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Gun control proposals miss weapons used most in local crimes

By Izaskun E. Larrañeta

Publication: The Day

Published 03/10/2013 12:00 AM
Updated 03/10/2013 04:32 AM
Legally obtained and assault-style firearms rarely seized, police say

The 126 guns voluntarily turned over last weekend in a city buyback program covered seven tables when displayed by the New London Police Department. The state will destroy them, meaning none will ever be used in a crime.

Not on display, instead stored in boxes in an evidence room, are 61 firearms being held for court cases or criminal cases under investigation. Unlike the guns in the buyback program, many of these weapons weren't legally registered to the person from whom they were seized.

Lawmakers in Hartford and Washington are considering new gun laws that would require permits for more types of guns and background checks for the ownership transfer or sale of all firearms, as well as strengthening the state's assault weapon ban.

Law enforcement officials in New London and Norwich, however, say the majority of gun-related crimes aren't committed by the individual to whom the firearm is registered. And they rarely see assault weapons.

"The majority of gun crime in Norwich involves handguns, and the majority of those are illegal handguns," Norwich Lt. Christopher Ferace said.

He said he could remember only one case where a legal handgun was used to commit a crime, in June 2009 when Chihan Eric Chyung was charged with murder for fatally shooting his wife, Paige Anne Bennett, with a Glock 9mm handgun.

New Haven Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield last week said handgun legislation needs to be added to the recommendations that Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has made in the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings.

Ferace said there are several ways that guns get on the street illegally. He said someone could own a gun legally but then give it to someone else, usually in exchange for drugs or quick cash. The weapon also could be stolen from a home.

Police don't usually find stolen guns until they're used in a crime, as with the case of David J. Grant of New York. He has been charged with killing Donna Richardson of New London, who was hit by a stray bullet while standing outside the Mai Thai Restaurant in Norwich in June.

After the shooting, state police in Montville recovered the alleged murder weapon, a .38-caliber Taurus, which had been reported stolen out of North Carolina.

It was just one of 32 guns seized by Norwich police last year.

Some guns are untraceable, like the one that Leo Conrad used in Sept. 6, 2004, to kill his wife, Rose, outside his Washington Street apartment in Norwich.

Ferace said that two months before the murder, a judge had granted Rose's request for a restraining order. The order mandated that Leo turn over his guns, which he did.

The gun used in the murder, a .32-caliber pistol circa the 1900s, was made before the Gun Control Act of 1968, a federal law that, among many things, requires serial numbers on weapons.

"What we will never know is if he had it in his possession and never turned it over or did he acquire it after the fact," Ferace said. "The gun was untraceable."

Peter Reichard, New London's acting police chief, said illegal guns also get on the street through "straw purchases," meaning that someone legally purchases a weapon, but then sells it to someone who is unable to buy a gun lawfully.

In Connecticut, the Special License and Firearms Unit is responsible for overseeing and regulating all retail firearms transactions and all private handgun transfers that take place within the state.

A dealer or private seller must obtain an authorization number from the firearms unit to allow the ownership transfer of a handgun to proceed, and the buyer must have a gun permit. At that time, the handgun's serial number is recorded in the firearms unit database.

The firearms unit also gets notified when long guns are sold commercially or at a gun show. Sales of long arms between non-licensed dealers, commonly referred to as second-hand sales, require no paperwork or notification.

The state requires a permit only for handguns. If someone wants to buy a hunting rifle or shotgun, they must go through a background check and a 14-day waiting period, unless they already have a pistol permit, a hunting license, active military identification or are a law enforcement official, all of which waive the waiting period and background check.

Tracing a gun

When a handgun is recovered as part of a criminal investigation, the weapon is analyzed for fingerprints and DNA evidence. The serial number is run through the National Crime Information Center to see whether it has been reported stolen or used in another crime.

The weapon also is shipped off to the state police crime lab, where it is fired and a spent bullet and shell casing are examined to see whether the gun can be linked to any other crimes.

The gun is then returned to the police station, where it is kept until a judicial order instructs police to destroy it or return it to its owner.

Reichard and Ferace said that Connecticut has some of the toughest guns laws on the books, including its own assault weapons ban. They said they didn't think a federal assault weapons ban, as is being discussed in the wake of the Sandy Hook mass shooting in Newtown, would help to reduce crime since assault weapons are not used in most crimes in their communities.

The weapon that mass murder Adam Lanza used in Newtown, a Bushmaster rifle, is legal to own in Connecticut, they noted.

Norwich Deputy Chief Warren Mocek said the previously expired federal assault weapons ban didn't appear to have any notable effect on gun-related crime in his city. He said decision-makers should be looking at other contributing factors to mass shootings, such as mental illness and the effects of playing graphic video games.

"It's a knee-jerk reaction to want to do something that for the most part is not very effective," Mocek said. "Criminals don't care if there is an assault weapon ban or not; most use illegally obtained guns."

Crime statistics in Connecticut seem to back that up. According to the 2011 Connecticut Uniform Reporting Program, of the 94 murders committed, 57 involved handguns and 18, knives.

In New London County, there were five murders - three in New London and two in Norwich. Three were committed with handguns, one by a knife and the other by an unspecified firearm, the report said.

Prosecuting gun crimes

Both Ferace and Reichard said there is no clear-cut solution on how to prevent illegal guns from hitting the streets.

Ferace suggested a "pro-active" approach to policing, preventing crime before it happens. Reichard said having more police on the streets helps with establishing relationships, but more importantly, with gathering crucial intelligence. Reichard said better coordination between states as to who is buying and selling guns also is needed.

Both Ferace and Reichard said that vigorous prosecution of gun crimes would serve as a deterrent.

Reichard said that New London's gun buyback program minimized the opportunity for guns to be stolen and then used in other crimes.

"We also need to educate the public, starting with kids that guns are not toys," he said. "We need to change the attitude, culture because criminals are not afraid to use them."

Mocek said gun owners also have a responsibility to keep their guns safe and secure.

"You can't legislate common sense," he said. "Gun owners have to be responsible and minimize the opportunity for guns to be used illegally."

i.larraneta@theday.com

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