Skip to ArticleSkip to Radioplayer
Dec 2, 2017

Where criminals get their guns

Co-produced with PRX Logo

Across the country, criminals are arming themselves in unexpected ways. In Florida, they’re stealing guns from unlocked cars and gun stores. In other places, they’re getting them from the police themselves, as cash-strapped departments sell their used weapons to buy new ones. On this episode of Reveal, we learn where criminals get their guns and what cars can teach us about gun safety.

Laura Morel of the Tampa Bay Times reports on an epidemic of gun thefts in Florida and how many of those guns are being used to commit crimes. Some of those weapons are taken from gun stores, while others are stolen from cars whose owners don’t bother to lock them. Morel discovered that on average, a gun was stolen every hour of every day last year.

Alain Stephens of Texas Standard reports on a surprising source of guns for some criminals: the police themselves. Across the country, cash-strapped departments are selling their used pistols and shotguns to help pay for new weapons. When Stephens tried to find out how many former police guns end up in crimes, he discovered this information is a closely guarded secret because of laws passed more than a decade ago to suppress tracing information.

Reveal’s Stan Alcorn looks at another public safety threat that used to be responsible for more deaths each year than guns: automobiles. While gun deaths have remained about the same for decades, car deaths have declined dramatically. That decrease began when the government started collecting data on car accidents and passing it on to carmakers, which used it to design safer cars. Public safety advocates say what happened with cars could serve as a model for reducing gun deaths.

Dig Deeper

  • Read: 82,000 stolen guns are missing in Florida
  • Read: Thieves are breaking into Florida gun stores, often in brazen ways

Credits

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, The John S. And James L. Knight Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

Reveal is a co-production of The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

Transcript

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal's radio stories is the audio.

 

 

  Section 1 of 5          [00:00:00 - 00:10:04]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)
Speaker 1: Every day millions of people go online to search for local businesses. Does your small business show up in their results? When you create a website on WordPress.com, you make it easier for your customers to find you, to connect with you. Your business needs an online home. It needs a WordPress.com website. Come see why 28% of all websites run on WordPress, the web's most and most powerful site building platform. Go to WordPress.com/reveal to get 15% off your website today. That's WordPress.com/reveal.
Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. After the mass shooting at a music concert in Las Vegas and the church shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas, one of the first questions law enforcement had to figure out was where the gunmen got their weapons. It's a key question for every gun related crime. In those cases, it was easy to figure out. Stephen Paddock and Devin Patrick Kelley purchased their weapons at gun stores. But a lot of the time, the gun trail is murkier, like in this case, which begins in my hometown, Jacksonville, Florida.
It was early in the morning, back in August 2014, when a couple teens crept along driveways on Wind Cave Lane. They tugged on the handles of cars parked on the quiet street, looking for ones that were unlocked. When they'd find one, they'd rummage through the glove compartments and the consoles taking whatever they can find, sunglasses, cash, and from one unlocked Honda Accord, a black .40 caliber pistol. That gun spent four months changing hands and making its way South nearly 200 miles before landing in Tarpon Springs, a small city in Florida's Tampa Bay region.
Speaker 3: Caller, go ahead.
Al Letson: That December, just days before Christmas, the police in Tarpon Springs get a call at two in the morning from a resident at the Glen's Eureka Apartments complaining about music blaring from a car parked in front of the building.
Speaker 3: Are they ... They're in their vehicle or they're ...
Speaker 4: They're in their vehicle, and I've asked them to turn it down and I was physically flipped off. This happens like all the time and I'm over it.
Al Letson: A few moments later, an officer on patrol named Charles Kondek responds to the call.
Speaker 5: [inaudible 00:02:24] command, I'll grab that real quick
Al Letson: For him, this is just a routine noise complaint. The kind you get on the midnight shift all the time. What he doesn't know is that the car with the loud music belongs to a drug dealer named Marco Peria. He's at the apartment building to settle a score, and is not expecting a cop to show up. When Marco sees Officer Kondek, he raises the stolen pistol from Jacksonville and pulls the trigger.
Speaker 5: [inaudible 00:02:51] gun fired outside my window.
Speaker 4: Where are you? Oh, my God. Okay. Then just hold on a second.
Speaker 5: I wanted to make sure you already knew about it.
Speaker 4: There were shots fired?
Speaker 5: Yes.
Speaker 4: Copy.
Speaker 5: Several shots are fired.
Al Letson: One bullet hits Officer Kondek and kills him.
Laura Morel covered Officer Kondek's death for the Tampa Bay Times in 2014, and afterwards, started looking into the larger issue of stolen guns in Florida. She picks up the story from here.

 

Laura Morel: Officer Kondek left behind a wife, six kids, and his father, Charles Kondek, Sr. His home is neat and tidy, tucked in a gated neighborhood. A flag with a picture of his son stands in his yard.

 

Charles Kondek: I have so much stuff that it's just overflowing.

 

Laura Morel: Inside, Charles has a shelf crammed with photos, candles, and pamphlets from commemorations for his son.

 

Charles Kondek: Medal of Ultimate Sacrifice, Medal of Honor, Combat Cross, and the patch from Tarpon Springs Police Department, a Purple Heart. That's his badge number. It was 285.

 

Laura Morel: You can just hear the New York police officer in Charles' voice. He is a big guy, tall and broad, with a tight haircut and mustache. He retired from the NYPD in 1990, and was proud to see his son join the force and follow in his footsteps.

 

When Charles got the call that his son was shot, he couldn't drive to the hospital fast enough. He blew through traffic lights and ignored speed limits. But by the time he got there, it was too late.

