Following the firearms: A reporter's notebook

Reporter Brandt Williams spent more than four months searching hundreds of police and court records and talked to dozens of law enforcement officials from around the country in order to find out who is using illegal guns and trace where the guns come from.

Along the way, he kept a notebook of his reporting and the difficulties he encountered during his investigation. Below is a first-person account of Williams' reporting for "Following the Firearms: Gun Violence in Minneapolis."

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11/11/10 - The purpose of this project is to document the path of a gun used in a Minneapolis homicide. MPR News received a grant from the Joyce Foundation and the David Bohnett Foundation, administered by the John Jay College Center on Media, Crime and Justice (CMCJ) to do investigative reporting on gun violence.

I've asked the U.S. Attorney's office and the Hennepin County Attorney's office to search for cases that can work for the project. Santo Cruz, the media contact for the Hennepin County Attorney's office, is checking on whether the Tyesha Edwards case is completely closed. I told Cruz I want some ideas to bring along to Chicago, and he expects to have something Friday.

11/15/10 - I spent today at a seminar sponsored by the John Jay College Center on Media, Crime and Justice, which is administering the gun violence reporting grant. They flew in all the grant recipients to the DePaul University Law School for a one-day seminar featuring a roster of panelists with expertise in areas related to gun violence and crime.

First presenter Tom Diaz had some interesting insight into the gun industry. Diaz is senior policy analyst at the Violence Policy Center. He says the industry is "sick," meaning its sales have been flat for decades. Guns are durable; they can last for 40, 50 even 100 years. So the gun industry tries to persuade people to buy new guns with improved design features. They also offer more firepower and lethality as selling points. That's led to an increasing "militarization". Diaz says incidence of gun violence has followed the militarization.

Ben Van Houten, Legal Community Against Violence, summarized the gun laws for Minnesota, Illinois, Ohio, and Michigan. Apparently, strong gun laws don't necessarily mean fewer gun crimes. The state of Illinois ranks #6 for the strongest gun laws in the U.S. (MN is #15). However, the city of Chicago alone had more than 400 homicides last year.

Dr. Rose Cheney is executive director of the Firearm Injury Center at the University of Pennsylvania. Her organization researches the physiological as well as psychological effects of gun violence. Cheney presented interesting findings about how young people exposed to violence often become hyper-vigilant and prone to addictive behavior.

Ben Hayes, Special Agent, Chief, Law Enforcement Support Branch, National Tracing Center at the ATF, started with a brief history of federal gun laws. He said when the National Firearms Act was passed in 1934, it nearly included a provision to register all guns -- that failed by one vote. Before 1968, gun manufacturers were not required by federal law to include distinctive serial numbers, meaning a gun maker could include the same serial number for every gun they made. In 1968, Congress changed that.

Federal Firearm Licensees (FFLs) require that people buying guns have to fill out a form 4473. The form asks the buyer if they are a felon, mentally ill, etc. Hayes says until 1993, nobody checked to verify the claims people made on the 4473. He calls it the 'Lie and Buy' process. After 1993, buyers had their forms verified through background checks.

Law enforcement agencies have several tools by which to trace guns. They can send a request to the National Tracing Center which has paper copies of 4473s and microfilm of 4473s. These are not indexed or computerized. Hayes says part of the difficulty of using these forms to trace a gun is that the forms often contain sloppy handwriting. An agent could mistake a '5' for a 'z' or 's'. Or the buyer could have incorrectly filled in the form with the gun's serial number.

There is also the NCIC - National Crime Information Center - database with a separate section for firearms. It contains around 2.6 million (probably more) records of stolen guns. There's also the E-Trace system, which is more modern. It contains pictures of guns, so investigators don't confuse one gun make and model with another.

According to ATF website, in 2009, more than 2,200 guns in Minnesota were recovered and traced. 891 came from Minneapolis and 499 from St. Paul. (2009 Trace Data for Minnesota from the ATF)

Hayes also said just because you can trace a gun back to its original owner doesn't mean you'll find out how it came to be used in a crime. The original owner could have given it to a relative, sold it to a pawn shop, etc. Hayes says in one case, a gun changed hands 11 times in 32 days.

