Every few hours, in a routine that is sometimes grim but more often mundane, local police take a gun off the streets. Since 2000, nearly 50,000 guns have been recovered by authorities in the District and Prince George’s County. That is enough to arm every law enforcement officer in Maryland, the District and Virginia, with a couple of thousand guns to spare.
Police confiscate guns after drive-bys, drug raids and traffic stops. They find them tossed on roofs and thrown under cars. They take them from shooters, and they find them next to people who have been shot. Officers have culled most of these guns from an urban stretch covering the eastern half of the District and sections of Prince George’s inside the Beltway.
The number of guns seized annually by police in the two jurisdictions has fluctuated since 2000, rising 20 percent to peak at 4,200 in 2006 and then dipping back below 2000 levels in recent years as violent crime has receded. Homicides by gun in the city and the county are down by about 70 percent over the past six years.
Still, a Washington Post analysis shows that the guns keep rolling in. District police recovered about 2,000 guns last year, and Prince George’s collected about 1,200. That compares with 700 guns recovered in Montgomery County and about 600 guns taken in Fairfax County. Arlington County police confiscated 60.
The “drip, drip, drip of guns” is critical to consider in broader discussions about how to deter gun-related crime, said Daniel Webster, who directs the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research in Baltimore.
The recoveries reflect a gun-saturated society in which an estimated 300 million firearms are in public hands, by far the highest level of gun ownership in the world. In the national gun-control debate, a salient fact often has been overlooked: Legislative efforts aimed at curtailing the availability of the most lethal weapons merely play at the margins of this huge gun population.
The Post analysis offers a rare snapshot into the concentration of confiscated weapons in one metropolitan area. Based on traces by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in 2011, confiscation rates vary widely among cities. In Chicago, police seized 2.2 firearms that year for every 1,000 residents. In Baltimore, officers confiscated 3.8. The District’s rate was 2.5, and Prince George’s was 1.5.
The news is dominated by extreme gun violence such as the massacre in Newtown, Conn., carried out by a young man who fired 154 rounds in less than five minutes with an XM-15 semiautomatic rifle. But since 2000, police in the District and Prince George’s have seized a relatively small number of guns — roughly 1,100, or about 2 percent of the total recovered — that could be defined as “assault weapons” under the recent congressional proposal to renew a ban on a range of military-style guns such as AK-47 rifles and TEC-9s.
Far more typical for local police is the matter-of-fact recovery of a handgun, which passes with little or no public notice. Handguns account for about eight of every 10 firearms confiscated in the analysis period.
Nearly 70 percent of the handguns seized were semiautomatic pistols, most often 9mm models, with magazines of varying capacity. The rest were mostly revolvers, typically .38-calibers, which hold six rounds. Handguns by Smith & Wesson, Ruger, Taurus and Glock were most common. Confiscated handguns ranged from .380-caliber Bryco pistols that can be purchased secondhand for less than $100 to brand-new polycarbonate Glock 17s that cost $600.
“Handguns are easy to conceal,” said Mike Campbell, an ATF spokesman. “Somebody walking down the street with a rifle or shotgun is going to get noticed.”
Officers bag and tag each weapon they recover for firearms examiners who log details of the guns into computer databases. To investigate recovery patterns, The Post filed public information requests under Maryland and D.C. laws to obtain data on more than 28,500 firearms collected by District authorities and about 18,000 guns logged by Prince George’s police in the study period.
The vast majority of guns that police recover are classified as “crime guns,” meaning the weapons were possessed illegally or possibly used in crimes. Illegal possession accounts for about one-third of all confiscations, analysis shows. Buy-back programs have led people to turn in more than 1,500 weapons over the years, ranging from broken handguns to valuable war relics. In March, Prince George’s police traded gift cards for 102 guns.
In the District, police also have confiscated more than 3,400 BB guns and pellet guns in the wake of robberies and other police matters. Starting in 2006, officers began to seize these air-powered guns, which are not considered firearms under federal law, in greater numbers. Prince George’s police report confiscating many as well but do not include the guns in their firearms recovery logs.
Police recover most guns in the daily grind of responding to service calls, including reports of assaults, threats and domestic violence. Homicides draw the headlines but generate only a fraction of the recoveries. Since 2000, D.C. and Prince George’s police have seized about 1,500 guns in homicide investigations.
A surprisingly large number of guns are found by someone who stumbles upon them discarded or abandoned. Over the past 13 years, the two departments have logged about 7,000 found guns.