 

Charles Kondek: I just fell on the floor. My blood pressure went sky high. I wanted to see him. I hadn't seen him in a while.

 

Laura Morel: What did the nurse tell you when she was helping you after you fell?

 

Charles Kondek: She said, "Your son would bring ... Every Saturday night, he worked steady midnight, so every Saturday night, he'd bring a coffee for me and him, and for five years, we'd sit there and have coffee and talk," and she was treating me when she was telling me that, and I wanted to go see him, because I haven't seen him in a while. She said, "You can go in, but you can't touch him. The medical examiner hasn't been there yet." I went in a wheelchair, and I saw him for a couple minutes, and just told him I love him and I'm sorry for the way things happened.

 

Laura Morel: I tried to talk to the owner of the gun used in Officer Kondek's death, but he didn't return my calls or reply to my letters. But I did spend an afternoon in Jacksonville, where that gun and thousands of others like it have been stolen.

 

Greg Burton: Stop in the name of the law. How you doing?

 

Speaker 9: Good, and you?

 

Greg Burton: I love doing that. In 23 years, it's some of the first times I've had to do it. I'm Greg Burton, zone commander for this area.

 

Laura Morel: Assistant Chief Burton is with the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office, or JSO. He's at the entrance of a local gated community, chatting with residents as they come home from work.

 

Greg Burton: We're just out doing a walk and talk, me and the neighbors, letting people know that if you don't want to get your cars broken into or stolen, simply lock them. That's the key.

 

Laura Morel: It sounds so simple, but police records show that over and over again, people leave guns in their cars, and don't bother locking them.

 

Greg Burton: [crosstalk 00:06:39]

 

Speaker 10: I will do so.

 

Greg Burton: I'll give you one of these, and give you one for your friends.

 

Speaker 10: Okay. All right.

 

Laura Morel: In Jacksonville alone, I found that more than a thousand guns were taken from cars over the last two years. Chief Burton's campaign is an attempt to preempt these thefts.

 

Speaker 11: Oh, thank you.

 

Greg Burton: All right. You take care. Take care.

 

Speaker 11: Thank you.

 

Tom Martin: So many people, when they purchase a gun, they don't really take on what the real responsibility of gun ownership is.

 

Laura Morel: That's Detective Tom Martin. He and Detective Dale Groves are with JSO's Auto Burglary Task Force.

 

Can you guys talk about the MO that's used here to break into cars?

 

Tom Martin: A lot of times, they're in a stolen car. Someone will drop off a carload of kids in the back of the neighborhood. Those kids will fan out. They'll pull on door handles, and whatever car is open, they go in and they see what they can get. I just interviewed a kid yesterday morning. He was under 14, and he had a gun on him, and when I asked him, he confessed.

 

Dale Groves: I interviewed him 12 days earlier.

 

Tom Martin: Same kid.

 

Dale Groves: And arrested him.

 

Laura Morel: When I first started working on this story, Charles Kondek, Sr. agreed to talk to me because he hoped it would prevent what happened to his son from happening to anyone else. But it's a hard problem to fix. We calculated that in Florida, at least 82,000 guns stolen in the last 10 years are still missing.

 

What do you remember thinking when you found out a gun was taken out of an unlocked car, when you found out that detail?

 

Charles Kondek: Well, I thought that the owner of the car and the gun should face some kind of consequences, should be arrested for I said stupidity, I know there's no such law, but negligence. If he didn't have that gun, if he locked his door, the odds are my son might still be alive now.

 

Laura Morel: But not everyone thinks the burden of responsibility should be on gun owners.

 

Eric Friday: I certainly believe and Florida Carry believes that, yes, if you have a gun in your car, you should lock your car. Absolutely.

 

Laura Morel: This is Eric Friday, general counsel of the gun rights group, Florida Carry.

 

Eric Friday: But if you fail to do so, should there be criminal sanctions for failing to do so? My answer to that is no.

 

Laura Morel: Eric says the answer has two parts. First, crack down on the criminals dealing the guns. Second, loosen restrictions on where gun owners can bring their weapons. If we do that, he says, there would be less need to store guns in cars and fewer thefts.

 

Eric Friday: We don't hold people responsible for the theft of any other property that is stolen from them, so I'm not sure why we have so many pushes to treat gun owners as anything other than the victims they are when their property is stolen.

 

Darryl Rouson: I disagree with his statement that gun owners, broad context, should be treated as victims, when they may have negligently or even intentionally failed to secure a deadly instrument.

 

Laura Morel: That's State Senator Darryl Rouson, who sits on the Criminal Justice Committee. He and other ...

 

  Section 1 of 5          [00:00:00 - 00:10:04]
  Section 2 of 5          [00:10:00 - 00:20:04]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)

 

Morel: Rouson, who sits on the criminal justice committee. He and other lawmakers wanted a special session on guns last year, but they couldn't get enough votes to schedule the meeting. In a state like Florida, where the National Rifle Association has so much political clout, new gun regulations are almost guaranteed to hit a brick wall.

 

Rouson: Some would want Florida to be the wild, wild west. Everyone double packing, but in a real sense, what are we protecting ourselves from? Us?

 

Morel: Rouson says he wants tougher security measures and not just for gun owners, but also for the other big source of stolen guns, gun dealers, who over the past few years have been targeted by thieves.

 

Speaker 3: You can see a truck ram through the front of a store and several suspects jump out and go inside...

 

Morel: This is TV footage from Channel 10, WTSP of a burglary at the Tampa Arms Company from last November.