Nicholas Roti, Chief of the Organized Crime Division for the Chicago PD, talked about the department's CAGE (Chicago Anti-Gun Enforcement) program. Roti and Sgt. Kevin Johnson talked about how Chicago PD goes after illegal guns. They said gang members are starting to go back to using revolvers because they don't eject shell casings after they're fired. The casings, of course, are used by ballistic experts to ID the gun. >> Read the story.

Dan O'Neil from Every talked about scraping data from law enforcement and other municipal agency websites. The process involves copying the source code from sites.

11/16/10 - I've sent a request to the Minneapolis police department for public police reports of all guns recovered in the city this year. So far this year, MPD has recovered close to 700. The MPD public information officer told me the public reports should contain addresses of where the guns were recovered and brief comments from officers that we should be able to include in our map. For comparison sake, Chicago police officials say they recover 10,000 guns a year. I will also make a similar request to St. Paul police.

In Sept., the Chicago Tribune basically did what we're trying to do. They traced a gun used to kill a police officer.

11/18/10 -- I exchanged messages with Santo Cruz from the Hennepin County Attorney's office about expanding our search for gun cases to include a more recent homicide. I thought of the Anthony Titus shooting from July 4 of this year. Titus, 16, was by all accounts a good kid who was in the wrong place at the wrong time when he was killed. >> Read the story of Anthony Titus.

11/22/10 - I'm kicking around some ideas for a title to the project. "Gun Project" is not terribly catchy. I'm thinking of "Manufacture to Murder," or a play on the actual model and manufacturer of the crime gun we wind up using. (Editor's note - I like it; much better than "gun project".) The Washington Post adds another part to their Hidden Life of Guns series. They trace guns used to kill cops.

I think it may be easier and more inexpensive to narrow our Minneapolis police data request to guns used in violent crime in 2010. I sent another inquiry to MPD about that, and asked about getting the eTrace data for each of those guns.

11/23/10 - Maurice Possley, the Pulitzer Prize winning investigative reporter formerly of the Chicago Tribune, has been a mentor in this project. He got me in touch with one of the reporters who wrote the Chicago Tribune gun trace piece. I should be able to touch base with Annie Sweeney tomorrow. She sent me a note saying an officer was just killed in Chicago last night, so she's too busy to talk today.

Interesting side note: Here's a crime ranking of 400 cities. The list ranks Minneapolis as number 353, meaning that there are 352 safer cities and 47 more dangerous cities. St. Paul is ranked number 298.

11/29/10 - Once again, we've narrowed our data request to Minneapolis police. We're asking them for reports for guns recovered in homicides and assaults (shootings) in 2010. We're also asking for the trace reports on those guns. MPD researchers will contact me with an estimate of how much the retrieval will cost.

I also spoke with a Hennepin County contact today about using the Marvin Maynard shooting for our gun case. He told me a group of attorneys are compiling a package of cases for us, and they'll see if that one can be included. Maynard's killer, Ryan Daniel Jones-Adams was recently sentenced to 35 years in prison. Maynard had reportedly just gotten out of Red Wing not long before he was killed. Both shooter and victim were 16-years-old. And that goes to the question posed by this project, "Where are these guns coming from that kids are using to kill other kids?"


12/2/10 - I'm continuing to pester the Hennepin County attorney's office for gun cases. I told Santo Cruz that I've got an editor breathing down my neck.

I talked to Bob Schmidt and Bernie Zapor from the St. Paul ATF yesterday. They told me that even if the MPD wants to give us gun trace data, they are forbidden from doing so. They told me that instead, we'll have to get our trace data from court records, which is not what I understood from Ben Hayes, the ATF agent who gave a presentation at the Chicago seminar. However, that is apparently how the Washington Post got the data for their series.

12/3/10 - The city is working on our request to gather police records of recovered guns used in shootings, homicides and rapes. They say they have about 70 records to date, which will cost us a grand total of about $61 for the city to retrieve and print. Of course, we'll need to get a few more at the end of December, but I thought it would make sense to get the records sooner rather than later.

