such things as food for a hungry victim, and connect the victim with social services and other sources of immediate and long-term assistance. That could include connecting the victim up to organizations that would help him or her meet long-term goals, such as obtaining a job. 

CERV has conducted about 85 risk assessments since it was created. In those cases where it has rendered aid, someone from the nonprofit tries to check back to see how well its efforts worked. 

“According to the interviews that we have conducted, they haven’t been revictimized for those particular situations,” LaMar says. “They’ve also been very grateful, because services like this have not been provided to victims of violence in the past.”

As organizations like CERV aid gun crime victims, law enforcement agencies continue to try to take illegal guns off the streets.

“Any one gun on the street is one too many,” DeVito says.

Mike Costanza is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer.

3 thoughts on “The scourge of illegal guns

  1. Those who have been arrested and have illegal guns are not being detained and punished to the fullest extent of the law. Another solution is to institute a stop and frisk policy and build more jails for violent criminals.

  2. Enjoyed the article, thank you. Perhaps a suggestion for another related article. Besides the total tragedy in so many ways that gun violence perpetuates, what are the costs? For example what does it cost the insurance companies or tax payer to take care of a victim of gun violence. How much per visit, per care, per follow up, per maintenance? Who pays for this (besides the victim in anguish). Insurance companies and tax payers should really know what this means and who really pays for the care both in the ED and out. Consider this as I assume it could be truly eye opening and affect the way people will view this pistol pandemic.

  3. Excellent article. A great deal of useful information well documented. Thank you for the excellent work providing and overview of this extremely important topic.

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