 

Speaker 3: ...That means dozens of guns ended up in the hands of thieves and there's no telling where they ended up. So tonight --

 

Morel: In Florida, more than four times as many firearms were stolen from gun dealers in 2016 than in 2012. That doesn't surprise Jason Mueller, co-owner of Value Cash Pawn in Altamonte Springs.

 

Jason Mueller: Okay, here we have a red Kia Sportage backing up to our shop, putting their license plate right up to the window. Very nice of them.

 

Morel: Jason sells a little bit of everything, from watches to laptops, guitars to guns. His shop was broken into twice last year. He's showing me surveillance footage of the first break-in.

 

Jason Mueller: Oh yeah, breaks the glass. They all run in. Well, guy jumps over the counter, takes the two guns. You can hear my alarm just blaring. And they were in and out in about 22 seconds. This is what started me going gray and losing my hair.

 

Morel: Jason is quick to make a joke and laughs off the first burglary. It was an amateur job, he says, clearly the work of some kids. They only made off with two antique guns that didn't even work. But he didn't laugh three months later when he was hit again. This time by pros. The burglars turned the security cameras off and pried the steel gate off the door. Th broke into the back room where Jason stored his guns.

 

Jason Mueller: They didn't discriminate when they went in there. It was everything we had, literally. Anything, shotguns, rifles, hand guns, revolvers, pistols, everything.

 

Morel: It was one of the largest gun shop burglaries in Florida last year. The thieves stole 69 guns. Only about a dozen have been recovered. Afterwards, Jason invested in new security, like safes, which he hopes will be enough. But there aren't any laws regulating security at these stores, and some gun dealers don't bother to lock up their weapons after closing time, making them prime targets for thieves.

 

Jason Mueller: I wake up at 3:00 almost every night to check the cameras. Once it happened and I had been woken up by those phone calls saying, you know, we have a glass break sensor in the front of your store. Would you like us to send, you know, police? That had just stressed me out so much that I can't even help it anymore. I just naturally wake up at that time to make sure everything is okay, you know. My wife is like what the hell are you doing awake right now? I'm like check the cameras.

 

Morel: Jason says gun shop break-ins have gotten so bad, he wants to see lawmakers impose security regulations, but politicians are stuck in gridlock.

 

Rouson: I've argued it 'til I'm blue in the face and I've seen the bumper stickers that say you will pry my gun from my dead hands, you know, which takes it to the extreme.

 

Morel: Senator Rouson says the state legislature has taken things to the extreme. Back in 1987, Florida passed a law that prevents local governments from controlling guns in their communities. The state's essentially tied the hands of towns and counties to make their own gun rules.

 

(music)

 

Officer Kondek was shot three years ago on December 21, 2014. Marco Parilla, his killer, faces the death penalty. Since it's a capital case, there are lots of hearings and Charles Kondek, Sr. goes to each one religiously with his girlfriend Irene. Marco's trial date has been pushed back a couple times. Charles thinks it could be delayed again since Marco's defense has asked the judge for more time to prepare. It's beyond frustrating for a family who, at this point, is only looking for closure.

 

Charles Kondek: To me it's stupid. I mean the...I can see the state's point they want to avoid any way of having them appeal the verdict, you know. But, he caused the whole thing by shooting my son so, and now he gets everything he wants. But with his long arrest record and everything, this should all have been done already. We have no choice but to keep going and going and going until it's all over.

 

Letson: (dramatic music)

 

Just in the last few weeks, this case seems closer to being over. Marco Parilla pleaded guilty to first degree murder and is now awaiting sentencing. Our story was produced by Anne Hamilton and reported by Laura Morel of the Tampa Bay Times.

 

Laura is one of Reveal's investigative fellows. The fellowship, supported by the WK Kellogg Foundation and the Democracy Fund, provides support and training to journalists of color to create investigative reporting projects in partnership with their news outlets.

 

A lot of police departments say the key to making their city safer is getting guns off the street. So, why are some departments doing just the opposite? The answer when we come back. This is Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

 

de Leon: Hey, I'm Rachel de Leon, a video producer here at Reveal. As part of our glass breaker films project, we just released a four part series of animated shorts we're calling That BS Law. As you probably guessed, the series explains legislation, or lack thereof, that's created absurd situations like four year olds representing themselves in court, or abused women spending decades in prison. To watch the series, go to revealnews.org/thatbslaw.

 

Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. Just like the police in Florida, departments all across the country are trying to get guns off the street. Some are organizing gun buybacks, like this one that took place this summer on a hundred degree Saturday afternoon in Fort Worth, Texas.

 

It's in a supermarket parking lot. Police have set up an RV and traffic cones and a slow stream of cars pulls up with people wanting to get rid of their old guns, hunting rifles and rusty revolvers. Police huddle for shade under a couple trees. Lieutenant Greg Weathers is in charge.

 

Weathers: Yeah, we actually have the cars pull in. The officers will hand them a ticket. They will take the weapon. They'll make sure the weapon is secure and unloaded, then they'll process it in. Then they will receive a $50 gift card once the processing verification has been done.

 

Letson: For this man, the whole thing takes about five minutes.

 

Speaker 9: Nothing to it. Like to say no questions asked, no nothing. Just come, give your gun, take your money and go. It couldn't be simpler.

 

Letson: But as it turns out, what's going on in Fort Worth is not as simple as it seems. For one thing, police have competition. Just a few feet away, there's groups of guys holding signs that say cash for guns and waving fist fulls of money.

 

Speaker 10: We pay cash. More than $50. What do you got?