I started doing a little online browsing to see what handguns cost these days. If you want to get a sense of how gun makers try to sell people on new cosmetic features and gadgets, check out the Smith & Wesson website.

12/14/10 - I made repeated inquiries to Hennepin County and the city about requests for crime gun data. I'll keep you posted.

12/15/10 - We now have data from city of Minneapolis. I'm going through about 70 reports of gun crimes. The records are dated from the first of the year through Nov. 15. In January, we'll get the rest of the 2010 records (cost - $64.50).

12/27/10 - I started pulling court records on some of the 2010 gun offenders, made notes and got copies of the complaints. So far, I find no tracing data in the files, not even much mention of the guns. Cost: $40 - that's $8 a document, very expensive. I'll see if I can't find a cheaper way. Maybe the county attorney will email us PDFs of complaints. I've sent another request to Santo Cruz at Hennepin County for the cases the attorneys are compiling. I'm also trying to get a meeting with Cruz or someone else there who can help track down the info we're looking for.

12/30/10 - I met with Santo Cruz from the Hennepin County Attorney's office this morning.

The bad news is, he still doesn't have his hands on a homicide case we can use as the centerpiece for this project. I told him time is running short. However, Cruz will get me in front of one of the prosecutors who specialize in gun cases next week, and I'll press my case with them.

The good news is that he'll be able to email us pdfs of court docs from the Minneapolis gun crimes, which will make the process cheaper and faster. My goal is to get him a list of names and charges by the end of today.

Cruz is also working on getting the files concerning a big gun store robbery which happened in Richfield about a decade ago. He says the records should show where the guns wound up, a reversal of the point of our project. But that should make for another good side project.


1/7/11 - I received the last of the 2010 gun cases from MPD. We have a total of 72 gun-related crimes. I also found out that the MPD recovered 759 guns in 2010. There were 39 homicides in 2010. You can find more year-end crime data here.

I sent the MPD a list of 11 cases that have been adjudicated. If these cases are indeed fully closed, we will be able to get the previously non-public data. I was told that the gun trace reports should be contained in this section of the police reports. I'm continuing to look up the list of gun cases to find others that have been adjudicated.

On Monday, a guy named Lavell Lovelady (CCN: MP-10-208314) will be sentenced for being a prohibited person in possession of a firearm in front of Judge Daniel Mabley. I called the judge and left him a message asking for permission to record the proceeding. Lovelady apparently shot someone in the foot on July 14, 2010.

I've made interview requests at the ATF's Tracing Center in Virginia, and to Chaska police chief Scott Knight, who is our Tiahrt amendment know-it-all. I'm going to try to coordinate my east coast trip to include either an NRA lobbyist or some other pro-gun organization advocate. Perhaps I can set something up with a member of our state's congressional delegation.

I also have an interview request into MPD to talk to the property room manager. As soon as I get a date, I will request a photographer to take photos of some guns. The public information officer wants the CCN numbers of all the cases that indicate that the police recovered the gun or have inventoried them.

Santo Cruz told me last week he'll email me copies of gun case complaints, but I haven't received them yet. I sent him a friendly reminder this morning.

1/10/11 - I set up an interview with the Minneapolis PD property room manager for Jan. 12 at 11 a.m. However, MPD may not be able to show us all the guns we're looking for. Some may take more time to clear, so we may have to set up another photo shoot at a later time.

1/11/11 - 1/12/11 - Research days:

Following the shooting in Arizona this weekend, I decided to go back to some of the reference materials we picked up in Chicago. I came across some interesting facts:

The Minnesota Constitution's Bill of Rights does not contain a provision regarding a right "to bear arms":

From a Legal Community Against Violence summary: In a case in which a statute requiring a permit to carry a loaded handgun was challenged under a claimed "common law right to bear arms", the Minnesota Supreme Court held, without deciding whether such a right existed, that "[w]hatever the scope of any common-law or constitutional right to bear arms, we hold that it is not absolute and does not guarantee to individuals the right to carry loaded weapons abroad at all times and in all circumstances." In re Application of Atkinson, 291 N.W.2d 396, 399 (Minn. 1980).

