HAMPTON ROADS, Va. - 2020 was consumed by the COVID-19 pandemic, but it hasn't stopped local police departments from keeping tabs on an important issue, guns in our communities.
“Guns are a problem, pretty much in any urban environment,” Hampton Police Chief Terry Sult said.
A News 3 investigation is digging deeper into guns recovered throughout Hampton Roads.
“We know that illegal guns create significant harm to a community,” Chesapeake Police Chief Kelvin Wright told News 3.
This includes firearms lost, stolen, found in the hands of convicted felons and even used in crimes.
“We know that we, on average, collect a gun a day,” Wright said. “We recover a gun as either a part of a crime, or it has been turned over to us through lawful means,” Wright added.
News 3 sat down with police chiefs throughout the seven cities to speak about the issue.
News 3 requested the following data from Chesapeake Police:
- Firearms recovered: 349
- Stolen firearms recovered: 285
- Of the total number recovered from convicted felons: 73
- Firearms recovered: 282
- Stolen firearms recovered: 267
- Of the total number recovered from convicted felons: 64
- Firearms recovered: 303
- Stolen firearms recovered: 282
- Of the total number recovered from convicted felons: 66
Wright told News 3 there’s a rise in vigilance among officers when looking for illegal guns. “When they perform traffic stops, the key is to make sure that you're looking into a car, that you just don't just focus on the driver, but also look to see, if in fact, you see a gun that's laying on the seat, or laying under the seat,” he said. “That helps us to determine if in fact guns are being trafficked illegally.”
Officers are also preaching safe ownership. Wright added an issue with guns in his city stems from some firearms being stolen from cars.
“They leave their cars unlocked and someone who's of a particular mind knowing that someone is going to be away from a car for a time, they rummage through the cars and they hit the jackpot,” Wright said.
Hampton Police Division Chief Terry Sult has also been tracking firearms up in the Peninsula.
“We have people do what I like to call ‘car-hopping,’ [where] they go into a neighborhood and they just try every car door until they find one that's open and they rifle through it, and they're looking for quick cash, or they're looking for guns,” Sult told News 3. “We have cases of ‘community guns,’ where you go into a neighborhood, and there's a stash location for guns. Maybe a hole or under a stump, and all the people in the neighborhood know where it is, and they need a gun, they go get it.
News 3 got similar data from Hampton Police for 2017-2019:
- Firearms traced: 376 (*not all traced guns were used in crime*) of the traced, 206 were reported as stolen (*some of this data reflects items that are not firearms, but are firearm accessories, such as bullets, casings, and weapon magazines*)
- Firearms recovered: 109
- Of the total number recovered from convicted felons: 88
- Firearms traced: 265 (*not all traced guns were used in crime*) of the traced, 202 were reported as stolen (*some of this data reflects items that are not firearms, but are firearm accessories, such as bullets, casings, and weapon magazines*)
- Firearms recovered: 107
- Of the total number recovered from convicted felons: 96
- Firearms traced: 406 (*not all traced guns were used in crime*) of the traced, 264 were reported as stolen (*some of this data reflects items that are not firearms, but are firearm accessories, such as bullets, casings, and weapon magazines*)
- Firearms recovered: 120
- Of the total number recovered from convicted felons: 138
The department, like others in Hampton Roads, use the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives (ATF) eTrace system when tracking firearms.
“The gun tells the story. It's kind of like in a lot of cases, you follow the cash. Here we try to follow the gun,” Sult said. “One of the things that we're looking for in that is time to crime. Is it a short period of time from when the gun was purchased to when it was used in an incident? Or was it an extended period of time? Years? Because that can make a difference.”
He said they partnered with other local police to use what's called the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network (NIBIN) system.
“Every location where we have shots fired and we see shell casings, or if we seize a firearm, we test those and enter those into the NIBIN system,” Sult told News 3. “With this partnership, we can turn that around in 24 to 72 hours max. That is a very key element, because what we're trying to put together is a pattern of life in that firearm.”
One example from HPD is a shooting in September 2019 involving three juveniles at an apartment complex.
According to officers, during a search of the unite the three went to, a 9mm handgun was found concealed under a couch.
The firearm was later identified through NIBIN as being fired at the time of the shooting.
One of the victims, a 14-year-old boy, admitted to the firearm previously while being treated at a hospital. The boy was charged with possession of a firearm by a juvenile.