 

Speaker 11: Just an old shotgun.

 

Speaker 10: Want me to take a look at it?

 

Speaker 11: Yeah.

 

Speaker 10: Have a bidding war.

 

Letson: These guys say they're gun dealers. They're trying to outbid the police for the guns. And it's working. Reporter Alon Stevens is also there that day. He's been looking up police gun programs and chats up some of these guys.

 

So when you hear this, some of the rhetoric about getting guns off the street from the, you know, police chiefs and departments like Fort Worth right here, you think that's an admirable mission, you think this is a waste of time?

 

Speaker 13: It's definitely possible for it to be both. I mean, in practicality whether or not this is useful to the public is debatable.

 

Letson: So, what if I told you that when it comes to their dirty weapons that Fort Worth police department actually sells those back to the public?

 

Speaker 13: So they're putting guns on the street. Just like they're trying to take guns off the street here. So it doesn't make sense. They're doing something counter to what they're saying they wanna do today. Hypocrisy.

 

Letson: Yep, that's right. When it comes to their own guns, the ones carried by police officers, the department sells those back to the public. Alon wondered if those --

 

  Section 2 of 5          [00:10:00 - 00:20:04]
  Section 3 of 5          [00:20:00 - 00:30:04]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)

 

Speaker 1: ... sells those back to the public. Elan wondered if those gun sales undermine police efforts to fight gun crime. So, he looked into how they work. Fort Worth is not alone when it comes to selling its guns. This happens all over the country. Take for instance this ad from a gun store in North Carolina.

 

Sgt. Marc Pover: Hey everybody. I'm Ben with Classic Firearms, here, and we have a really nice police law enforcement trade-in handgun to show you today. The mags release just very smooth and beautifully. They're on sale right now. Merry Christmas, folks. We appreciate you-

 

Speaker 1: I wanted to know how many departments sell their guns in my home state of Texas. I requested records from the 50 largest law enforcement agencies in the state. I found in the last decade, 21 one of them sold weapons putting more than 10,000 guns back on the streets. Fort Worth alone sold more than 1,000. I wanted to find out why. It took a lot of phone calls, but I eventually reached-

 

Sgt. Marc Pover: Sergeant Marc M-A-R-C Povero P-O-V-E-R-O, and I'm a public information office with the Fort Worth Police Department.

 

Speaker 1: I asked why his department sells it's used weapons. He says they need the cash. Selling their own guns helps them pay for new and better ones.

 

Sgt. Marc Pover: As far as our firearms are concerned, we always want to have the best firearms that are operational and safe. Obviously, police officers have to have reliable equipment, so any time that equipment gets to an age where we've agreed to have it sold back to the distributor, then we're going to do that.

 

Speaker 1: The distributor is actually a gun store, which is an important distinction for Povero. The way he sees it, technically, they aren't selling guns back to the public.

 

Sgt. Marc Pover: I can assure you nothing ever goes straight from the police department to a person's hand. That's not how we operate.

 

Speaker 1: But, that is how the distributors operate. These gun stores turn around and sell police guns to the public at a discount. Remember, we're talking about 10,000 guns in Texas alone, enough to arm an entire army division, making it pretty likely that a police gun could fall into the hands of a criminal, right?

 

Sgt. Marc Pover: Let me just say, I'm being real patient with you, all right? I know where you're trying to go with it. I'm not going to buy into let's get into a conversation about morals and ethics. I'm a moral and ethical person in my mind, but let's stick with the facts. We had a contract with a distributor, and we abided by it. Fair enough?

 

Speaker 1: I wondered if selling their used guns raises ethical issues for other police departments. Here, Chief Greck Stephens from the Lubbock Police.

 

Chief Stephens: The decisions I make are data-driven. I'm not a knee jerk person, and I make very few emotional decisions. I full recognize the fact that absolutely one of our guns could fall into the hands of a criminal. That emotion, that chance, it isn't enough for me to change what is, in essence, of business decision. Hard data, is.

 

Speaker 1: Just like Chief Stephens, I wanted to get real world information about whether old police guns are used in crimes. I go to the remote hills of West Virginia to find a guy named Scott Thomason.

 

Yeah, I'm here. I think I'm here.

 

Scott Thomason: I think ... no you're not. I think you passed it.

 

Speaker 1: Oh, I passed it. Okay.

 

Scott Thomason: Okay, so-

 

Speaker 1: For decades, Thomason worked under cover as an agent for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Now, he's retired to a more gentile life, nestled in a modern homestead on a large plot of land. When I finally find him, I'm greeted by his two feisty dogs.

 

Hi, how are you doing? How are you doing?

 

Scott Thomason: That's Woody and-

 

Speaker 1: These days, he looks like someone who'd be a high school football coach: big, stocky, with a mean mustache. Years ago, he worked as an undercover arms trafficker. He remembers brokering a deal with a man named Chris, a neo nazi, who robbed a cartel and was looking to offload guns and drugs.

 

Scott Thomason: I wanted to buy a gun, and I wanted to see if he had any other cocaine he could sell. He said he didn't have any other cocaine, anymore, but they might have a gun. I ended up meeting him, I think it was about three or four hours later in a hotel parking lot. He sold me a Smith and Wesson revolver. A big, chrome, shiny handgun ... revolver.

 

You know, it's kind of an old school firearm, but I do notice there's a San Diego Sheriff's Department symbol on it.

 

Speaker 1: Scott closes the deal, then he calls the San Diego Sheriff's Department, and he drops a bomb on them. He found one of their guns in the hands of a drug dealer.

