COURTHOUSE — In late July, at night, in Sandbridge, a Virginia Beach police officer approached a car parked on Molly Cooper Road. Two folks who live near Lake James sat inside the vehicle. The woman in the passenger seat told the officer there was a handgun in the car. She gave it to the officer, who checked it.
Then the passenger said there was another gun. The officer checked that one, too. So then the passenger mentioned a knife.
At this point, the officer got the people out of the car to have a look around for safety’s sake. There were several more knives. And black straws with powder inside them. Plus suspected marijuana and a grinder in the glove compartment. The driver said the substance in the straws was heroin.
There’s a sliver of good news here. Not everyone carrying drugs volunteers information about their guns when they run into police.
City police encounter guns in the course of their work. It happens routinely, if that is the right word for encountering guns. This isn’t a story about shootouts, though they happen. A year ago, two people – Angelo Perry and India Kager – were shot and killed during an exchange of gunfire with police after Perry shot at officers.
Perry and Kager’s baby was in the back seat of their car. The child was not harmed. Perry had two handguns. One had been stolen during a robbery in Virginia Beach, according to police. The gun was also linked to two homicides and other violent crimes.
But guns are also an issue during traffic stops, domestic calls, burglaries, recoveries of stolen goods. Not all of the guns police encounter are “crime” guns because legal guns, of course, are perfectly legal.
This is only to say that guns, regardless of the character of who has them, are ever-present when you are the police.
Virginia Beach is first in Hampton Roads and second only to Richmond in the commonwealth when it comes to the total number of guns connected to investigations that local police refer to federal officials to be traced.
This is not necessarily an indicator of danger to the general public because traces happen for a variety of reasons. A better point is this:
Ours is a culture that values the right to bear arms, which means the people who police communities within that culture encounter people doing that sort of thing.
There may be simple ways responsible gun owners can help police see fewer guns in connection to crimes without curtailing their rights to protect their one lives and property.
For one thing, they can secure weapons responsibly, which does not involve stowing them in an unattended car.
They can maintain personal records of what they own, especially serial numbers and digital photographs.
And, in the wake of a theft or loss, they can simply let police know when a gun is lost or stolen.
Police working with the First Precinct, which includes the main area The Independent News covers, repeatedly have spoken about ongoing issues with people leaving weapons in cars, some of them unlocked.
Thefts of and from motor vehicles have been on the rise, and many vehicles were unlocked, had keys in them or contained weapons — or some combination of all of the above.
In late June, officials during a town hall meeting in Blackwater introduced a public awareness campaign, “Beep It to Keep It,” to encourage people to lock vehicles and remove valuables, including guns.
Police Chief Jim Cervera in a July briefing to the city council said motor vehicle thefts and larcenies from cars are an issue throughout the city.
People leaving guns in vehicles is not a new problem.
Capt. David Squires, commanding officer of the First Precinct, has discussed incidents during meetings of the precinct’s citizens advisory committee. This summer, while the committee did not meet, crime reports submitted to members showed the issue remains.
In late July and early last month, cars in the Magic Hollow area were targeted by thieves. In one case, thieves made off with a handgun that had been left in a car, according to a police report forwarded to the committee.
When thieves targeted vehicles in Sandbridge in July, a handgun was stolen from a locked glove compartment on Sandfiddler Road.
Master Police Officer Brad Detrich, a liaison to the committee from the city’s crime prevention unit, accompanied one report by stressing the need to secure guns safely.
“They may very well be used against the police since they are now assets in the criminal world,” he wrote on Tuesday, July 26, in an email. “As of last Thursday, in Virginia Beach, there are at least two more out there.”
Detrich recommended that lock their cars and stop leaving guns in them. “Let us work together keeping everyone safe,” he added.
One of the incidents described in the email after Detrich’s comments involved another vehicle in Sandbridge. Somebody made off with a carton of Marlboros, $60 in cash and a handgun.
The car was unlocked.
And a shotgun was reported stolen from a home along Indian River Road in Pungo, where it was kept unlocked in a rack above a guest room bed. The alleged theft happened sometime between April and July. The owner reported it after hearing about other larcenies.
There is some good news here because these gun owners reported their missing weapons to police.
Others do not.
STOLEN FROM CARS
Police want to know if a weapon is lost or stolen.
“As far as having weapons stolen and reported, that’s vital,” said city Master Police Officer Brian Luciano, president of the Virginia Beach Police Benevolent Association Local 34. “Obviously, if you have someone in possession of a stolen weapon, that’d be an indicator that something bad was about to happen with that weapon.”
