Courtney Meeks became a hero–and a tragic statistic–in his last few minutes alive.
His murder and the stolen gun that killed him are an important part of the national debate over guns that tends to get overlooked by politicians and pundits.
Meeks was a 24-year-old armed security guard at a CVS store in Detroit when he spotted a carjacking in a nearby parking lot. Two members of the Bounty Hunter Bloods, a local and deadly street gang, had just forced two women and a small boy out of their car. As the gang members moved into the car that they were stealing, Meeks ran toward them. He knew the lives of the women and child were in danger. One of the two gang member drew a pistol and shot at Meeks.
Meeks was hit in the neck and collapsed onto the asphalt. He died on the street.
The two gang members, Jamare Rucker and Jeremy Jackson, sped away in the car they just stole. When they were caught, they were ultimately charged with unlawful firearms possession, armed robbery and second-degree murder.
The murder weapon was a .45-caliber Glock handgun. The weapon helped convict the gang members and send them to prison for between 33 to 60 years.
Tracing the gun that killed Meeks reveals a larger story: that stolen–not lawfully purchased–guns are used in the vast majority of gun-related crimes.
At a time when lawmakers debate restrictions and regulations on lawful gun owners, Meeks’ death suggests that they may be missing a much larger gun problem: the illegal firearm trade.
The pistol that killed Meeks had been shipped to a Detroit-area gun store and stolen from its inventory, according to an investigation by the ATF’s National Tracing Center. The federally licensed firearms dealer had promptly reported the theft.
“This is how the Bounty Hunter Bloods got their guns: they stole them,” said ATF Special Agent Joe Nether. “The gang’s OG [operating general] would then give his soldiers the guns and send them out to do armed robberies and BEs [breaking and enterings]. One of the things they’d always look to steal were guns. Theft is the easiest way for gangs to get guns. People often leave guns unlocked and in places that are easy to find.”
Nether says the gang members would be ordered to “put work in” by robbing homes. They’d do this with illegal guns on them. “They were ready to shoot it out with an armed homeowner,” said Nether. “One of the gang members did run into an off-duty police officer in a home. That officer killed one of the gang members.”
There are a lot of guns for them to steal. One hundred million Americans own more than 300 million guns, according to various studies conducted by the Pew Research Center and others.
Some 190,000 firearms are lost or stolen” each year n the United States, according to the FBI. This large number of guns stolen from private hands is only an estimate based on different sources of data, according to the FBI’s NCIC Gun File, a law-enforcement tool developed to assist law enforcement agencies in communicating the theft, loss, and recoveries of firearms through a shared database and communications system.
Almost all of these are taken from private homes and cars. Barely 6,000 each year are reported stolen from licensed gun dealers. The Glock .45 used to kill Meeks was one of these.
“The only substantiated numbers of lost or stolen firearms is of those in federal firearms licensee’s (FFL) inventory. They are required to report any loss or theft of a firearm to ATF and local law enforcement within 48 hours,” said ATF Chief of Public Affairs Ginger Colbrun.
Although there is a dearth of rigorous and recent data, surveys consistently show that that the vast majority of guns used in crimes were not purchased at a store or gun show. Just 11 percent of prisoners who had possessed a gun while committing a crime had bought it a retail store, a pawn shop, a flea market or a gun show, according to the federal government’s 2004 Survey of Inmates in State and Federal Correctional Facilities. The prisoners were much more likely to have bought it illegally (40 percent) or procured it from a family member or friend (37 percent) or to have gotten the firearm in numerous other illegal ways.
A July study in the journal Social Medicine found that 79 percent of the guns used in crimes in Pittsburgh in 2008 were not legally owned by the perpetrator.
The number of guns stolen from Federal Firearms Licensed dealers has another caveat. Gun dealers who reported that 6,163 guns were stolen in 2015 also said that another 8,637 firearms were “lost” from their stores, ranges and backrooms.
These statistics suggest the vast scale of the illegal gun market. Indeed, it is so flush that the profit margin for stolen guns is comparatively small.
“A quality pistol, like a Glock, might go for double or triple retail,” Nether said. “Lower-quality guns might be worth only $100 or $200 more than retail.”
He added that an oversupply has driven down prices in the black market for guns.
The gang members who killed Meeks had an expensive handgun, a .45-caliber (likely a Glock 21), which retails for around $600. So, according to Nether, it would sell on the street for well over $1,000.
“Thefts had given this gang all types of guns,” Nether said. “They had .38 revolvers, .22 pistols, AK-47-type rifles and much more.”
Another indicator of how illegal trade in stolen guns has armed this Detroit street gang, law enforcement officials say, is the fact they gave a “soldier,” an entry-level fighter in their gang hierarchy, a high-end handgun to carry out a carjacking. Other investigations into Detroit’s Bounty Hunter Bloods would later recover more than 30 guns and result in multiple convictions.
To understand this illegal market in guns the ATF uses a statistic it calls “time-to-crime,” which measures the amount of time between when a gun was sold by a federally licensed gun dealer to when it was found at a crime scene or otherwise confiscated by police. Nationally, the ATF says the time-to-crime for the average gun in 2015 was 10.48 years.