 

Scott Thomason: There as a long silence and pause on the phone, and I said, "I'm calling to find out if this was stolen, if there was some crimes associated with it, or a set of circumstances why I'd be in possession of this firearm."

 

Speaker 1: San Diego looks into it, and discovers the weapon was one of many that the sheriff's department had sold. They call back Thomason and tell him they're reversing their policy of selling guns.

 

Scott Thomason: They were horrified that a revolver that was once carried by a police officer could have injured another law enforcement officer or somebody else because it was in the hands of criminals.

 

Speaker 1: Thomason is by no means anti-gun. He owns weapons, and teaches shooting courses. We even do some target practice on his property, where he shows me a favored gun used by police.

 

Scott Thomason: So, we've got a Glock 23. It's a 40 caliper. It's extremely reliable, extremely durable, and in a stressful situation, it can operate off of rope memory and through training.

 

Speaker 1: What he says is exactly why criminals like it, too. Police aren't just selling handguns. In the course of my reporting, I found that police departments all over the country sell, well, everything. Shotguns, and precision sniper rifles, assault weapons like the AR-15 and MP-5. One Texas sheriff's department would sell fully automatic Uzis for just $300.00. St. Louis sold Tommy guns from the 1920's. If you want it, they had it. Like the Lubbock Police Chief, I wanted to see if I could find out how often these guns show up in murders, robberies and assaults.

 

What if I told you that I was going to string that thread together to find out how many sold police guns ended up in crimes? What would you say to that endeavor?

 

Chief Stephens: Good luck. Good luck.

 

Speaker 1: I decide to go to the source. I request information from ATF Headquarters, what they call trace data. I wait for two months before they tell me they lost my request. Six months later, and still no data. They do invite us to visit their National Tracing Center in West Virginia, where hundreds of employees perform traces, tracking guns used in crimes back to where they came from.

 

We sent a producer who joined a group of other journalists touring the facility.

 

Neil Trotman: A big part of what we do here is kind of like shift work.

 

Speaker 1: Neil Trotman with the ATF leads the tour. He shows the group a room that looks like a call center.

 

Dana Cline: Hi, it's Dana Cline from the ATF National Tracing Center. I have a trace for you.

 

Speaker 7: Thank you.

 

Dana Cline: It's a nine millimeter pistol-

 

Speaker 1: There are also rooms where agents scroll through microfilm and sift through boxes upon boxes of paperwork.

 

Speaker 8: The building manager at one point in time, probably about 10 years ago or so, determined that capacity to be about 10,000 boxes. We started having a safety issue where the floors were buckling a little bit.

 

Speaker 1: So, they started bringing in shipping containers, like what you see on tractor trailer trucks.

 

Speaker 8: I just double checked, we're up to 28 of these shipping containers now, each containing another 500 or 1,000 boxes, somewhere in that range.

 

Speaker 1: Back inside, Agent Trotman explains why the process is so archaic.

 

Neil Trotman: Essentially, what we're prohibited from doing is establishing any sort of a searchable or perceived database of gun ownership. Working within the ... let me start that part over. Let me start that over, okay? What we ... oh, I'm trying to think-

 

Speaker 1: It's a question that touches on the sensitive politics around gun control.

 

Neil Trotman: The law restricts ... man, I don't even want to say it that way.

 

Speaker 1: The ATF is prohibited from creating anything resembling a searchable database of gun buyers. It's tied to this fear that such a database could be used to disarm Americans. So, the ATF is stuck in an analog time capsule. When it comes to the data I'm looking for, which could show how many police weapons are picked up at crime scenes, even if they tried to figure that out, they couldn't tell me.

 

It wasn't always that way. You see, back in the late 1990's tracing information was public. There was a series of articles about police guns in crimes, like the one with ATF Agent Thomason. Recycled cop guns were showing up everywhere. Gang murders in New York, a homicide in St. Louis, a white supremacist used-

 

  Section 3 of 5          [00:20:00 - 00:30:04]
  Section 4 of 5          [00:30:00 - 00:40:04]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)

 

Alain Stephens: ... Murders in New York, a homicide in St Louis, a white supremacist used one to fire on a Jewish community center. In 1998, the Denver Post estimated that police guns were found in the hands of criminals three times a day.

 

Cities also start using this tracing information to file lawsuits against gun stores and gun makers. Gun manufacturers and lobbyists launch a counterstrike. They enlist congress and push back with new rules on guns, gun sellers can no longer be taken to court, a 10 year ban on assault weapons is lifted, and most importantly they go after the very information itself.

 

Through something called the Tiahrt Amendment, tracing data cannot be released to the public. To this day, the National Rifle Association contends the tracing data serves no useful purpose.

 

These days when it comes to used cop guns and crimes, all the ATF can say is, "Yeah, they see them in traces. The details, they're top secret." When we asked Neil Troppman if even the police, say in Lubbock, could get data to figure out where their old cop guns were going:

 

Neil Troppman: Actually, with the regulations as they are and the laws as they are, I'm not sure that we could. That might be something that would be discussed at a higher level because it's among law enforcement and it's with our law enforcement partners.

 

Alain Stephens: For chiefs like Greg Stevens, that lack of information, it puts them in a tough position. Do they sell guns to make ends meet, possibly at the expense of public safety? A few days after 58 people were killed at a music festival in Las Vegas, I asked Chief Stevens whether mass shootings like that one make him think twice about selling his used police guns.

