Crime

KC 'gun squad' works to cut down firearm thefts, illegal sales

Thefts add to the flow of illegal firearms that serve as both black market commodities and the tools of criminals’ trades. A Kansas City squad is trying to slow the traffic.
Thefts add to the flow of illegal firearms that serve as both black market commodities and the tools of criminals’ trades. A Kansas City squad is trying to slow the traffic. The Kansas City Star

Paul Hamilton’s week was supposed to be coming to an end when the fatal shooting began.

Bullets flew inside the She’s A Pistol gun store at 57th Terrace and Nieman Road. By the time Hamilton, a police sergeant and co-leader of Kansas City’s “gun squad,” arrived shortly after 2 p.m. on Jan. 9, three of four suspected robbers lay wounded. The store’s co-owner, Jon Bieker, 44, of Gardner, would later die of his injuries.

The weekend had just begun.

Last Sunday, the squad — a special unit of Kansas City police and federal agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives — would be called to the killing of Alexis Kane, 14, whose body was found near The Bay Water Park at 7101 Longview Road.

“Shell casings were found,” Hamilton said.

Monday night, the squad would be standing at 63rd Street and the Paseo assisting homicide cops with another murder.

“Two people shot,” Hamilton said. “One guy died from his injuries.”

Although the crimes were unrelated, to Hamilton and squad co-leader Eric Immesberger the common link was as sharp as a muzzle blast: guns illegally used and, almost invariably, illegally gotten.

“The gun is the tool,” said Immesberger, an ATF agent. “If you’re an armed robbery crew, your tool is a firearm. If you’re a drug trafficking organization, firearms are welded to the hip. So how did they come to get those guns? That’s huge. We want to destroy that.”

Guns are stolen from homes and stolen from cars. They’re bought on the black market from felons or corrupt collectors who ask no questions. They’re obtained using “straw buyers” who legally buy firearms and then illegally sell them to others. They are traded for drugs. They are stolen, through burglaries and robberies, from pawnshops and gun retailers.

“I would say pretty much every day someone is stealing a gun,” Hamilton said.

Official numbers bear that out.

In Kansas City over the last three years, police have taken 1,107 stolen gun reports — an average of one a day. And while the number has been declining — from 436 in 2012 to 350 the next year and 321 in 2014 — it doesn’t include all thefts.

Exactly how many firearms are lost or stolen each year in the United States is impossible to know, as the vast majority of personal firearms are not registered and losses and thefts often go unreported.

The ATF in 2013 tried to find out how many guns are lost or stolen each year and conceded in a report “the problem is difficult to quantify.”

“Reporting by law enforcement is voluntary, not mandatory, and thus the statistics in this report likely reveal only a fraction of the problem,” the report states. “Additionally, even where states and local law enforcement are consistently reporting statistics, many states do not require private citizens to report the loss or theft of a firearm to local law enforcement in the first place.”

The number the ATF came up with for that single year: 190,000 guns lost or stolen, or less than one-tenth of 1 percent of all firearms.

But as Immesberger said: “It only takes one gun to kill you.”

Who lost the guns? Ninety percent were taken from or lost by individuals and 9 percent from some of the nation’s 139,000 federal firearm licensees — including gun stores, pawnshops and collectors who are licensed to buy and sell.

Advocates for tighter gun sale regulations argue that when it comes to criminals with guns, one of the biggest problems is not actual theft. Instead, it is a small percentage of corrupt gun shop owners who sell guns to straw buyers, people able to pass a background check, knowing that the weapon will be given to an individual, possibly a felon, who could not pass a background check.

“There is a percentage, 5 percent, of what we call ‘bad apple’ gun dealers who are providing 90 percent of crime guns,” said Sean Kirkendall, an expert on law and public safety at the Washington-based Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

Also problematic, experts say, is the legal sale of handguns, rifles and shotguns to individuals who may be criminals by private owners at gun shows or even from their own homes in what is known as “secondary market,” outside federally licensed sellers.

At the end of 2014, 18 states — neither Missouri nor Kansas among them — required background checks to be conducted by at least some unlicensed sellers. Seven of the states require background checks on all gun sales.

“We think the single best thing you can do right now is require the expanded background checks for private sales,” Kirkendall said. “Right now, if I’m not a licensed dealer and I sell a lot of guns from my private collection, there is no requirement for me to know whether the individual I sell to is a criminal or not.”

Although the daylight attempted robbery of She’s a Pistol may have seemed both brazen and foolhardy, Immesberger said it was hardly out of keeping for criminals who see pistols, rifles and shotguns as either black market commodities or the tools of their trade. Even as the rate of violent crimes has plunged, the underground market for stolen guns remains a problem.

In October, police reported that 10 firearms and as many as 25,000 rounds of ammunition were stolen from a home in Kansas City, Kan. And the ATF still is offering a $5,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of those who last year broke into the Bass Pro Shop in Independence and stole an undisclosed number of guns.

Where the guns are

Those who deal in guns have stories of their own.

Robin Tummons’ Mission Pawn — 22 years at the same location, 5960 Lamar Ave. — has rarely had guns stolen. But twice, criminals sought ways into her shop.

Once, a thief in a group of six snatched and grabbed a handgun. Four good Samaritans called 911. Police caught all six in the group, but not before the prime suspect tossed the gun.

“We found it two years later,” Tummons said. “They ditched it behind an insurance building.”

The prime thief, a felon, was sentenced to 26 years in prison, she said.

The second incident was violent. The store was closed after hours. Thieves stole a truck from a nearby dealership.

“They rammed the truck through the front door,” Tummons said, but the shop has bars and a protective gate. “They rammed and rammed and got far enough for a skinny guy to slip in. He grabbed a handful of long guns. They were in and out in less than a minute and a half.”