In one case in January 2010, a property manager called police to an office at 1400 I St. NW. Inside, officers discovered hundreds of badges, handcuffs — and 248 .38-caliber revolvers “left abandoned,” police wrote in their report.
The office had been home to a security firm that abruptly closed.
More typical is the aftermath of a drive-by shooting on North Capitol Street that left 13 injured in March. Police found shell casings fired by four different guns and a .40-caliber Smith & Wesson pistol that had been tossed over a nearby fence.
“People don’t discard guns because they don’t want them anymore. They can cost hundreds of dollars,” Webster said. “They discard them because the gun is something that has been used in a crime and they don’t want to be connected to it.”
The sea of steel runs along the border that divides western Prince George’s County and the southeastern edge of the District.
One recent evening in Landover, a team of Prince George’s patrol officers who target high-crime areas was 10 minutes into its shift when it bagged its first gun. The officers pulled over a 17-year-old driver for failure to signal a turn. Inside the car, officers found a small amount of marijuana stashed in a backpack and a sawed-off, .22-caliber Remington rifle. The driver at first insisted it was a BB gun. He said a friend probably left it in his car.
About an hour later, the squad pulled over a driver whose windows were illegally tinted. He had a .40-caliber pistol in his waistband. At his home, officers found about a pound of marijuana and a .44-caliber handgun.
“Even taking one gun off the street can make a difference,” said Sgt. James Davis, who runs the force’s special-assignment team. “Those guns are used to commit crimes.”
Since 2000, more than 9,500 guns — or at least one-half of all the guns logged in the county — have been pulled off the streets of Districts 3 and 4 in Prince George’s, the analysis shows. In D.C., the adjacent police districts — the 6th and 7th — have been the source of more than 12,000 guns, or about 43 percent of the guns recovered in the city in that period.
Residents in these areas grapple with some of the highest violent-crime rates in the region.
Janis D. Hazel, who is a member of an Advisory Neighborhood Commission in the 6th District, recalled hearing gunshots outside her home in 2006. She looked out the window and saw a car ablaze, people running and a man in the street, shot to death.
“You hear gunshots, so there must be a gun,” Hazel said. Residents, especially elderly ones, she said, fear retribution if they call police to report shootings, a mind-set she is trying to reverse.
In the District, handgun ownership was illegal until 2008, when the Supreme Court struck down parts of the city’s gun-control law. Residents can now own handguns legally if they register them with police but may not be armed outside their homes or businesses. In Maryland, a person must have a permit to carry a handgun in public.
Based on completed traces by ATF — which identifies the licensed dealer that first sold a gun — about 25 percent of the weapons confiscated in the District originated at a licensed dealer in Virginia. Another 25 percent were first sold by a Maryland dealer. The rest trickled in from across the nation.
In 2010, Robert P. Bowser was illegally dealing arms outside Uncle Lee’s seafood restaurant on Eastern Avenue NE, court records show. In a series of meetings with undercover officers, he sold three handguns, a Mac-11 machine pistol and an AK-47 that he called a “Special K.” The transactions totaled $2,950 and included ammunition and bulletproof vests. Bowser, already a felon, went to prison. Among the weapons he sold was a .40-caliber pistol stolen in North Carolina.
Prince George’s has been home to dozens of gun shops over the years. Police there say traces show that about 23 percent of the guns they recover are first sold in the county.
The Post, in its investigation titled “The Hidden Life of Guns” in 2010, found that one of the single biggest retail sources of guns recovered in Prince George’s and the District was Realco, a small gun shop on Marlboro Pike. The paper tracked 2,500 guns back to the shop, a disproportionate number compared with other stores in Maryland.
Straw purchases, sales in which individuals buy firearms for others, are one of the main ways traffickers secure new weapons, experts say. Another is theft. Of the 18,000 guns itemized in Prince George’s recovery logs, at least 1,000 were flagged as having been reported stolen.
Police in the District and Prince George’s have ramped up efforts to target illegal guns. In the District, Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier revived the force’s gun recovery unit in 2007, and the squad has since confiscated more than 2,000 firearms. D.C. police have also established an anonymous gun tip line and targeted neighborhoods plagued by gun violence.
“Our focus on illegal firearms appears to be working,” Lanier said in response to written questions, noting the drop in violent crime. “The number of guns recovered is a result of the strategies put in place by the department.”