 

Greg Stevens: It would certainly give me pause. I can tell you that this interview and the story that you're doing, I will reflect on it. It will make me certainly consider that and certainly the possibility that they could be used in the future in some instance like the Vegas event, the tragedy in Vegas, is certainly something to look at.

 

Al Letson: Alain Stephens is a reporter for the Texas Standard, a state-wide news show on public radio, he's also a Reveal Investigative fellow.

 

We're still looking for answers on just how many police guns end up in crimes. After many months of back and forth phone calls and emails, the ATF went silent on our request for data. We're now suing the Department of Justice for this information.

 

Remember how the ATF said they weren't allowed to collect and analyze gun data? For a long time the government didn't collect data when people died in car crashes. How data changed an industry and saved lives, that's next on Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

 

Aaron Sankin: I'm Aaron Sankin, a reporter here at Reveal. Along with my colleague Will Carless, I write a weekly newsletter called The Hate Report. It tracks the shadowy workings of America's white supremacist movement and it lands in inboxes every Friday morning.

 

We've covered a lot of stuff and some of it's pretty out there, like a network of Russian social media accounts that pushed a hoax about a racially tinged civil war, or how the KKK spreads its hateful message through bags of Halloween candy. Yeah, Halloween candy.

 

Signing up is easy, just text "hate" to 63735. Again, that's "hate" to 63735. Or you could go to Revealnews.org/hate.

 

Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX this is Reveal, I'm Al Letson. In 1966, President Lyndon Baines Johnson stepped into the Rose Garden and said it was time to face a shocking problem.

 

Lyndon Johnson: For years now we've tolerated a raging epidemic.

 

Al Letson: An epidemic, that it killed nearly three times as many people as all America's wars. Yet, at a national level, it was basically unstudied and unregulated.

 

Lyndon Johnson: We are going to cut down this senseless loss of life.

 

Al Letson: He was talking about not about guns, but about car crashes, what he called "highway disease".

 

Lyndon Johnson: We're going to find out more about highway disease, and we're going to find out how to cure highway disease.

 

Al Letson: 50 years later, we may not have found the cure but we've made progress; the car crash death rate is down nearly 80%. Gun deaths on the other hand have gone up a bit, which is why when you hear about gun control on say, a CNN panel:

 

Speaker 7: You see Santa Barbara, Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, Columbine; the list grows.

 

Al Letson: Somebody brings it up.

 

Speaker 7: It's an interesting analogy, and it's actually quite telling.

 

Al Letson: In this case, legal expert Michael Waldman.

 

Michael Waldman: We effected who could drive, we lifted the drinking age to 21 so people wouldn't drive recklessly, we put in air bags, we changed car design. In other words, we changed cars and made them safer. The question is, are there ways to do that also with guns?

 

Al Letson: To answer that question, here's Reveal's Stan Alcorn.

 

Stan Alcorn: Every time someone dies by gun or car, there's a group of people who rush to the scene to figure out exactly how they died.

 

Is there any accidents working right now Joe?

 

They're called police officers.

 

Frank Bandiero: I'm just going to go up and talk about our reports and this and that. Maybe we can go right out.

 

Stan Alcorn: Is something going on?

 

I rode along with New York State Trooper Frank Bandiero.

 

Frank Bandiero: This is something else I want to show you.

 

Stan Alcorn: Mostly to see the paperwork.

 

Frank Bandiero: Car accident report is right here.

 

Stan Alcorn: One reason for the fall in car deaths starts with filling in the boxes on that form.

 

Frank Bandiero: These mysterious boxes you see over here, they mean nothing to you, they mean a lot to us.

 

Stan Alcorn: The boxes are where he writes down the weather, where he draws a bird's eye cartoon of the wreck, where he identifies the accident's primary cause.

 

You've got a whole list of possible causes basically?

 

Frank Bandiero: Oh yeah. I don't know if you can read those little things, but there's a million to try to cover all the bases.

 

Stan Alcorn: You've got like 68 there, animal action.

 

Frank Bandiero: Exactly, say a deer's crossing the roadway. I tried to tell my wife, the safest thing to do is to slow down as much as you can without being unsafe and drive straight through the animal.

 

Stan Alcorn: Really?

 

Frank Bandiero: Yes.

 

Stan Alcorn: Everything cops do involves paperwork; interviews, photographs, reports. One difference between guns and cars is for a gun homicide, that paperwork pretty much stays at the police station.

 

Frank Bandiero: All right, we've got one. It's going to divide us, kind of dangerous.

 

Stan Alcorn: This one turned out to be a fender bender, but if it were more than the one of 30,000 fatal car accidents that happen each year:

 

Frank Bandiero: Stay in here for now.

 

Stan Alcorn: The information gathered on the side of the road would go from the boxes on that form into a federal database, The Fatality Analysis Reporting System, which doesn't necessarily sound like it would save lives until you meet someone who uses it.

 

Matt Brumbelow: Hi, I'm Matt Brumbelow.

 

Stan Alcorn: Nice to meet you.

 

Matt Brumbelow is an engineer at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, or IIHS. On his desk he has both a car headlight and a giant paper book of federal regulations.

 

Are you reading the register?

 

Matt Brumbelow: It's my fun pastime.

 

Stan Alcorn: A few years back Matt was on his computer looking at that government database of fatal accidents.

 

Matt Brumbelow: Let me pull it up.

 

Stan Alcorn: He noticed something, people dying in head-on crashes in cars that were rated safe in head-on crash tests. A lot of these crashes had a distinctive look; the passenger side was okay, but the corner and front of the driver looked like a giant had smashed it with a hammer, pushing the bumper back past the engine, almost to the steering wheel.