In states with the nation’s strictest gun-controls, the amount of time can be even longer. The time-to-crime in Illinois in 2015 was 11.8 years years. In New York, it was 14.1 years. By contrast, in the comparably more “gun-friendly” state of South Dakota it was 8.33 years.
States with lower homicide rates tend to have lower time-to-crime numbers, ATF officials say. The FBI found that Illinois had a “murder and nonnegligent manslaughter” rate of 5.3 per 100,000 people in 2014, while South Dakota’s was less than half that at 2.3 per 100,000. State lines, however, are actually a poor way to establish where homicide rates are higher or lower, FBI data shows. Murder rates tend to be highest in poorer urban areas–places that, gun-rights proponents are quick to note, actually have the nation’s strictest gun laws.
The way to avoid crimes like the Detroit tragedy that took Meeks’ life is to control gang violence, Nether said. “By taking down the Bounty Hunter Bloods’ leadership, we saw the crimes and murders they were doing plummet,” he said. “This gang did at least 11 murders in the years leading up to our busts, but since we took down their leadership they haven’t murdered anyone we know of.”
The federal agent downplayed the importance of seizing stolen guns used by gangs. “Getting their guns is important,” Nether said, “but gangs can always get more guns.”
Illegal guns and murder
On an average day, more than 20 Americans are murdered with guns. Almost 80 percent of those firearms were obtained illegally, according to the FBI.
Here is a sample of recent murder cases from around the country involving stolen guns.
New London, CT: A New London man was charged with murder in June after police arrested him for possession of a stolen handgun. Police said Shaquan Seales, 21, was acting suspiciously. When Seales spotted them, he went behind a house and then returned. A search of that area turned up a loaded handgun. Authorities then learned that Seales was wanted in the 2015 murder of Gilberto Olvencia, who was shot on the front porch of his home.
Stockton, CA: The gun used in a series of crimes, including the murder of a 13-year-old boy, had been stolen from the home of Stockton Mayor Anthony Silva, according to a July report from the San Joaquin County District Attorney’s office. Silva reported that his .40 caliber Beretta Px4 Storm semi-automatic pistol was stolen in 2015 burglary of his home. Police recovered it in June while investigating a domestic dispute. They have not, however, charged anyone in the murder.
Davenport, Ill: Marcello Cordell Miller Jr., 26, was sentenced to three years in prison last month for possessing a stolen gun used by another man to commit murder. Police investigating that murder discovered the weapon while searching the attic of Miller’s fiancée. They also found pictures of Miller holding the gun which, they allege, Quantrell L. McDaniel, 19, used to kill another man.
Tulsa, OK: A man was charged with first degree murder after killing his roommate with a stolen gun on August 22. Authorities say Jakhai Montrell Adams, 18, shot his roommate, 21-year-old Mohammed Tareq, following a heated argument. When police entered their apartment in response to a 9/11 call, they found Tareq wrapped in a sleeping bag with a gunshot to his head.
GEORGIA: On August 29, 1996, the De Kalb County Police Department arrested a suspect on local charges. At the time of arrest, the suspect was in a 1995 Mercedes automobile and in possession of a 9mm pistol. In September 1996, NIBIN positively linked the aforementioned 9mm pistol to the 1995 drive-by shooting and the 1996 carjacking.
MASSACHUSSETTS: In March 2007, the Hartford Police Department responded to a report of an expended cartridge casing on a public street. Investigators submitted the cartridge casings recovered at the scene for entry into NIBIN. In April 2007, an ATF agent heard gunfire coming from a vehicle. ATF and the Hartford Police Department arrested the driver and passenger and recovered one stolen 9 mm pistol. Using NIBIN, the Connecticut Department of Public Safety matched the pistol to the shooting.
ILLINOIS: In September 1995, a bullet fired from a passing car killed a 19-year-old factory worker. In August 2003, Chicago Police Department officers conducted a traffic stop for an ordinance violation and arrested the driver for unlawful possession of a firearm. Using NIBIN, the Illinois State Police, Chicago Forensic Science Center, matched the firearm to the 1995 murder. ATF and the Chicago Police Department investigated the recovery of the firearm and determined that a “straw purchaser” bought the firearm a day before the murder and transferred the firearm to the shooter, who then sold the firearm shortly after the murder. In November 2007, the shooter, a felon and alleged enforcer for a street gang, was convicted of murder and sentenced to 50 years in prison.
FLORIDA: From November 17, 2008, to May 4, 2009, Victor John Walker participated in a string of armed robberies to include the shooting of a pizza store manager in Ohio. On May 4, 2009, Walker, Jeremy Nedrick, and Allen Butler attempted to rob a Burger King in Lady Lake, Florida. Walker and Butler hid in a dumpster before the restaurant opened, but two maintenance workers confronted them. Walker fired an AK-47 in the air and the two fled the scene. Deputies later apprehended Walker and Nedrick. Walker denied his crimes, but NIBIN connected his gun to the robberies in Ohio.
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