Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Citizens' Police Academy: Firearms Tracking Unit

By Annette Dashofy
(With special thanks to Detective Jill Smallwood-Rustin of the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police Firearms Tracking Unit for her assistance with this post.)

The new class of Pittsburgh’s Citizens’ Police Academy is in session and I dropped in to pick up a segment that wasn’t offered last time. Detective Jill Rustin spoke about the Firearms Tracking Unit.

In Pittsburgh at the time of her presentation, the Pittsburgh Police were investigating 69 homicides. Of those, fifty-five are gun related, mind you this number can change on any given day at any given hour

While we may assume that the criminals on our streets are attaining their weapons from gun traffickers, the stunning fact is that the vast majority of confiscated weapons are traced back to local owners from the City of Pittsburgh and on a larger scale from Allegheny County. Most of these owners failed to handle their guns responsibly by keeping them secure and then report their guns lost or stolen when they discovered this fact.

Perhaps a family member steals a gun. The parent doesn’t want their child to be identified or possibly arrested so they don’t report the theft. Many of the guns stolen from within a household are kept in private locations that only a family member or loved one would know about.

Often, a burglar will break into a house looking for money, jewelry, or small electronics but, stumbles across a gun, it's like hitting a Jackpot! They may or may not keep the gun for themselves or they will trade or sell it for money or drugs.

Detective Rustin told of one woman who moved from Pittsburgh to a new home near Seven Springs. A confiscated gun was traced to her. When located, she said she simply had to "get out of there" so she moved, left her old home AND two firearms which belonged to her, with no regard for where they might end up.

Currently, there is no law in the Commonwealth of PA requiring citizens to report lost or stolen firearms to the police. As a result, only about 10 percent are reported to the Pittsburgh Police Department. Members of our local city council are introducing local legislation to address that very problem and will do so at post agenda meeting on Tuesday, November 18, 2008.

Which leads to the subject of straw purchasers. This is when one person buys a gun for someone else, concealing the identity of the true purchaser or possessor of the firearm. Straw purchasing is a common method for felons to attain weapons. The purchaser walks into a federally licensed firearms dealer and passes the background check before paying for a gun that will not remain with the purchaser. This is a felony violation for both the straw purchaser and the ultimate possessor.

During a slide show, Detective Rustin offered photographic evidence of the damage bullets can do to the human body. One slide showed a residential street where close to 20 casings were scattered about from a reckless person(s). And it’s about more than lives lost. Lives are changed forever. The detective told of a 14 year old girl who was shot and paralyzed at a church carnival. Not only will she never walk again, but she and her family have been forced to move from their multi-level home with its narrow doorways and hallways. The entire family’s quality of life has been forever altered.

Want some disturbing statistics? For the Pittsburgh Police in 2007, 66 of those arrested for gun violations were 16 years of age and under. Two hundred eighty two arrestees were 17 to 24 years old. In the 25 to 34 age range, there were 156 arrests made. And 104 arrests of those over 35.

At one time, the rites of passage involved having your first drink at age 21. Today, it appears to be acquiring your first firearm at the age of 21.

The police can only do so much. It’s up to us citizens to do our part, be responsible with any firearm you may own or plan to own. Here are some additional ways we can help:

Inventory all firearms you own. Record all information, such as make, model, and serial number.

Purchase a gun safe or gun cabinet (and not the type with the glass front).

NEVER store your gun in your vehicle.

Have a conversation with your family about your feelings concerning guns in the house, about guns your or they own.

Help seniors secure, sell or turn in firearms they no longer want. And make sure you do this through a licensed dealer.

Take a gun safety course to enhance your familiarity with your weapon.


Tory said...

Very interesting, Annette!

My personal gun safety approach: don't buy one. They scare me.

Won't work for everyone, I know. :-)

Annette said...

What gets me is that at the meeting yesterday, the gun-owners advocate complained that making it a law that you MUST report lost or stolen firearms isn't fair because the gun owner may not realize their weapon has been stolen.

Come ON. This is a piece of equipment that can take a life. You should KNOW where your guns are.

Joyce said...

Very good info, Annette!

I think requiring gun owners to report their lost or stolen weapons is a good idea. There's no excuse for someone not knowing where their guns are at all times.

Donnell said...