Virginia Beach police “are interacting with a lot of armed individuals,” Cervera said during the meeting with the city council in July. He added that officers had confiscated 373 guns in 2016, as of that time.
Det. T. Bleh said 250 firearms have been reported stolen this year in Virginia Beach. Bleh, assigned to the robbery squad, serves as the police department liaison to the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms, Tobacco & Explosives, an agency that commonly is called ATF.
Roughly four out of five stolen have been handguns, he said, and about 100 of the stolen weapons were taken out of cars.
“Larcenies from a car would be the number one source of stolen handguns,” Bleh said.
“The criminals are targeting cars,” he added. “They know people leave guns in cars.”
“My concern as a law enforcement officer – lock up weapons, and don’t leave them in cars,” he said. “Let’s help each other.”
In 2015, city police recovered 574 guns, second only to Richmond, which recovered 1,107, according to an ATF report analyzing trace data.
Bleh said the city has recovered 480 so far this year.
Traces are meant to help police track the sale and possession of guns for investigative purposes. ATF, in its reports, offers this big caveat in a disclaimer: “Not all firearms used in crime are traced and not all firearms traced are used in crime.”
But the numbers give a starting point for discussion.
The city, which is Virginia’s largest, has been near the top of recovering and tracing weapons in the commonwealth for years. Crimes or issues associated with weapons that are traced could include weapon offenses, possession of a weapon by a convicted felon, firearms that are found or guns used in either homicides or suicides.
That 2015 data shows that 7,823 guns were recovered by police in Virginia this past year. Roughly three quarters were either handguns or pistols.
“Any firearm in the hands of the wrong person is a dangerous firearm,” Luciano said. “I think the reason you see that a handgun is the one you come across is it can be cheap and it’s concealable.”
Weapons that police encounter are not necessarily “crime” guns. Some were lost and then found.
“One of the things is, especially at the Oceanfront, we get a lot of weapons recovered,” said Luciano, who is assigned to the Second Precinct. “We have people leave their weapons behind at a hotel.”
Luciano echoed recommendations to secure weapons safely and not in a car. “Leaving it in a glove box or under the seat isn’t fooling anybody,” he said.
Luciano said he had a personal weapon stolen from his home 20 years ago.
“Every day, when I think about it, I wonder who the hell has it,” he said.
City police have not forgotten that theft.
“Every six months or year, I get a call from our guys that have to update cases, and they ask, ‘Is it still missing? Has it turned up?’”
It hasn’t turned up, but it could.
“The simple fact that I reported it stolen could help solve a crime,” he said.
The Independent News began reviewing available data about lost and stolen guns following a confluence of events this summer – attention paid to mass shootings elsewhere, a series of thefts of weapons here – including from vehicles – and concerns about officer safety across the nation.
Due to mass shootings, there has been attention given to “assault-style” weapons, a term applied to some styles of semiautomatic rifles, but this is not a representative picture of the weapons law enforcement officers or the public generally face.
The vast majority of firearms involved in crimes, statistics show, are handguns, legal or not. “Handguns accounted for the majority of both homicide and nonfatal firearm violence,” a report found, adding that nearly three out of four firearm homicides reported in 2011 were committed using a handgun.
Virginia Beach is a significant department, but it is but one of 12,000 local departments in the country, and the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics does not include sheriff’s offices in its count of law enforcement departments.
According to a bureau report released in 2013, 478,400 violent crimes were committed with a firearm across the U.S. in 2011. Roughly four out of 10 weapons used in violent crimes in 2004 were illegally obtained, the report found. Again, statistics show most of the weapons are handguns.
In the U.S., federally licensed firearms dealers must report lost or stolen weapons. Virginia requires no reporting for other citizens, though there has been support for it here in the past.
“Stolen firearms are used by violent offenders in the commission of crimes, and pose a substantial threat to the public and law enforcement,” ATF wrote in a statement accompanying the 2015 numbers.
In 2015, 14,800 guns were reported lost or stolen nationwide among dealers, according to the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms and Tobacco.
Virginia’s number from this limited data was relatively small – 294 weapons lost or stolen – but it is not reflective of the number of firearms that go missing or are stolen each year in the commonwealth.
