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July 8, 2007

A Bee Exclusive: Sacramento's killer guns

Nearly every night, somewhere in Sacramento, gunshots puncture the air. By the end of most weekends, there is another homicide to report, another curbside memorial with flowers and photos of a young man or woman shot to death, usually by young people associated with gangs.

Nearly every night, somewhere in Sacramento, gunshots puncture the air. By the end of most weekends, there is another homicide to report, another curbside memorial with flowers and photos of a young man or woman shot to death, usually by young people associated with gangs.

As authorities work to stem the violence, they struggle with basic questions: Where are all the guns coming from? How do they end up in the hands of kids?

But their efforts to grasp the big picture of illegal gun trafficking in the region have been stymied by federal restrictions, conflicting state laws and the frustrating anonymity surrounding the bulk of the guns confiscated in Sacramento.

"At this point, it's frankly impossible to tell," said Dr. Garen Wintemute, who directs the Violence Prevention Research Program at UC Davis Medical Center. A leading researcher on gun violence, Wintemute says he used to study national gun trafficking trends until a 2003 congressional amendment made such broad-based surveys impossible.

"We can't answer that question anymore," he said.

What is known is that Sacramento police officers and sheriff's deputies are coming across near-record numbers of guns. Last year alone, both agencies confiscated the highest number of semiautomatic pistols seen in five years. Sheriff's investigators say they are seizing assault rifles and other high-powered weapons at least once a week, primarily from gang members. Some guns are reported stolen. Most are not registered.

"You just have to assume (every gang member) has a gun," said Sgt. Randy Yen, a gang investigator with the Sheriff's Department. "It's alarming, but it's not a total surprise."

Just last month, agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, working with Sacramento police, confiscated nine guns, including an illegal sawed-off rifle and a Ruger Mini-14,and hundreds of rounds of ammunition from the Rosemont-area home of two suspected gang members. One of the assault weapons was found between a mattress and box spring; other guns were rolled up in T-shirts in the closet.

Hours after the search, two young men at the home -- 20-year-old Hector Uriarte and his cousin, Don Salazar, 22 -- were led away in handcuffs in front of neighborhood children.

"This is what we're looking for, these are the ones we are focusing on," said Sacramento Police Detective Greg Halstead after packing a patrol car trunk full of weapons. "We want to get these guns off the street."

Across Sacramento, 32 people have been shot to death this year, including a 17-year-old boy gunned down in daylight near Luther Burbank High School; a popular college student struck by a stray bullet outside a bar; and one of the youngest homicide victims to date, 16-year-old Jelisa Office, felled outside a minister's home in Del Paso Heights.

In the living room of the Office home, photographs of the bubbly honor student line the front tables and walls. From nearly every angle of the room, her mother and father can see the daughter they lost.

Office was leaving a chaperoned party March 23 when gunshots ricocheted through the street. Her body was found alongside her car, moments after she text-messaged her little brother, telling him not to worry, she was on her way home. A 16-year-old boy has been charged with her murder.

"Who's giving these kids guns?" Jerrold Office asked, his eyes red as he slumped on a living room sofa. "Where are these guns coming from?"

Problems tracing guns

At the request of The Bee, Sacramento police and the Sheriff's Department ran reports tracing the origin of guns found at crime scenes last year. The findings were limited, and information was not available on previous years to reveal any trends.

Sacramento police were able to trace only about half of the more than 500 guns in their inventory, and the Sheriff's Department could trace only 27 percent of the 1,752 guns booked into its property room. Most of those able to be traced came from California, but that may be a function of California's gun reporting laws that make guns purchased here relatively easier to track.

The bulk of the guns that couldn't be traced had serial numbers rubbed off, no record of registration or had been manufactured in another country, according to authorities.

"Once they're destined for the underground market, it loses all accountability," said Nina Delgadillo, an ATF spokeswoman. "There is no record of the gun."

The National Tracing Center, maintained by the ATF, stores information on legally owned guns, including the manufacturer, distributor, federally licensed arms dealer and its first purchaser, essentially establishing the chain of custody. And for a time, public safety officials could access and share information from the database to ferret out gun trafficking trends, identify problem gun dealers and evaluate policing policies.