Twenty-eight states authorize law enforcement to remove firearms at the scene of a domestic violence incident and/or authorize removal of firearms and ammunition when a domestic violence protective order is issued. Minnesota is not one of them.

Clarification from LCAV:

Any person who has been arrested for domestic abuse, harassment, violation of an order for protection, or violation of a domestic abuse no contact order and released by the court pending subsequent judicial proceedings may be prohibited from possessing firearms by court order.

A person violating an order of protection against him or her who owns or possesses a firearm and uses it during the commission of the violation must forfeit the firearm. Moreover, a person convicted of a domestic assault upon a family or household member where the person owns or possesses the firearm and used it during the commission of the assault must forfeit the firearm. Minnesota does not otherwise require the surrender of firearms or ammunition by domestic abusers who have become prohibited from possessing firearms or ammunition under federal law.

Minneapolis police apparently will take guns out of the homes that are the site of domestic violence. The PIO told me that in an interview.

Six states have banned large capacity ammunition magazines: California, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York. Minnesota has no such ban.

1/12/11 - Property room visit:

Photographer Jeff Thompson and I visited the MPD's gun vault and one of their property rooms. MPD asked us not to reveal the location of the vault. We'll say it's located in a "secure location." A couple of different facilities contain property and evidence. For instance, there's another building where they keep vehicles and other large evidence.

I talked with the supervisor of the property and evidence unit, Kerstin Hammarberg. She showed us about 18 guns recovered from crime scenes. Before Hammarberg showed us each weapon, she personally checked to confirm it was unloaded. Then she showed it to each of us so we were also assured the weapon was safe. They follow a policy that says a gun is not unloaded unless you personally verify it.

As the doors opened to the vault, we immediately noticed that the air was cool, dry and carried the faint scent of confiscated marijuana. On our way to the vault, we walked down a corridor lined with metal shelves stacked about 20-30 feet high full of boxes.

Gun offender
Jiyaad Copeland, 19, was sentenced to 3 years, 4 months in the Lino Lakes prison after he shot at someone and was arrested for possession of a firearm.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

The vault is a room about 30 by 20 feet with a lower ceiling and brick walls. Shorter shelves full of manila envelopes line one wall and part of another. The envelopes are full of handguns. There's also a dehumidifier in the room, because moisture is bad for steel firearms. Down the middle of the room are four rows of long guns: rifles, shotguns, military looking rifles. Some are in pristine condition. Others are not. Some are in soft cases. There are probably 4,000 to 5,000 firearms in the room.

1/20/11 - I sent a request to the public information officer at the ATF National Training Center this morning for a visit to the facility for an interview. Sounds like it will happen in mid-February.

I left message for the public defender who represented Jiyaad Jamal Copeland, recently sentenced to prison for being a prohibited person in possession of a firearm. I want to interview him and ask him how he got the gun he used. Copeland received a downward durational departure (guidelines call for a minimum of 60 months - Copeland got 40). That reminded me that I spoke with Hennepin County Judge Mark Wernick about gun crime sentencing last September. Here's what we talked about:

Gun crime sentencing

Some Minneapolis law enforcement officials say one reason they keep arresting the same people over and over again is because Hennepin County judges aren't giving offenders tough enough sentences. However, according to data provided below, Hennepin County judges are more likely to sentence a person convicted of a gun crime to prison than judges in most counties around the state.

Judges follow sentencing guidelines but can, and often do, depart - upward or downward - from those guidelines. There are two kinds of departures from sentencing guidelines - dispositional or durational. Disposition refers to the type of penalty - prison or probation. Durational refers to the amount of time.

So a downward dispositional departure means a person gets probation instead of prison. A downward durational departure means a person gets jailed for a shorter period than determined by sentencing guidelines.

"When we give someone a downward dispositional departure, put them on probation, we are saying that this person is particularly amenable to probation," Wernick said.

He says people are likely to get this kind of leniency if they are young, have no prior criminal record, accept responsibility, show remorse and admit to their crime, they're cooperative in court, and they're amenable to whatever programming is available, whether it's chemical dependency or mental health treatment or remedial education programs.