 

Did it take some time to recognize or was it immediate?

 

Matt Brumbelow: It's fairly immediate.

 

Stan Alcorn: He immediately recognized that this was a kind of crash these otherwise safe cars just weren't designed for, which to Matt was an opportunity.

 

Matt Brumbelow: We can probably do something about it, we can design a test.

 

Stan Alcorn: It's called the small overlap crash test, and they've been doing it since 2012. I watched the test as a BMW SUV called the X1, stating with a technician measuring the crash test dummy's position.

 

Speaker 12: Room to abdomen, find the abdomen.

 

Stan Alcorn: Down to the millimeter.

 

Speaker 12: 2.66.

 

Stan Alcorn: While engineers from BMW looked on.

 

You're basically here to just make sure they're doing everything right?

 

Speaker 13: No, they're doing always everything right. No, just watching.

 

Stan Alcorn: Watching closely though, BMW cares so much about this test. After an earlier model got a lower rating when the dummy's foot got crushed, the car was redesigned.

 

Speaker 13: It's always designed for the new requirements. If there is a new requirement from the IIHS we have to redesign our cars.

 

Speaker 12: We're done right? Let's walk out of here.

 

Stan Alcorn: When we walk into the echoey crash hall for the test itself, I feel like I'm seeing how a car gets safer in just 19 seconds.

 

  Section 4 of 5          [00:30:00 - 00:40:04]
  Section 5 of 5          [00:40:00 - 00:53:06]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)

 

Speaker 1: It's safer. In just 19 seconds.

 

You've got all these HD cameras funded by the insurance companies. You've got BMW engineers nervously watching from a catwalk up above. All this money and expertise fixated on this black SUV that's being dragged up a speed of 40 miles per hour and then released into a steel barrier made specially for this test. It all started with Matt Brumbelow, the engineer, going through that government crash data.

 

How important are these federal databases of real world car crashes?

 

Matt: Yeah. They're really indispensable. Without real crash data, we would just be guessing.

 

Speaker 1: Government crash data is the foundation not just of vehicle design but of speed limits and drunk driving laws. So for decades, public health experts like Professor Steven Garrett have been calling for an equivalent database, but for guns.

 

Professor Steve: Now, even though the number of motor vehicle related deaths and gun deaths in the United States are approximately the same every year, we have data for one. We don't have data for the other.

 

Speaker 1: Steven had used the government crash data to study airbags and child restraint laws, but when he shifted his focus to guns, the difference was stark. Instead of just downloading data, he had to gather his own from coroners and police departments.

 

Professor Steve: So we don't have the benefit of doing analyses of gun deaths that we've had about car deaths. In my opinion, that's one of the reasons why we're not seeing the reduction in gun deaths that we saw in car deaths over the last couple of decades.

 

Speaker 1: As an example, he brings up the cause of three out of every five gun deaths in the U.S., suicide. One thing public health researchers have been able to prove is that if you have access to a gun, you are more likely to kill yourself because it makes any attempt at suicide more deadly. When it comes to how suicidal people get those guns, are they buying them? Are they borrowing them? If they were smart guns that could only be used by their owners, how many lives would that save? Steven says we just don't have the data to give very good answers.

 

Professor Steve: There's been a culture that's built up around guns of not collecting information whereas the exact opposite has occurred with cars.

 

Speaker 1: But this culture of data driven safety engineering, it did not always exist for cars. The way it came about maybe the most surprising gun parallel of all. It starts in the early 20th century when car safety, if it was discussed at all, was all about the driver.

 

Speaker 4: Unfortunately, there are drivers amongst us who are poor sports.

 

Speaker 1: There are more than 50,000 yearly deaths, but they were blamed on the nut behind the wheel.

 

Speaker 4: They are the reckless who cause the accidents that mame and kill.

 

Speaker 1: In other words, cars don't kill people. People kill people.

 

Amy : The whole notion that the machine could have some sort of impact on the likelihood of you surviving a car crash wasn't even on the radar during the first half of the 20th century.

 

Speaker 1: This is Amy Gangloff, a historian who traces the auto safety idea back to the research project of a self taught scientist named Hugh DeHaven.

 

Hugh: You tell me how it's done.

 

Speaker 7: No, you don't know really how the project started.

 

Hugh: No. I do not.

 

Speaker 1: This is an old cassette tape I tracked down of Hugh being interviewed.

 

Hugh: The project really started in 1917 and 18 when I was flying for the Royal Flying Corps.

 

Speaker 1: The Canadian Air Force in World War I.

 

Amy : When he was just like 24 hours away from being commissioned, he had a horrific plane accident.

 

Hugh: I ruptured my liver. I ruptured my pancreas. I ruptured my gallbladder. I ruptured my kidneys.

 

Amy : While he was in hospital, he had his kind of moment of his epiphany.

 

Hugh: I had no loss of consciousness or head injury, but I did have these abdominal injuries.

 

Amy : He concluded that there was a sharp knob on his safety belt that had probably led to his injuries. So he started thinking that perhaps we can package human beings better.

 

Speaker 1: Not just in planes but in cars too. He started by crash testing object. Dropping eggs on to foam and rubber mats from higher and higher heights. Then he turned to human beings. Looking into newspaper stories of people surviving miraculous falls off cliffs and out of buildings. Finally, to see exactly how people were dying in car crashes, he started calling up hospitals and coroners and police officers. Most of whom, thought he was nuts.

 

Speaker 8: Why would the thought to be so nutty, so crazy, Mr. DeHaven?