In January, Prince George’s police launched a major initiative to analyze gun trace data, debrief people caught with guns and feed the intelligence into a database. “We are looking for the sources of the crime guns,” Lt. John Boesman said.
The county has a “pretty sophisticated business structure” of people who deal in crime guns, said Deputy Chief Hank Stawinski, who heads up the force’s Bureau of Forensic Science and Intelligence.
“Buried within the data are clues to the people who are supplying the weapons,” he said.
The vast majority of the millions of guns in circulation nationwide will never become crime guns. But those that do will have been on the streets for almost a dozen years, ATF data show. Recovered guns have often changed hands multiple times.
In August 2005, Michael Carter brandished a Hi-Point .45-caliber pistol when a rival drug dealer named Louis M. Medley III tried to rob him at his apartment at 4600 Livingston Road SE in the District.
Medley’s gun, an Intratec 9mm that he called his “tooth puller,” jammed. Medley wrestled Carter’s .45 from him, shot Carter in the back of the head and, with a girlfriend’s help, set him on fire, court records show.
Medley carried the Hi-Point until his arrest in October 2005. Once in jail, he had his girlfriend retrieve the gun from a car and give the weapon to his mother, who gave it to one of his associates.
In March 2006, the gun resurfaced when the associate used it during a shootout in Barry Farm, just a few miles from where Carter was killed, records show. Police found the Hi-Point in the kitchen trash of a nearby residence. Medley was convicted and sent to prison.
In 2011, police seized eight guns, including a .40-caliber Ceska Zbrojovka pistol and a 9mm Black Talon Luger, linked to an ongoing, nearly two-year-old war between rival street crews in the Benning Terrace public housing complex in Southeast Washington, prosecutors said.
Crew members pooled money to buy guns to protect turf and drug sales, court records show. They test-fired weapons in the nearby woods. They shared the firearms, stashing them at girlfriends’ apartments.
Retaliatory shootings between the crews left two dead, including a bystander caught in the crossfire in May 2010.
“I guess if we keep on going, few more years there won’t be any more young men out there,” said the judge in one of the cases.
In all, 13 people were convicted.
Destruction is the end of the line for many confiscated guns in the region.
In Prince George’s, police destroy about two-thirds of the guns they recover annually, hauling them to an incinerator in Baltimore. In the District, police melt down about one-third of the guns confiscated. ATF, which has seized more than 1,200 guns in Prince George’s since 2000, shreds weapons at a Maryland recycling firm.
In June 2008, officers seized nine guns in the aftermath of a shootout between two motorists in Northeast Washington.
That evening, officers found Dwight Anthony of Lanham dead, slumped behind the wheel of his crashed Mercedes near 14th and D streets NE. Witnesses told police that Anthony, 31, pulled next to a car that had been following him and asked the driver whether he knew him. Shooting commenced.
On the floorboard beneath Anthony’s feet, police found a Ruger .357 magnum handgun. Anthony, police said, had managed to return fire. His fiancee, in the passenger seat, survived the fusillade.
A week later officers arrested Jerome C. Earles, also known as “Doughboy,” after a brief car chase.
Wielding a search warrant, officers went to his girlfriend’s house on Valley Terrace SE. A man sprinted from the yard, tossing guns from his pants: a Cobray M11, a 9mm semiautomatic machine pistol, a .45-caliber minimax Llama handgun, and a Glock 19.
Police arrested the man, a felon on probation, and found a rusted handgun and rifle at his home.
Inside the girlfriend’s home, where Earles was living, police discovered an SKS semiautomatic 7.62 rifle, suspected crack cocaine and $13,400 in cash. She, too, was a felon.
Police also searched a residence on Holbrook Street NE, home to another friend of Earle’s, and found a bag containing 295 rounds of ammunition, a magazine that fit the SKS rifle and two guns: a .32-caliber Colt semiautomatic pistol and a .45-caliber Desert Eagle. The latter weapon was used to kill Anthony, records show.
Earles said that he shot and killed Anthony but that he did so in self-defense.
He was a felon, on probation, with four prior weapons convictions. He was prohibited from owning firearms but told a jury that he carried a gun illegally because he had been shot twice. He claimed that Anthony fired first.
“I carry my gun,” Earles testified. “It ain’t right, but I carry my gun.”
The jury convicted Earles on gun charges but acquitted him of murder. He is scheduled to be released from prison this year.
Petho is an investigative journalist from Hungary who is reporting for The Washington Post under the Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship Program. Ted Melnik and Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.