Afterward, the store installed reinforced concrete pillars in front of the shop that extend three feet into the ground.

“You learn from all of these things,” Tummons said.

Some people, she said, hold the misconception that felons can just walk into a pawnshop and buy a gun.

But pawnshops, like gun retailers, are required by the 1993 Brady Law to conduct FBI background checks on any individual wishing to buy a firearm.

“You can’t buy a gun if you have a record,” Tummons said.

More than 180 million checks, which generally take only minutes, have been conducted since 1998 and have been credited with shutting down corrupt gun dealers and keeping guns out of felons’ hands. As of 2013, the system had denied more than 1 million applications.

In Liberty, Kathy Peisert has owned the Great Guns gun shop, 1780 N. Church Road, for 35 years.

“I’ve had three break-ins,” she said.

The most recent was a middle-of-the-night “smash, grab and run” last February. Twelve handguns were stolen. Peisert said police and the ATF tried to recover them by buying illegal guns off the street.

The criminals “just sell them,” Peisert said. “They got them in the trunk of the car, just like drugs. They will walk up and say, ‘I got this gun for sale.’”

Immesberger of the ATF said the street cost of a gun can run from next to nothing to hundreds of dollars above retail price. Location makes a difference.

Few retail gun shops exist in New York City, so illegal guns bought for cheap in neighboring states can be trafficked to felons in New York at a premium, he said.

“You can buy certain low-grade pistols for, say, $100 each,” said Immesberger, who formerly was stationed in New York. “You could buy 10 and drive them to Brooklyn and sell them for $700 each. You take a grand and you make seven grand.” Then, he said, “you go buy 50 more guns. I’ve literally run across people who were making a living from it.”

In Kansas City, he said, “the street prices of guns are nowhere near what they are on the East Coast.”

No matter the price, he said, money is money.

“In the stolen gun market, it’s a 100 percent profit.”

In the end, Peisert said, police recovered three of her stolen guns from a thief arrested on an unrelated crime.

“The guy had stolen a truck. They followed him. He ran into his house, which gave them the right to have a warrant,” she said.

There were the guns, clearly identifiable by their serial numbers.

On the gun squad

Kansas City’s gun squad, which was created six years ago, has its stories too.

Known in official parlance as the Illegal Firearms Squad, its four ATF agents, four Kansas City police detectives and two supervisors aren’t typically deployed on run-of-the-mill crimes. With the Kansas City officers deputized by the federal marshal, work frequently takes them across the metro area and beyond.

“We’re responsible for targeting the worst of the worst, the most violent segments in Kansas City,” Immesberger said. “Not just individuals, but criminal organizations.”

Most of their arrests are not the splashy stuff of Hollywood movies, with discoveries of vast caches of weapons. More often, the unit’s investigations involve covert and in-depth police investigations, using informants and undercover investigation while working with the homicide unit, the gang unit, the narcotics unit, the career criminal unit or the assault squad to tie violent crimes and guns to the gang members, drug traffickers or murderers who use them.

“The spectacular case where there are guns everywhere? That is the rarity,” Immesberger said. “And machine guns? It is a rarity to run into machine guns.”

But the gun squad has its moments, like being deeply involved in the investigation last year that helped lead to the arrest of Mohammed Whitaker, the alleged “highway shooter,” who authorities say was responsible for terrifying drivers in south Kansas City.

Then there was the case of John Craig, who in May 2010 called police on the night he was assaulted and robbed, his head grazed by a bullet, in his home on West 78th Terrace in Waldo.

When police arrived, not only did they find an injured Craig but also drugs and guns: 56 rifles, handguns and shotguns. Craig hadn’t wanted police to enter the house, but they had prevailed with a warrant.

“There were just guns in every room, everywhere,” Hamilton said.

Later, a search of a relative’s house in Overland Park would turn up an additional 50 or so weapons, including a .50-caliber pistol and a .50-caliber sniper rifle. Pretty much every weapon had been stolen and given to Craig in exchange for drugs, police alleged.

“The case turned into this really big criminal conspiracy investigation,” Hamilton said. “It led to other drug organizations and other felons.”

At least a half dozen people went to prison. Craig served time in the Jackson County jail. After his release, he was convicted in another case involving guns and drugs and now is in a federal prison in Texas.

The gun squad opened 100 investigations last year, and 2015 is hardly letting up.

“The phone is going off 24 hours a day with us,” Immesberger said.

To reach Eric Adler, call 816-234-4431 or send email to eadler@kcstar.com.

The numbers

1,107 guns were reported stolen in Kansas City in the past three years — but most thefts go unreported.

90 percent of guns that disappear are taken from or lost by individuals. Profit margin on a stolen gun: 100 percent.

300 million: Estimated number of guns in the United States. U.S. population: 320 million.

Counting guns and owners

How many firearms are in civilian hands?

No one know for sure. Most rough estimates tend to put the number around 300 million, just short of the population of the United States. Manufacturers make millions more each year.

But guns are hardly in all hands.

A 2012 General Social Survey and a 2013 survey by the Pew Research Center suggest that fewer homes now possess guns than in the past. About 34 percent of homeowners had at least one gun in the house or garage in 2012, the GSS report said, down from 49 percent in 1973. Pew found 33 percent of homes had guns in 2012.

A Gallup Poll, meanwhile, said that while gun ownership has gone up and down over the past four decades, 43 percent of households had guns in 1972 — the same percentage as in 2012.

The Pew survey also provided a demographic breakdown showing that among gun owners, 82 percent were white, 74 percent were men and 61 percent were white men, who make up 32 percent of the population.

| Eric Adler, eadler@kcstar.com

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