Wernick says judges will also grant downward durational departures when defendants admit to their crime early on in the process, thus avoiding a trial. And it also helps if the defendant shows remorse and accepts responsibility for his crime.

1/24/11 - A jury began deliberations in the 1st degree murder trial of Javaris Eugene Milton. He's accused of shooting and killing Dontae Johnson last year. Johnson was the city's first homicide victim of 2010. The complaint says Johnson was shot with a .9mm Luger CBC, but the cops didn't find the gun. I sat in on the closing arguments and gave business cards to Dontae's mother and wife. They said they may talk to me after the jury reaches a verdict.

1/26/11 - Jiyaad Jamal Copeland agreed to be interviewed for the project. At least, that's what his Lino Lakes caseworker, Roger Carr, told me this morning. I need to coordinate with the prison communications people first, but it looks like I'll be going to prison sometime during the week of Feb. 7.

I'm working on lining up interviews in the Washington, D.C., area for the week of Feb. 14. The ATF tracing center is located about 90 miles northwest of D.C. And I'd also like to speak with an ex-ATF guy who's a buddy of Chaska police chief Scott Knight. His name is Joe Vince and he's the president of a consulting group called Crime Gun Solutions, LLC in Maryland. I left him a message the other day to see if he'll talk to me on tape. The NRA headquarters is also not far from there.

1/27/11 - I had a good meeting with Assistant County Attorney Pat Diamond. I learned a couple of important things. First, having a gun without a permit is a gross misdemeanor, so it's handled by the city attorney's office - not the county. There are several of those cases in our pile, so I'll start getting what I can on those. It is also a misdemeanor to be a concealed carry permit holder who is caught drinking and driving.

Minnesota gun crime facts for 2009:

• 523 offenders sentenced for firearm-involved crime

• 92% of gun offenders are male

•43% - African American

• 38% - White

• 8% - American Indian

• 7% - Hispanic

• 4% - Asian

Approximately one-half of the weapons cases occurred in Hennepin County and Ramsey County (approximately 35% and 16%, respectively).

The other metro counties accounted for roughly ten percent, and greater Minnesota counties had 39 percent of the cases.

(source: Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission - "Sentencing Practices: Weapons Offenses Sentenced in 2009" Oct. 10, 2010)


2/5/11 - We have 72 reports of gun-related crimes in Minneapolis in 2010. However, I've noticed that our documents don't include some homicides. We need to cross-reference our gun crime docs against the 2010 homicide list we're keeping. I need to verify with MPD, but by my count, 30 of last year's 39 homicides were committed with firearms.

2/7/11 - Success! Sort of. A federal judge just sentenced a guy named Kingston Gaulden to 33 months for being a prohibited person with a firearm. An ATF agent filed an affidavit saying that the .40 caliber Smith & Wesson gun found with Gaulden was traced back to a gun store robbery in St. Louis Park on Dec. 8, 2009. The affidavit doesn't name the store, but the only FFL (Federal Firearm Licensee) in St. Louis Park is the Frontiersman. However, I did a Nexis search and didn't find any news stories about the robbery. It looks like there was a failed smash-and-grab attempt at the store in 2004 or 2006. I'm trying to reach the owner of the store for an interview.

Minneapolis police arrested Gaulden on March 25, 2010, after a traffic stop. They found the gun, $1,000 in cash, a scale and small amounts of powder cocaine. Gaulden says he found the gun in an alley. Technically, this doesn't count as one of our 72 gun crimes last year.

Here's a map of gun stores in the area. The StarTribune recently published this Op-Ed by Police Chief Tim Dolan. Dolan writes, "More guns don't make us safer."

I also spoke with a representative from the ATF this morning. I'm targeting the week of Feb. 21 to get out to the Tracing Center in West Virginia. She says I should also be able to see their gun vault which has around 10,000 guns. I also spoke with former ATF agent Joe Vince, based in Maryland, who is willing to talk to me about gun tracing, the gun lobby, etc. Vince says it's important to be able to crack down on rogue dealers and irresponsible gun dealers because criminals are looking for new guns "in the box with papers". He says burglary is the most ineffective way to get a gun. There's too much uncertainty, they may or may not find a gun. And if they do, it could be a "junk" gun.