A few years ago, ATF attempted to tally lost or stolen weapons across the nation, estimating about 190,342 in 2012. More than nine out of 10 of those weapons were lost by or stolen from citizens, not dealers.
In Virginia, 4,062 weapons were reported lost or stolen. Most were stolen. Only 272 or 6.6 percent were from licensed dealers.
The ATF report noted that “many states do not require private citizens to report the loss or theft of a firearm to local law enforcement in the first place. As such, many lost and stolen firearms go entirely unreported.”
No such requirement exists in Virginia.
“Any time you have anything lost or stolen, you don’t have to report it,” said Corinne Geller, a state police spokesperson in Richmond reached by phone last month.
“Firearms are an expensive and valuable item,” she added. “The majority of people report them.”
THEY MOVE QUICK
It isn’t just city police encountering weapons in Virginia Beach and Hampton Road communities.
“We encounter weapons every single day,” said state police Sgt. Michelle Anaya, based at Ft. Monroe.
In some cases, people don’t track weapons, either when selling or buying privately. When weapons are left in an unlocked vehicle?
“That’s irresponsibility,” she said.
It can potentially complicate criminal investigations when people do not report a theft of a weapon.
“That gun is registered to somebody and he leaves his car unlocked and somebody murders somebody, it comes back to that individual,” Anaya said.
She said traffic offences often involve weapons, whether they legitimately or illegally are in the possession of a driver or passenger.
“That’s how we find a lot of stolen weapons,” she said.
Police said responsible gun owners can help keep their neighbors and police safe by securing weapons safely and, should a gun be stolen, simply letting police know.
“They’re not thinking ahead,” Anaya said. “They’re not thinking of the repercussions that having their gun stolen can have. … They may be scared to let the police know because they fear repercussions. It’s just lack of knowledge. Knowledge is power.”
Police have knowledge when they know a gun is gone.
“To me, it’s common sense,” she said.
Bleh, the detective, recommends keeping the bill of sale and recording serial numbers, but doing so in a different location from there the gun is stored, such as a gun safe.
Digital photographs of the weapon also can help.
Serial numbers can be instrumental in recovering weapons – especially when an officer in the field or during an investigation checks a weapon.
When a gun is sold, a detailed bill of sale might help the seller should the gun be stolen from the next owner.
Detrich, the crime prevention officer, recommended a digital platform called Report It, which helps people keep a digital inventory of property online, which they can share with police if items are stolen.
Bleh, among others, noted that people with gun rights stickers on their cars might be signaling a gun is on board.
“We’re not anti-gun,” Bleh said. “We want people to be safe.”
He said records, when available, help police because guns can change hands a number of times after they are stolen.
“They move, and they move quick.”
Two years ago, a majority of the Virginia Beach city council voted to urge the Virginia General Assembly to require that gun owners report a lost or stolen firearm within two days of learning that their weapon is gone.
If not, they would face a civil penalty.
At the request of City Councilmember Jim Wood, who represents the Lynnhaven District, a staff-written draft that would have made the penalty a misdemeanor was changed to include a civil penalty.
Yet some advocates of gun rights attacked the idea as an assault on responsible gun owners. And, ultimately, the General Assembly did not go for it.
Complaints included punishing the victims of crimes or suspicion of the government collecting data on gun owners, according to media coverage at the time.
The National Rifle Association, in a statement, called it an “egregious recommendation” that would criminalize “victims of crime.”
Wood, who represent the Lynnhaven District, is a former police officer who is a gun owner.
“The reasoning was police would recover a gun on a crime scene,” he said during a recent interview. “They’d run the serial number, and it would come up as X.”
When police reached out to X, they might say it was sold or, as Wood put it, “‘Oh, I lost it or it was stolen from my truck.’
“That’s the problem, Wood said. “They didn’t know where it came from.”
Critics “could not get past the idea that this was somehow limiting somebody’s right to bear arms.”
A key element of the proposal was that the report had to come after a theft or loss was “discovered.”
“I’m a big Second Amendment guy,” Wood said. “I’m a gun guy. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to keep track of your own guns. This is not a registration scheme. This is ‘we don’t know what you have; we don’t care what you have; but, if it gets stolen, let us know.’ …
“It’s reasonable to say that, if a gun is stolen, it’s not going anywhere for a good purpose. Law abiding citizens are not buying stolen guns. It’s important for the average citizen to understand what police face.”
Wood won’t propose it again this year.
“There’s no chance of it passing,” he said.
© 2016 Pungo Publishing Co., LLC