Gun violence is a major issue in the Black community. Each day for youths has increasingly become a matter of life or death. Recently several community and national organizations have come together to petition stronger gun legislation to curb the amount of illegal guns making their way onto the streets and in the hands of young Black males.
While many are working for the solution, one cannot get to the solution without visiting the root of the problem. How are these guns getting into the wrong hands? Most of the violent crimes committed are done so with an illegal firearm, which is a gun that is not legally owned by the person using it.
“What’s most devastating is, whether involved in the street life or an innocent bystander trying to find peace among this chaos, numbers of young lives are being snuffed out before they’ve even had a chance to live,” Commander Cheryl Doubt of the City of Pittsburgh Narcotics and Vice Unit said.
While gun violence is a major issue in the community, several of the departments within the Pittsburgh Police Bureau, especially the department of Firearms and Tracking, could not answer questions about statistics for the number of illegal guns used in shootings and homicides within the Pittsburgh communities.
According to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives website, www.atf.gov, the latest trace data on firearms, which were from 2009, stated that Pennsylvania had a total of 8,946 firearms recovered and traced in that year and Pittsburgh was the second largest city for firearms recovery with 1,102, following Philadelphia with 3,992.
Although Doubt could not provide specific statistics, she was able to provide information on the types of patterns the police are seeing when it comes to illegal firearms and their use in shootings in Pittsburgh. The most common guns used on the streets are semi-automatic, 9mm and revolvers. She said, “…I can say with absolute assurance that the majority of the shootings that are done in the city are done so with illegal guns (guns that do not belong to the user). These guns are obtained by way of burglaries, theft from vehicles, traded for drugs on the street and purchased legally from dealerships using ‘straw’ purchasers who obtain them for those not legally able to purchase them for themselves.”
She also said that they are seeing a rise in females engaging in “straw” purchases, girlfriends making gun purchases at authorized dealers and going through the background check, to obtain guns for their boyfriends who cannot pass the check due to certain criteria such as age or prior convictions. Once the male uses the gun in a crime, they tell the female to report it stolen to cover herself. If the gun is found and they trace it back to the female and find she was involved, she could face felony charges, even if she was not directly involved. This can affect their future when it comes to trying to get a job, because they have to explain why they have a record and often times, employers do not want to hire a person for those reasons. To put a stop to this, Doubt said that the city police are working with the ATF to crack down on this and when they can, they will prosecute incidents federally.
While there have been a number of illegal guns making their way on the street through straw purchases, a number of guns are getting into the hands of the wrong individuals through thefts. Doubt said, “Out on the street there’s a lot of guns that are being purchased that have been stolen during burglaries, car thefts etc.” She added that, “A significant number of legal owners do not report these weapons as missing, for a variety of reasons they feel are justifiable. After a weapon comes into our possession, we review each case and determine if the weapon should be returned to the owner or destroyed.” In a previous interview she said, too often individuals don’t even know the gun has been stolen until they are contacted by the police.
That means that legal gun owners need to be mindful of their firearms if they want to own them. They have a responsibility not only to themselves but also to their communities, to keep track of their guns. The city of Pittsburgh does have a legislation where residents have a certain amount of time to report a firearm stolen or missing. If they do not, they then could face a fine and on repeat offenses a fine and jail time.
“The gun problem is starting to impact the community as a whole, not just the Black community,” said Doubt. Although this is true, the Allegheny County homicide list says different. In 2010 out of the 100 homicides, 77 of them were Black and 68 were Black men. And out of the 26 so far this year, 22 were Black and 19 were Black men. African-Americans are continuously topping the list.
Like a few of the police departments in the city, Steve Bartholomew, Public Information Officer for the ATF, was also not able to provide specific statistics for firearms, other than the ones on their website, but he said to address the issue of illegal guns, “the ATF addresses it routinely on a daily basis through the course of our investigations in regards to investigating crime guns, tracing of crime guns and investigating prohibited individuals that may possess those firearms. We also have an outreach with the federal firearm licensees, who are the gun store retailers.” He also added, “there are numerous programs that we have to regulate the firearm industry and to prevent repeat and violent offenders from possessing them.”
Although it is not completely known how and where people are getting these weapons and whether flaws in some of the background check system, which some may say is a problem, play a major role in illegal guns getting on the street, Doubt said, “there are checks in place to try to insure that people who want to and are legally able to own a gun can do so. But like anything else there’s going to be people who try to get around the laws, which means that we (the police) have to work harder.” Which she says, they are committed to doing.
While these may just be a few of the ways these guns that are destroying the Black communities are getting onto the street, they are major ones and possibly a beginning to coming up with a solution.