 

Hugh: Well, it's a very simple thing. People in those days and people to this day feel that the accident calls the injury.

 

Speaker 1: He would prove the cars themselves caused injuries because of how they were designed. For example, in 1953, he partnered with the Indiana State Police and with their photos and reports, historical Amy Gangloff says he was able to isolate which parts of the car were the most dangerous.

 

Amy : Yeah. He's diagnosing exactly what's causing the injuries inside the car.

 

Speaker 1: Then what does he find? What exactly does he find is causing most of these injuries?

 

Amy : The steering column. The steering column itself was not collapsible. So if you had a front end collision, the steering column would push up and might even push through somebody's chest.

 

Speaker 1: The solution was a collapsible steering column, which would go on to save 79,989 lives as of 2012, according to a government study. More than any technology except the seatbelt. But they wouldn't become standard equipment until 1967. More than a decade after Hugh DeHaven study. It took more than research. It took politics.

 

Joan: Do you want to have my name so you remember who I am?

 

Speaker 1: Sure. We can do that. You want to say who you are.

 

Joan: This is Joan Claybrook.

 

Speaker 1: Joan Claybrook came to Washington D.C. in 1965 to work for an idealistic freshman congressman from Georgia.

 

Joan: He was concerned about the kids in his neighborhood being killed in car crashes. He had read Unsafe At Any Speed.

 

Speaker 1: Unsafe At Any Speed was an unlikely best seller by a car safety obsessed young lawyer named Ralph Nader. Nader built on Hugh DeHaven's research and turned into a scorching indictment of the auto industry. He showed that not only did car companies know about safety technology, like the collapsible steering column, they had the patents. They just weren't using them.

 

Joan: There are very few books that have such an instrumental impact. That's why the auto industry hired a gum shoe to trail Nader and get some dirt on him and try to discredit him.

 

Speaker 1: This General Motors spear campaign backfired so badly that their company president had to apologize in front of the Senate. Instead of turning up dirt on Nader, it made GM look dirty. It made Nader's congressional testimony on things like suspension systems into front page news. Car companies had energized a movement to regulate car companies. That movement succeeded.

 

Speaker 10: Distinguished members of the congress, administration, and friends ...

 

Speaker 1: That speech LBJ gave in 1966 was to announce the signing of two bills.

 

Speaker 10: The Traffic Safety Act will ensure safer, better protected cars.

 

Speaker 1: The created a new federal agency. What's now the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration with the power to make car companies install seat belts and collapsible steering columns and to set up those national databases of crash data.

 

Speaker 10: Thank each of you very much.

 

Speaker 1: They did it with nearly unanimous bipartisan support, which may be the part of the auto safety story that's hardest to imagine being repeated with guns today. Here's Joan Claybrook.

 

Joan: I think that before Congress got active in doing anything on guns, the NRA got its claws out. They have played a strong role in defeating candidates. The auto industry's never been that successful at it because to be anti-car safety is against motherhood and apple pie.

 

Speaker 1: Congress has treated guns very differently than it treated cars. Carving out exemptions from regulation, lawsuits, and data collection. No one understand that contrast better than Steven Parrot, the gun safety researcher. But of all the people I talked to, he was also the most hopeful, which I found, frankly, kind of hard to understand.

 

What lets you still be optimistic looking at all those factors?

 

Steven: You're trying your best and you're doing a fairly good job in making me sink into some swamp of despair, but I'm afraid you're not going to succeed in that. I'm not going to do it. One of the reasons that I'm not going to do it is because I understand something about how public health's made progress over the centuries.

 

Speaker 1: He points out it took more than 50 years to really reduce smoking in this country, and even the history of car safety that seemed to move so fast in the '60s had decades where there were nothing but setbacks. Progress in public health just takes a really long time.

 

Steven: So we persevere and we wait and we wait until the time is right so that something becomes politically feasible. It may be four years earlier was not politically feasible. So yes, we will make guns safer consumer products, and that, in turn, will reduce the incidents of gun deaths in the United States. It's a matter of waiting until the time is right.

 

Speaker 1: After we finished talking, I thanked Steven Parrot for his time. He told me not to worry about taking up an hour. He's been waiting for 40 years.

 

Speaker 12: That story was from Reveal's Stand Encore.

 

That idea that it's a matter of waiting until the time is right is something a lot of people are struggling with. After every mass shooting, the same thing happens. One side wants gun control. The other side says it's too soon to talk about guns in the midst of a tragedy. But after the mass shooting in Las Vegas this year, there seemed to be a moment of bipartisan support. Not for more research or a new federal agency to regulate guns. Not even close. But for a ban on bump stocks. That's the device that allowed the shooter to fire nine rounds a second into the crowd below his hotel room. But two months later, efforts to pass the bump stock bill have stalled. Congress, well, they've moved on.

 

Today's show was edited by Toki Telanedice with help from Andy Donahue. Thanks to Cash Shookmat, reporter Ryan Bank, and Jacksonville producer, John O'Leery in Washington D.C. and the medical center archives of New York Presbyterian Weill Cornell. Melinda Hinojosa is our production manager. Michael Corey is our data editor. Our lead sound designer and engineer is Jim Briggs. He had help this week from Kathreen Raymando and Ropten Eroblue. Amy Pile's our editor and chief. Suzanne Reber's our executive editor, and our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music is by Camarado, Lightening. Support for Reveal's provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. And Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the John S. And James L. Knight Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

 

I'm Al Letson, and remember, there is always more to the story.

 

  Section 5 of 5          [00:40:00 - 00:53:06]