Annette, fabulous post as always. Question, ma'am. were the 69 homicides in 2008; what is your population? I would love to do a comparison of Denver/CS area. As I read you post I thought of the eight year old who killed his father and his friend last week. All the facts haven't come out in the case, but apparently his father bought him a gun? Unbelievable. Thanks for bringing this topic to light. Lots of plot fodder in here ;)

Annette said...

Donnell, I believe the 69 homicides are what the Pittsburgh Police are currently investigating. I hope Detective Rustin will pop in at some point and varify that.

I married into a hunting family where buying kids guns for hunting is not in the least unusual. May have a little something to do with the fact that I don't have children, though.

jill said...

The City of Pittsburgh population is approx. 350,363. The murder stat has been changed from 69 to 64based on numbers from the Allegheny County Medical Examiner's office at the time of the 11-10-2008 citizen's police academy class. This number has changed based on the decision of the forensic doctors at the Medical Examiner's office and the totality of circumstances. We have since experienced additional murders as I write this blog.
Thank you Annette for helping me share this message.

Annette said...

Thanks for the clarification, Detective.

And you're welcome. It's an important topic.

Anonymous said...

Fantastic Blog - thanks to Annette and to Det. Jill Rustin for the important info.

I am sending this around - with gun sales on the rise, it's more important than ever that people remember that the right comes with a responsibility.


Lee Lofland said...

I'll probably be shot for saying this, but...

Many people who claim to have guns in their homes for self-protection are either shot with their own guns, or have them stolen during break-ins than those who actually use them to defend themselves.

Get a dog. At least you'll have something to comfort you when someone steals your $1,000 gun.

Great information, Annette.

Wilfred Bereswill said...

The first thing I'd do if a gun were stolen is to report it. No matter who took it. When it's used in a crime, you're the person they're going to come for.

Good stuff, Annette.

William Simon said...

Hi, Annette!

A gun is the only stolen item that can be sold on the street for more than the actual value.

We were broken into many years ago, when we were in our first apartment. For whatever reason, they left in a hurry, but they did get the "bedroom" gun, a Charter Arms 44 Bulldog. I was on the phone to Austin before the police got there, explaining what had happened and removing myself from any and all responsibility for that weapon.

After the officer came and took the report, I was back on the phone giving the lady in Austin the case number, and followed up that night with a letter and copies disavowing myself from that gun.

This was all done before contacting the insurance company.

I cannot image any place where it's not mandatory to report a stole/missing weapon, but the concept of someone NOT knowing it was gone is even scarier....

Dana King said...

I firmly believe gun thefts should be required to be reported, and that once you own a gun you're in some part responsible for any harm it might do, unless you have reported it sold or stolen. I know people will still get around it, but something like that will push those who are undecided toward doing the right thing.

As ofr it being unfair to gun owners, such a law would compel them to keep tabs on their deadly weapons. I'll bet they'd report their cars as stolen right quick.

Annette said...

Good point, Lee.

Becky said...

You are right about the right of passage or should I say now they can do what they want regardless of my feelings. I refused to have hand guns in my home but when my son turned 21 my husband and son ganged up on me. Now they both own them. So much for my feelings. As for the law on reporting stolen hand guns I thought that law pasted this year? I think you will find that the majority of responsible gun owners will report a theft.

Gina said...

Guns don't kill people. People with guns kill people. Of course stolen or lost guns should be reported! People should keep track of their lethal weapons.

I think our Pittsburgh homicide rate would be a lot higher if we didn't have such good emergency medical services, both first responders and ER. There are shootings reported almost every day.

mike said...

As to a law on reporting stolen guns--according to an article in today's Post-Gazette, attempts in PA to enact a statewide law have been voted down by our fine state legislators. Philly and Allentown adopted laws similar to the bill the Pgh. city council is considering--to require the reporting of a stolen or lost handgun to the police within 24 hours of noticing its absence--but they are tied up in the courts. The Pgh city law dept. contends that the council measure would be unenforceable because state law takes precedence over municipal law in these cases. As in so many other issues that give PA the reputation for being somewhat schizophrenic, lawmakers from the vast central, nonmetropolitan areas of the state, where hunting and NRA membership are time-honored pursuits, calls the shots, so to speak. We city and inner-suburb residents have to keep our heads down and hope we don't get caught in the crossfire!

Annette said...

Mike, I didn't catch the story in the PG yet, but there was a television news report on it last night. You're absolutely right. It makes no sense whatsoever.