And I'm trying to reach someone at the NRA headquarters, located just outside D.C., for an interview.

2/8/11 - On Oct. 14, 2010, at 10:47 p.m., police officers in the Fourth Precinct conducted a traffic stop. Dujuan McCray opened the rear passenger side door and ran away. Officers say they saw McCray throw a black handgun into a grassy area in back of 2754 Vincent Ave. N.

Officers recovered a loaded black .45 caliber Sig Sauer P2220 semi-automatic handgun. The gun had one round in the chamber and one in the magazine. Police determined that the gun was stolen from Galesburg, Illinois. The owner was identified as L.D.

I'm looking up reports of gun thefts in Galesburg, of which there's been several. So far, no one named L.D. I talked to Capt. Rod Riggs of the Galesburg police department. He says the Sig Sauer was reported stolen on March 11, 2008. Riggs said the gun was stolen from a residence "probably for drug money", but wouldn't give me the name and address of the victim.

On Jan. 5, 2010, McCray was convicted of second degree burglary, making him a prohibited person in possession of a firearm.

2/9/11 - I interviewed Jiyaad Copeland yesterday at Lino Lakes prison. Here are a few things that stand out. Copeland is 19 and has a 7 month-old daughter. He says he started getting into serious trouble with the law when he was 16. In 2009, someone shot him through the stomach. The bullet exited out his back. After that, he started carrying guns. "I'm a get someone before they get me," he said. On the night he was arrested, he says he borrowed a friend's gun. He says he shot at a guy who he thought was going to shoot him. He missed.

2/10/11 - I received this response from MPD property manager Kerstin Hammarberg on the status of the pistol stolen from the resident of Galesburg, IL:

"At this point we still are holding this weapon related to this open case. At the point it can be returned to its owner, we will make arrangements with the Galesburg, IL PD to get the gun to them, and they will be responsible to return the weapon to its rightful owner. The owner has the option of traveling here, but that is not necessary."

I cross-checked the 2010 homicide list against the 73 gun-related crime reports we got from MPD. The list did not include 17 gun homicides. So I'm updating our data. MPD reported 90 gun-related crimes in the city last year. That number includes 30 fatal shootings.

2/11/11 - I got a little background information on another gun. It's the Glock-19 attached to the Kevin Wallace, Project Exile case. The Glock was manufactured in Austria in 1994, and was reported stolen in Escondido, CA. I obtained a copy of the MPD interrogation, which is non-public. In it, Wallace tells police that he bought the gun for $150 two years ago from a guy in Burnsville. Wallace is facing 15 years in federal prison. (Update: In a plea agreement filed with the court clerk on 1/31/11, Kevin Wallace agreed to plead guilty to being a "prohibited person in possession of firearm". He has not been sentenced yet.)

I will tour the National Tracing Center on Feb. 24. I will likely interview the ex-ATF guy on Feb. 25th. I'll start researching which MN member of Congress we can talk to.

2/15/11 - I talked to the manager of the Frontiersman gun store -- very briefly. I told him that I wanted to talk to him for a story concerning illegal guns in Minneapolis last year. He said, "No comment. Thank you for calling."

2/16/11 - I have the most recent available state court gun sentencing numbers (2009).

194 gun offenders sentenced in Hennepin County in 2009:

In 37% of the cases, judges gave defendants a sentence at or greater than the sentencing guidelines.

In 32.5% of cases, judges gave defendants downward dispositional departures --- probation or time in the workhouse instead of prison.

In 30% of cases, judges gave defendants downward durational departures - less time in prison than the guidelines specified.

In counties outside Hennepin (333 cases outside Hennepin County):

51% of defendants received sentences at or above guidelines.

34% received probation or workhouse time instead of prison (downward dispositional departure).

15% got less time in prison than the guidelines specified (downward durational departure).

In 2009, Hennepin County judges sent gun offenders to prison in 67.5% of cases. In the rest of the state, judges sent gun offenders to prison in 66% of cases.

In 2009, Hennepin County judges gave probation or workhouse instead of prison in 32.5% of cases. In the rest of the state, judges gave probation/workhouse in 34%.

