In the wake of gun massacres in Colorado and Connecticut, President Barack Obama has urged Congress to pass a series of gun control laws that include background checks for all gun sales and a ban on the assault-style weapons used in the shootings.
But those measures in particular may have little effect on day-to-day gun crime in North Carolina, which overwhelmingly involves handguns, many sold and traded beyond even the beefed-up system of background checks envisioned in Washington.
For the decade ending in 2011, handguns accounted for more than 81 percent of all firearm homicides in North Carolina in which the type of weapon was known, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.
Rifles, which include the assault weapons that have dominated the political debate, accounted for about 7.2 percent during the same period, the agency reported. Shotguns accounted for more deaths than rifles.
Few of the 2,849 people shot and killed in the state during that decade died in the kind of massacres that make the national news. Most died one or two at a time in near-anonymity, with the kind of guns that haven’t surfaced as a focus in the current debate.
Assault rifles are relatively rare in gun crimes in North Carolina. Earl Woodham, a spokesman with federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Charlotte, cites the size of handguns as a big reason for their more frequent use in crimes.
“Mostly, the ability to conceal the gun,” he said. “That’s probably the number one factor.”
The term “assault weapon” is not universally accepted within the gun debate, but it is generally considered to be a rifle or handgun that holds more than 10 rounds, is fired semi-automatically and resembles military weapons. Gun-rights advocates contend the term “assault weapon” was concocted by the gun-control lobby to scare people.
Assault rifles account for only 4.3 percent of the nearly 1,000 firearms seized by Raleigh police and currently stored as evidence in criminal cases, said spokesman Jim Sughrue. Handguns accounted for 555 of the weapons, with 112 shotguns and 141 rifles. The department has 35 assault rifles in the evidence room.
Cary police have one AK 47-style weapon among the 52 firearms they are holding as evidence. Police in 2011 took the assault weapon and ammunition found by firefighters inside a burning home for safekeeping, police spokeswoman Susan Elise said.
Assault rifles make up less than 3 percent of the 729 firearms recovered by Greensboro police between Jan. 1, 2012, through February.
Durham police would not disclose information about the firearms the department has in evidence, but last year the department recovered 465 handguns, 103 shotguns and 73 rifles.
Although the handgun causes much more carnage, the overwhelming concern nationally has been focused on assault weapons because of their use in shootings with multiple victims, said Mike Bouchard, chief security officer for Security Dynamics Group, a Virginia-based security consulting firm for large corporations and the United States.
Bouchard is former assistant director of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, where he supervised 26 regional offices across the country, including North Carolina.
He noted the 10-year assault weapons ban passed by Congress in 1994 prohibited “anything with more than a 10-round clip, for handguns too.”
Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt, said a recent study that found 23 percent of the 56 mass shootings in America since 2009 involved an assault weapon was “not insignificant.”
“We need to close the loopholes in background checks so that there will be fewer guns in the hands of impassioned people,” he said. “Assault weapons are certainly a part of that.”
Trails go cold
Federal law requires gun dealers and retail stores to check the criminal record of their customers to make sure they’re legally able to own a firearm.
Obama and others want that requirement extended to all gun sales and transfers, a step proponents say could keep handguns from criminals.
“If there’s a requirement of background checks on all purchases, then people will be a lot more responsible about who they sell to,” Bouchard said.
Both advocates and opponents of stricter gun control laws agree it’s not easy to keep guns away from criminals, even with background checks.
“Most of the handguns are purchased legally the first time,” said Susan Danielsen, a Greensboro police spokeswoman. “Then they change hands, and that’s where the problems begin.”
Too often guns “change hands” by being stolen. Last week, two brothers were indicted on charges they committed four home invasion robberies in Raleigh over a two-week span ending Jan. 7. Among the items they allegedly stole were 50 rounds of ammunition and two handguns. Police say one of the handguns was the same caliber as one seized from the brothers after the last robbery in the spree, one in which a man was shot and paralyzed.
Investigators’ attempts to trace a weapon used in a violent crime often run cold because once a gun hits the streets it may change hands 10 or even 20 times after it has been stolen or illegally purchased, Woodham, with ATF said..
“Gangbangers don’t keep records,” he added. “At that point the gun trace becomes an ineffective investigative tool.”
