Last year, in an effort to get a better picture of gun violence in the city, Pittsburgh City Paper began reporting on each and every gun homicide during the summer. However, residents in the neighborhoods where homicides were occurring rarely wanted to talk about the cases, and the families of victims were equally quiet.
But while many in the community were silent, the data spoke for itself.
On June 17, a 14-year-old shot himself with a firearm. A few days later, on June 25, a 15-year-old was charged with possession of a firearm by a minor. In other cases, homicide suspects were found in possession of a firearm even though prior convictions prevent them from legally purchasing one.
“There’s way too little attention to the process by which firearms move from the very large pool of lawfully owned firearms to people who commit gun violence,” says Ted Alcorn, research director at Everytown for Gun Safety, a national gun-reform organization. “Understanding those processes is critical for educating people about how laws that affect the way people store their guns and sell their guns have real ramifications for violence.”
With that in mind, at the beginning of November, City Paper called on the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police to provide firearm trace data for weapons recovered in 2015. According to CeaseFirePA, a statewide organization that works to curb gun violence, the police have this information because state law requires them to return guns confiscated at crime scenes to the last lawful owners. But despite numerous requests, the city has not released the data.
After an initial conversation with police spokesperson Sonya Toler, CP sent the bureau a list of dozens of incidents where guns were recovered by the department and requested information on the guns’ origins. The data has not been issued. In November, CP also asked to speak with the detective in charge of handling firearm tracking and was told Pittsburgh Police Chief Cameron McLay needed to be in on that conversation. An interview has yet to be scheduled. Last week, Toler said McLay would be unavailable until the end of January.
“We at CeaseFirePA believe that tracking, finding and making public the sources of crime guns is absolutely essential to effectively stopping gun violence,” Rob Conroy, CeaseFirePA’s director of organizing, writes in an email. “An educated population is a safer population: If community members know where the guns that are systematically destroying their neighborhoods and towns are coming from, they can better combat the problem, either through informal and informed local action or through coordinated action with other communities/neighborhoods, the police and their elected officials.”
City Paper’s interest in finding out where guns involved in local homicides and possessed by minors came from was spurred by similar campaigns around the country. One of the most well known is the “Where did the gun come from?” campaign led by Citizens for Safety, in Boston, which was launched in 2006.
“We wanted to popularize what we thought was an important missing question,” says Nancy Robinson, Citizens for Safety’s executive director. “Where does a 15-year-old get a gun in the first place? No one was asking that.”
As a result of its campaign, the organization discovered that straw purchasers — people legally able to purchase firearms who buy them for people who aren’t — account for almost 50 percent of trafficking investigations by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. With this information, the group launched a program to target female straw purchasers. Robinson says gun violence in Boston has decreased as a result.
“The more information you have about crime-gun sources, the more effective you can be about shutting them down,” says Robinson. “We have to be armed with the right information about how these guns are winding up in the hands of 14-, 15-, 16-year-old shooters.”
For the past three years, CeaseFirePA has been working on a similar campaign locally. Due to concerns for gun-owner privacy and police-investigation confidentiality, the group is requesting only the ZIP code where the gun was recovered and the ZIP code where the gun was last lawfully owned.
“We haven’t given up on the TrackBack program,” writes Conroy. “We’re working with partners on many levels to determine the most effective way to trace, compile and release this information without even seemingly violating any laws or compromising the privacy of once-lawful gun owners.
“Just because it hasn’t quite happened doesn’t mean that it will never happen. In addition, other phases of the program, including educating the public to ask about the sources of crime guns and encouraging the media to ask the question and find the answers, have been very successful.”