According to judge Mark Wernick, "probation in gun cases will almost always involve 6 months to 1 year in the workhouse as a condition of probation." That means when a judge grants someone a downward dispositional departure (probation instead of prison), they are still most likely going to be incarcerated.

2/17/11 - I got a response to my email request to the U.S. Attorney's office for statistics on "armed career criminal" (acc) prosecutions. I wanted to know how many indictments, convictions and average sentence. Jeanne Cooney wrote me back saying they don't keep those stats:

"Brandt, we do not keep statistics on armed career criminals. They are just part of our violent crime numbers. So, I cannot provide you with any detailed acc statistics for 2009. I can tell you on average we prosecute about a half dozen acc cases annually. That number will be higher in 2011 because we are working with the Hennepin County Attorney's Office in addressing a surge in gun crime in Minneapolis (Operation Exile Minneapolis kicked off in July of 2010).

Specifically, we are taking Hennepin County's "worst of the worst" serial criminals and prosecuting them in federal court on gun charges whenever possible. And, if they have at least three prior felony convictions (state or federal) for violent crimes or serious drug crimes, we can charge them as armed career criminals, which means that if convicted, they will receive a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years in prison. Furthermore, since the federal system does not have parole, they will have to serve virtually their entire sentence behind bars. Since July, we have indicted about a dozen of these acc cases, but few of them have been sentenced yet."

2/22/11 - I'm preparing for my trip to the D.C.-area for interviews. I need to do some research on gun legislation and refresh myself on the Tiahrt amendment and ATF modernization bill. I also need to push the NRA staff for an interview time. I need to make another round of calls to the courts people who've promised to help on the project. I still need trace reports.

2/24/11 - National Tracing Center, Martinsburg, West Virginia:

First of all, the drive up to the NTC, about 90 miles outside of Washington, D.C., was beautiful. The Shenandoah Valley is breathtaking. The highway twists and turns throughout the river valley and winds up and down steep hills.

ATF's firearm library
The ATF tracing center's firearm library in Washington D.C. is a collection that contains everything from homemade, single shot devices crafted from flashlights and belt buckles, to anti-tank and anti-aircraft guns used in wars around the world.
MPR Photo/Brandt Williams

At the center, I spoke with Chief Charlie Houser. Houser gave me a tour of the center and I got to see firsthand how much manual labor goes into sorting records for tracing. They have stacks of out-of-business records from gun sellers across the country. They get 1.3 million records each month. These have to be scanned by hand into their system and stored as a picture file. They used to put the records on microfilm, but don't any more.

However, by order of Congress, they cannot use optical character recognition software on the scanned documents. That would create a searchable database. And that is prohibited. Houser says if he doesn't have at least 7 of his 10 scanning machines running 16 hours a day, they'll be overrun with records. At times, they've gotten so backed up they've had to get shipping containers put in the parking lot so they can store boxes.

Houser says the NTC gets about 1,200 trace requests a day. A third of them involve looking up guns from the out-of-business records. On average, a trace request that involves an out-of-business record takes 45 minutes. And that may only result in revealing just one point along the trail to finding the retail purchaser.

Despite all that, Houser says as long as the trace request includes an accurate description of the gun, they can successfully identify the retail buyer in 70 percent of trace requests.

I asked Houser, only half-jokingly, if they have any stress-relief opportunities for employees like yoga. He says people who work there tend to use nicotine for stress relief. It seems he's right. When I got to the Center, I had to drive through a crowd of maybe a dozen employees out taking a smoke break. Houser himself admits to being a chain smoker. And during the interview, it seemed like he always had a cup of coffee in his hand.

When they get a request from a law enforcement agency to trace a gun (the request will include a description of the gun, make model and serial number), the ATF calls up the maker of the gun, who tells the ATF where the gun went after it was made: an importer, wholesaler or retailer. The ATF calls the importer, wholesaler or retailer to find out who bought the gun. If the retailer is no longer in business, then the ATF has to search the paper records or scanned records they have in the office.