Even though Bouchard supports universal background checks, he says tracing a firearm that’s been used to commit a crime can pose formidable challenges for police.
“Let’s say the police call ATF to trace a Smith and Wesson that was used in a murder,” he said. “ATF looks at the serial number, calls the Smith and Wesson manufacturer and asks, who sold this model? The officer gets a call back from the manufacturer. The gun was sold to ‘Red’s Distributor,’ who sold it to ‘Mike’s Gun Shop’ who sold it to ‘Joe.’
“The police knock on ‘Joe’s’ door and he says, ‘I don’t have it. I sold it.’ But he can’t remember who he sold it to. The case goes cold. That’s the most troubling part of the whole system.”
Investigators still aren’t sure where Samuel Cooper Jr. got the handgun he used to kill five people in Raleigh between 2006 and 2007. The State Bureau of Investigation linked Cooper to the homicides using firearms forensics tests on the 9 mm Ruger handgun he used to rob a Bank of America in Garner in 2007.
Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby said Cooper told prosecutors he had purchased the gun “on the street from an unidentified person.”
“We couldn’t get any closer than that,” Willoughby said. “Whether that information is accurate, I don’t know.”
Criminals fear prison
Federal law prohibited Cooper from owning a firearm, because he was a convicted felon who had spent 12 years behind bars for robbery and an escape attempt before he was released in 2006. During the killing spree, prosecutors say, Cooper would destroy evidence, including the clothes he wore, after each murder, but he kept the item that eventually linked him to the crimes: the gun.
He told prosecutors the gun was reliable and fired consistently.
The National Rifle Association cites the underground market that enables violent criminals like Cooper to acquire firearms as a reason for opposing expanded background checks. Spokeswoman Jacque Otto said universal background checks will not make a meaningful difference, because only law-abiding citizens will follow the requirement.
Last month, the NRA made public a 2011 survey by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, which found that 79 percent of state prison inmates nationwide convicted of firearms crimes obtained the weapons from the streets, illegal sources and friends or family.
“Criminals,” Otto said, “don’t walk into a Walmart to buy their firearms. They get them off the streets. They steal them or purchase them through the black market.”
The NRA supports stronger prosecution of gun crimes, particularly in federal courts.
Otto says lax prosecution of firearms laws that are already on the books is at the crux of the issue. She cited a report by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse that noted a 28 percent decline in firearms prosecution between 2006 and 2011.
“Criminals don’t fear background checks,” she said. “They fear the prison system.”
Local police have relied heavily on federal prosecutions in recent years to lock up violent criminals. In 2008, Raleigh recorded a record number of homicides, 32. That number does not include two instances in which law officers shot and killed criminal suspects, and another incident in which a store employee shot and killed an armed robbery suspect. The city also surpassed the 1,000 robbery plateau for the first time in its history. The majority of homicides occurred in Southeast Raleigh neighborhoods, where 21 people were killed.
In December of that year, police began a community policing initiative in the South Park and College Park neighborhoods after 16-year-old Adarius Fowler was killed in a drive-by shooting on Tarboro Road, about a mile from downtown Raleigh.
Police partnered with the U.S. Attorney’s Office to sentence violent criminals to lengthy prison terms. And authorities collaborated with community members and a number of city agencies to create outlets for young people, along with offering family services and neighborhood improvements.
The result has been a marked drop in violent crime in Southeast Raleigh; there were seven homicides there in 2009, three in 2010 and again in 2011, and four through November of last year.
Teenagers with guns
But a spike over the past six months in attention-getting handgun deaths across the Triangle has police leaders, including new Raleigh police chief Cassandra Deck-Brown, concerned. Several teens, some not old enough to drive, stand charged with murder.
Wake sheriff’s deputies charged two teens with shooting a Garner couple to death on Jan. 5. The teens, ages 16 and 15, were armed with a .45-caliber handgun and an assault rifle.
In late December, police in Durham charged two girls, ages 12 and 14, along with a 16-year-old boy, with the shooting death of a motorist who gave them a ride.
Earlier that month, a Wake County judge ordered that two brothers, ages 13 and 15, be charged as adults in the fatal drive-by shooting in August of a 16-year-old in North Raleigh.
Police have not yet said how any of the children managed to get their hands on the guns used in those crimes.