Until a few years ago, the ATF regularly issued "Youth Crime Gun Interdiction Initiative Trace Reports," which analyzed a year's worth of data on guns used in crimes from more than 50 metropolitan areas. But the reports abruptly stopped after Congress passed a controversial legislative amendment known as the Tiahrt rider more than three years ago.

Named after U.S. Rep. Todd Tiahrt, R-Kan., the rider was tacked onto a 2003 appropriations bill funding the U.S. Department of Justice. While in the past, researchers and police departments could access a broad net of data on gun sales and trafficking trends, the rider limited the scope of data available, allowing law enforcement agencies to access information only as it related to specific investigations.

Supporters of the rider argue the restrictions are necessary to protect the identities of undercover officers and to shield gun dealers from frivolous lawsuits.

"The ATF and the Fraternal Order of Police believe this is a good idea," said Chuck Knapp, spokesman for Tiahrt. "They say the Tiahrt amendment protects their cops and puts criminals behind bars."

But this year, the rider is confronting pitched opposition as it comes up for annual renewal, with opponents charging the legislation has made it virtually impossible to identify problem gun-trafficking trends.

Sacramento Mayor Heather Fargo is a member of the national Mayors Against Illegal Guns Coalition, a group pushing to repeal the rider. Limiting the scope of data available to police departments, she said, just doesn't make sense.

"We don't like to have our Police Department unable to use all the tools they can to solve the crime," she said.

Knapp, Tiahrt's spokesman, said there has been much confusion over what exactly the rider prohibits, adding that broader gun trace statistics can be shared among police agencies but that certain agencies have cited the Tiahrt rider as a reason to withhold the information.

"These are cases where they are misinterpreting the Tiahrt amendment," he said.

Police plan tracking unit

Without hard data, Sacramento public safety officials have aired suspicions in recent months that a number of guns used in crimes here are coming from outside the state, specifically from gun shows in neighboring Reno.

"The easy answer is, they're coming from those places where it's easier to buy guns," said Sacramento Police Chief Albert Nájera. "This is my gut feeling...(but) we don't have data."

In the coming weeks, Nájera said, he will present city leaders with a plan to develop a specialized firearms unit within the department, the first of its kind locally, to track data on guns used in crimes.

He said he has grown disturbed by a youth culture that glamorizes guns and gangs, and where high-powered weapons have become perverted status symbols. And he believes one of the best ways to control the violence, to keep guns from getting into the wrong hands in the first place, is to understand where the weapons are coming from.

Nick, 16 and a former gang member, said he has been around guns for most of his youth. The Bee found Nick through a local program that works to give kids an alternative to gangs, and interviewed him in an effort to gain insight into the connection between kids and guns in Sacramento. The Bee is using only his first name because of his age.

Nick said guns are commonplace in his south Sacramento neighborhood. His friends, he said, are not afraid to boast about where or how they got their "heat."

"They go out of state and get it, and go out of Sacramento," he said. "They talk about it. It's normal."

For a time, Nick said, he slept with a .45-caliber handgun close to his chest. After joining the gang, the gun -- passed to him by a friend -- became necessary for protection, he said, and for that feeling of invincibility he craved around his neighborhood.

"You can't help where you come from; it's going to basically be around you," he said. "I know kids everyday who bring guns to school."

More than a year has passed since Nick was caught in English class with a gun tucked in his waistband. At the time of the interview, he was on probation for the offense and insisted he was trying to change his ways.

Flow of guns from Nevada

Across state lines, indications of guns moving from Nevada into California seems to be literally mounting behind the caged doors of an evidence locker in Reno. The shelves overflow with semiautomatic pistols, assault rifles, shotguns, all purchased or confiscated in Nevada. Each is methodically tagged, like bodies in a morgue, in a room that is part mausoleum for the crimes that occurred and for the ones that were stopped.

"A good number of these were headed to California," said Thomas J. Cannon, resident agent in charge of the ATF field office in Reno.