HPD officers told News 3 the firearm in question was believed to have been stolen from a vehicle in the city in May 2016. “We have to work together,” Sult said. “Community is the latchkey. Community is the one that pulls this whole thing together.”
Overall, Sult said collaboration with local and federal agencies is key, as well as intervention and providing opportunities to steer young people away from crime.
“There are no winners in a shooting,” Sult said. “I don't care what side of the event you're on, whether it's the suspect's family, or whether it's a victim's family. Everyone is devastated. The community becomes devastated.”
But Chesapeake PD and Hampton PD aren't the only ones tracking firearms in Hampton Roads.
“I think the way to address gun violence is first you have to bring awareness,” Norfolk Police Chief Larry Boone told News 3.
Boone has spent years researching with his department, working to get answers on guns.
“I have no problem with folks exercising their right to bear arms,” Boone said. “My challenge is how do we keep those arms from getting in the hands of people that should not have them?”
Since 2017, NPD has tracked the history of forfeited guns, either that have been found or used in the commission of a crime.
“Historically, in the Norfolk Police Department, if there was a crime, let's say a robbery, we made the arrest of the suspect, we recovered the weapon, we would historically just place the weapon in a bays, put it on a voucher, never to look at it,” Boone said. “We had no background on the gun itself. I didn't think that was very strategic.”
“We wanted to create a picture so we can take the guesswork out,” Boone added. “It's given us an idea of what's going on as it relates to gun violence. As it relates to who's buying guns. As it relates to where the guns ultimately end up.”
According to data News 3 collected from Norfolk Police for 2019, 791 firearms were recovered or traced. Of that, 73 were reported stolen.
Of the 73 stolen firearms, 69 were stolen within Virginia. 64 of which where reported stolen in the Hampton Roads area.
Of all those recovered, pistols were the most traced firearm at 678 for the year.
NPD’s research goes further, looking at age, race and sex. Of 496 identified possessors, 397 were 21 or older. The age group with the largest number of guns at the time of recovery was 31-40 years old.
The top three race/sexes for possessors were 84.5% among black males, 9.3% for white males and 4.2% for black females.
“What stood out the most was the cluster of guns that were located in our ‘challenging communities," Boone told News 3.
Norfolk Police’s research also looks at guns traced to incidents and felons. For example, of 496 firearms recovered from individuals in 2019, 52 of them were involved in shooting-related incidents. Of those 52, 23 were recovered from felons.
“Guns are going to fall in three categories,” Boone said. “The gun was lost, the gun was stolen, or straw purchase.”
We asked Boone about "straw purchasing.” He told News 3 his department has made multiple arrests surrounding the trend.
“Guns that are in the possession of those that shouldn't have them,” he said. “Let's say ‘Joe Smith’ is a convicted felon. He's not able to purchase a gun legally. He'll go get a cousin or a relative that's never been convicted of a felony, that's in good standing in society and that person will purchase the gun for him.”
Boone said they’re monitoring social media to track straw purchasing, and charging individuals known to be a part of this trend.
He also touched on recent legislation signed into law in 2020. The new laws include required reporting of lost or stolen guns to law enforcement.
“With the legislation in place, we hope that one it will change behavior,” Boone said. “If it changes behavior, it will hopefully reduce folks from getting guns that shouldn't have them in the first place.”
His department has also been vocal on social media, posting statistics related to this information.
“I think when you paint a picture that's undeniable from the start to the end of the gun recovery, and you're able to see where the gun was purchased, where it was ultimately recovered, and who was in possession of it, there's a problem,” Boone said. “The problem requires the entire community to address.”
He hopes this type of research will be picked up by other departments around the Commonwealth.
“I think if we have data that supports there's an issue with responsible gun ownership, data that supports that gun violence may impact a certain group more adversely than anyone else, I think that data speaks for itself,” Boone said. “When we collectively, as a whole throughout the state, have some of the same data that says some of the same things, everybody can't be wrong.”
News 3 asked Chesapeake Police Chief Kelvin Wright if his department would possibly consider taking on a similar project or collaborating with Norfolk Police about this.
“Absolutely,” Wright answered. “We were simply amazed by the level of detail and of course the information that came from that, and we were wondering if there were similar conditions with us as well.”
Boone told News 3 the ideal goal is that hopefully violent crime will be reduced.
“I think the more attention that we can bring to this, with some opportunities for young folks, we'll be better tomorrow than we are today,” Boone said.
News 3 has reached out to other police departments across Hampton Roads requesting similar data and will keep you posted if the information is received.