Oct 6, 2009

Six Degrees of Separation, Guns & Gangs

By: Christopher Watler
Upper Manhattan Reentry Task Force Coordinator

I am blogging this week from the National Community Prosecution Conference in Los Angeles sponsored by the National District Attorney's Association and the Center for Court Innovation.

I just left a riveting presentation by Mark Kraft, Deputy Director of the National Gang Targeting Enforcement and Coordination Center (TECC). Mark began by making the point that most criminals are drawn together by the commodities they have in common--i.e. drugs and guns. Law enforcement can use the tight network of criminal relationships to improve their investigations. I was surprised to learn that often, guns confiscated by law enforcement are not traced. It was also interesting to learn that 87% of gangs are local groups, not the major nationally-known gangs.

Mark challenged the audience of community prosecutors to "do more with other people's resources." For example, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms does gun traces that are a free service for local law enforcement and can yield information not just on the original purchaser, but also on prior crimes involving the gun.

Unlike illegal drugs, the bulk of the gun market is legal. Guns are legally manufactured and distributed in the United States. Gang members use this fact to their advantage to engage in trafficking. For example, a large number of illegal gun buys occur with "straw buyers" -- individuals with clean records who are paid to buy a gun for a gang member. These straw buyers receive compensation that can range from $100 to a six pack and a tank of gas. The illegal buyers traveling to "source areas" (states where gun purchases are less restrictive) from the "market areas" (usually urban, high-crime areas with tougher gun laws) can get a group of straw buyers to make individual purchases on one trip. In one case highlighted, straw buyers were a group of single moms from one housing development that received diapers in exchange for purchasing the guns for the traffickers.

Mark offered a few strategies for law enforcement:

1. Trace all guns. Guns can be great "informants."
2. Train cops to debrief every gang members caught with a gun and document these interviews. Information from these interviews may help support probable cause opportunities later on.
3. Document admissions about gang involvement.
4. Take pictures of tattoos.
5. Work to make straw buying as taboo as other major crimes. Illegal guns are used in rapes and murders, but most straw buyers would never engage in these behaviors.
5. Collect ballistics evidence and store it properly for later comparison with guns retrieved from other crimes.