Cannon, referring to the Tiahrt amendment, said he could not elaborate on exactly how many of these confiscated guns were California-bound, or if the numbers have gone up or down over the years. Instead, he grabs a modified AK-47 semiautomatic assault weapon. This one, he says, was taken off a West Sacramento gang member leaving a gun show in Reno.

"We just happen to have this close proximity, geographically, that just raises the opportunity" to break the law, Cannon said.

Federal law requires gun purchases to be made in the state the customer calls home. In other words, it is illegal for a California resident to buy a gun outside of the state.

But the variations among state laws regulating gun sales, especially at gun shows, have fostered illegal trafficking, according to officials with the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, a Washington D.C.-based watchdog group that has evaluated gun laws in every state for a decade.

"Common sense will tell you that if you want to traffic guns in California ... you've got to jump through all these hoops -- and these are fair hoops," said Brady's state legislative director, Brian Malte.

Those "hoops" include California's requirement that handgun purchasers get a safety certificate, are thumb-printed and pass what Malte calls one of the most stringent background checks in the nation.

Or, "you can go to a gun show in Nevada, buy any kind of gun you want -- cash and carry," Malte said. "It's so easy."

Among the differences in state laws:

California allows only one handgun purchase every 30 days per person and a 10-day waiting period before the deal is final. Nevada and Arizona have no such waiting periods and no limits on how many guns can be bought at a time.

California restricts the sale of assault weapons, such as AK-47s and Intratec Tec-9s, and the sale of rapid-fire ammunition magazines that can shoot more than 10 rounds. There are no similar restrictions in Nevada and Arizona.

California requires federal background checks on purchases made through gun dealers and at gun shows; gun show sales also must be made through federally licensed firearms dealers.

There are no background checks required at gun shows in Nevada and Arizona if the purchases are through "private" parties, via unlicensed individuals; there is also no requirement to keep records on these types of private party sales, which are outlawed in California.

Federal authorities recently arrested a suspected illegal arms dealer from Stockton who they say admitted he preferred doing business at Nevada gun shows because of the lack of record keeping.

Ricardo "Ricky" Madrigal, 26, was arrested on his way home from the "Big Reno" gun show in April and faces eight felony counts of illegal arms dealing and interstate travel. He declined to speak to The Bee.

The gun show was one of a handful of elaborately staged events at the Grand Sierra Resort hotel in Reno that April weekend. Thousands of guns were tagged for sale across the 1 1/2-acre showroom floor. Men in cowboy boots could be seen strutting out of the Summit Pavilion hall with rifles slung over their backs. Inside, crowds of gun enthusiasts, families and young men circled around tables covered with revolvers, pistols and assault rifles. One young man with a blue bandana wrapped around his head made his way to the back of the room, toward a propped-up M-14 assault weapon.

Among the hundreds of attendees, Madrigal also perused the aisles, unwittingly in the company of an undercover ATF agent.

At the end of the weekend, outside a hotel in Truckee, agents swarmed Madrigal's truck, where they found rapid-fire ammunition and nine guns, including semiautomatic pistols and an assault weapon, all freshly purchased from the "Big Reno" show, according to federal court documents.

Madrigal, agents say, also had tried to bring home a military-grade submachine gun, the kind of weapon used by the U.S. Secret Service and police SWAT teams -- banned to the public in California but not Nevada.

He had tried for weeks to get his hands on this piece, according to the court documents, offering thousands of dollars, a diamond, even grenades to sweeten the deal.

He later would tell investigators that he preferred buying guns in Reno he could resell in California, "because they could not be traced back to him if encountered by law enforcement," according to the federal complaint.

Nevada officials said they are not aware of illegal trafficking at their gun shows and have come to believe Californians are the ones exporting guns and violence into their state.

"People who buy guns at those gun shows that I've known about haven't been the criminal element kind of people," said Nevada state Sen. John Lee, D-Las Vegas, who recently earned high marks from the National Rifle Association for scaling back handgun registration in Clark County. "If they are coming to our gun shows for that purpose, then that's something I would have to look at.

"At this point in time," the Nevada senator said, "I haven't heard that outcry from California yet."

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