I also got a chance to see the tracing center's gun reference library with 12,000 weapons. They've got grenade launchers, .50 caliber sniper rifles, an authentic "tommy gun" plus a wide variety of bizarre hand-made guns. For instance, I saw a "knife-gun", a "flashlight gun" and a gun made from "the club". Remember the bar-like thing people used to hook on their steering wheels to keep their cars from getting stolen? Yep, someone made a gun out of one. MacGyver would be impressed.

Larry Pratt
Larry Pratt is the director of Gun Owners of America, a group similar to the NRA. He's standing next to a painting that depicts a group of Pilgrims walking to church carrying the Bibles and their guns. He says that "is the essence of what it's all about."
MPR Photo/Brandt Williams

I left the tracing center and zig-zagged back through West Virginia down into Springfield Virginia to talk with Larry Pratt, executive director of Gun Owners of America. The GOA is to the right of the NRA. They not only believe the ATF shouldn't trace guns, they believe the ATF should be disbanded. Pratt says all federal gun laws are unconstitutional. I asked Pratt if he believed in any restrictions on where someone should be able to carry a gun. He said no. Pratt says every law-abiding citizen should be able to carry a gun anywhere so they can shoot criminals.

Before I took a picture of Pratt, I asked him where he would like to stand. He wanted to stand in front of this painting on his wall. The painting depicts a group of Pilgrims walking to church carrying guns and Bibles. "That's the essence of what it's all about," he said.

2/25/11 - I interviewed Joe Vince and Gerald Nunziato, both former ATF agents. Nunziato is the former director of the National Tracing Center. >> Read the story.

Essentially, they say the Tiahrt amendments are a major impediment to police departments' ability to crack down on the flow of illegal guns - even though the departments can get tracing data. That's because they can get info on only one gun at a time. Before Tiahrt, Nunziato's Tracing Center would send an officer data related to the gun they were trying to trace. He says "it would say the address used by the person who purchased the gun was also an address used by somebody that possessed the gun that was involved in a killing in Chicago." And he says the ATF would provide the name and number of the officer in Chicago investigating that killing.

Joe Vince says he's baffled by Tiahrt especially in the wake of Sept. 11. He says the government's failure to prevent the attacks was due in part to a failure to connect the dots between law enforcement and government intelligence. Vince says Tiahrt takes the dots off the paper.

2/27/11 - Anoka Armory Gun and Knife Show:

I spoke with two gun dealers at the show. They were both federal license holders (FFLs). Only one would speak on tape. Of course, the other guy said some of the most interesting stuff.

I talked to Mark Nordin on tape. He owns Oak Grove Arms in Oak Grove, Minnesota. Nordin says the "gun show loophole" is over-hyped. He says private citizens can sell firearms to anybody without a background check. They don't need to be at a gun show. They can sell a gun at a garage sale or advertise in the paper.

The other dealer who talked to me said he doesn't like having unlicensed dealers at gun shows for a couple reasons. Number one, he says it's unfair competition. Unlicensed dealers don't have to charge sales tax, FFLs do. And number two, he says some buyers just don't want a paper trail. This guy goes to 46 shows a year. One time he was selling at a show outside of Mankato, and out of 80 tables, only two were FFLs.

Both dealers told me they'd had their books inspected by the ATF. Neither thought the practice was overreaching.

MARCH 2011

3/4/11 - I just picked up reports from the St. Louis Park PD about the Frontiersman gun store robbery, which happened on Dec. 8, 2009. Burglars stole 12, .40 caliber handguns worth $6,000, and five, .9mm handguns worth $2,500. The store manager later reported that another .40 caliber gun was missing. So 18 hand guns were stolen.

Six of the stolen handguns have been recovered - a .40 caliber piston in Eagan, a Beretta PX4, with an obliterated serial number was found on Jan. 24, 2010, in St. Paul. A Richfield police officer reported that they confiscated a smart phone from a guy and found a picture of one of the guns on it.

Four have shown up in Minneapolis, one on Kingston Gaulden, who was recently sentenced to nearly three years in prison for being a prohibited person in possession of a firearm.

Minneapolis police are investigating whether one of the guns was used in the Seward Market triple-homicide. I'm trying to get more info on this.


The story continues at Following the Firearms: Gun Violence in Minneapolis.