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Clarification to This Article
Earlier versions of this article said that federal law prohibits anyone younger than 21 from buying a gun. Non-felons can buy rilfes and shotguns--but not handguns--from licensed dealers, beginning at 18. This version has been corrected.

Guns used to kill police officers: Where they come from and how they get in the hands of criminals

In the past decade more than 95,000 Americans were killed by people using firearms. Among the victims were 511 police officers whose deaths were examined by The Washington Post in a year-long investigation.

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By Cheryl W. Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 21, 2010; 12:32 AM

Hattie Louise James was sitting on her front porch in Charlotte when two police detectives emerged from their car. There had been a shooting, they said. Two officers were dead. The gun had been traced back to her.

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"I liked to had another heart attack," said the 72-year-old James, a retired hospital worker.

The .32-caliber revolver used to kill Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officers Sean Clark and Jeff Shelton in April 2007 started out as a legally owned weapon. James bought it in 1991 at Hyatt Coin and Gun Shop in Charlotte, but it was stolen a year later from her husband's car. Fifteen years after that, it passed into the hands of 25-year-old Demeatrius Montgomery. This September, Montgomery was convicted of gunning down the officers outside a low-income housing complex in northeast Charlotte.

Clark and Shelton are two of 511 police officers killed by firearms in the United States from the beginning of 2000 through this past Sept. 30. The most recent local death occurred in June, when Maryland State Trooper Wesley Brown was slain while working off-duty at a restaurant in Prince George's County.

Until now, no one has conducted a comprehensive study of how the killers got their guns.

To trace these guns, The Washington Post did a year-long investigation, including building a database of every police officer shot to death in the past decade. (More than 1,900 officers were wounded by firearms during the same period.) Through documents and interviews, The Post was able to track how the suspects obtained their weapons in 341 of the deaths.

This kind of analysis is made more difficult by a law passed by Congress in 2003 that bars federal law enforcement from releasing information that links guns used in crimes back to the original purchasers. To penetrate that secrecy, The Post interviewed more than 350 police officials, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, gun dealers, gun buyers, suspects and survivors. In 30 cases, the newspaper obtained confidential firearms traces generated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The ATF reports track guns recovered at crime scenes back to dealers and original buyers, listing a gun's model, caliber and serial number.

The Post review shows how guns got into the hands of police officers' killers and - in a nation with more than 250 million guns in circulation - how a moment of panic can have deadly consequences.

Among the findings:

  • Legal purchase was the leading source of weapons used to kill police officers. In 107 slayings, the killers acquired their firearms legally. In 170 deaths, The Post could not determine how the shooters got their guns, including 29 killings in which weapons were not recovered.
  • Stolen guns turned up in 77 deaths. Separately, guns obtained or taken from relatives or friends who legally owned them were used in 46 killings. Fifty-one officers were killed when their department-issued firearms or another officer's gun were turned against them. In 41 instances, guns were illegally obtained on the streets through sale or barter. Sixteen times, someone bought a weapon for a person prohibited from having a gun, an unlawful transaction known as a straw purchase. The straw buyers were federally prosecuted in fewer than half of those cases. Three were illegally purchased at gun shows or from private sellers.
  • The two deadliest situations for police are traffic stops and domestic disputes. Ninety-one of the officers were killed while making traffic stops; 76 were responding to domestic disturbance calls. The officers killed at traffic stops were generally slain by felons wielding illegal guns; the weapons used to kill police in domestic situations were often obtained through legal purchases. Only 13 percent of the weapons in the traffic stops were legal, compared with 47 percent in the domestic calls.

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