In Providence, Few Know Where Flood of Guns Comes From

“Do it right.”

That was the last thing Luis Gonzalez told Branden Castro — nicknamed “Blaze” — before he bolted out of their minivan.

But there was nothing right about what happened next: A gun fired into a crowd for no reason and with no target, leaving a trail of blood and tears. Four women were hit. The youngest of them — 12-year-old Aynis Vargas — did not survive. What started out as a graduation party in June 2013 had turned into a neighborhood nightmare.

Castro, Gonzalez and four other gang-member accomplices were arrested and charged.

But the gun that made such indiscriminate shooting possible? Police never found it.

So it goes in Providence, where few seem to know where the flood of guns on city streets is coming from.

Of 11 total gun-related homicides in 2013, police recovered the weapon used just three times. And the official police reports for those three cases give no inkling as to where the gun came from.

“How important is it for us, all of us, now to find out … who supplied the gun? The weapon of the crime? The lethal tool?” Teny Oded Gross, the executive director of the Institute for the Study and Practice of Nonviolence, asked in an interview.

Seated around conference table the three police officers — a captain, detective lieutenant and major — initially seemed perplexed when I posed that question during an interview in fall 2013. “When you say, ‘Where do they come from?’ what do you mean by that?” asked Capt. Michael Correia, the commanding officer of the Detective Bureau.

The question was rephrased as a series of hypotheticals: Perhaps the guns are stolen? Or maybe, like drugs, some are being trafficked from out of state?

“You’re starting in an unrealistic place. … We get few if any suspects or criminals in this police station who tell us where they got their firearms from. So if really you’re looking to say, ‘Well, we got a gun that was stolen out of Alabama by the guy with the gun,’ that’s an unrealistic place to start,” Correia responded.

Correia was seated behind a fist-high stack of police reports on gun-related crimes from 2013 — 111 to be exact — from drug raids where weapons were seized as collateral to outright shootings.  Some could have been obtained through straw purchasers — girlfriends, friends, cousins — who legally buy a gun on behalf of someone with a criminal record. Some are stolen. And some are outright bought legally.

But which is it in Providence?

Neither Correia nor his two colleagues can say. “Without manually going in and totaling up the 111 firearms I wouldn’t be able to give you a ‘most are’ or ‘most aren’t,’” Correia said.

After a records request, those reports were mine — in the form of six PDFs totaling 734 pages, including all fatal shootings in 2013, all gun seizures from January to November of that year, and an undisclosed percentage of all other violent crimes that were gun-related up to November.

In poring over those reports, one thing became immediately clear: In certain neighborhoods, guns are everywhere — under a mattress, in a dumpster, a drawer full of women’s underwear, a woman’s pocketbook and under a child’s car seat.

And it’s not just the gangbangers who have them. There’s the mother who pointed a .9mm Beretta at her 21-year-old son after she refused to let him borrow his father’s truck to buy marijuana, telling him, “Your days are gonna be shortened.” (She was charged with domestic assault but faced no gun charges since it was legally purchased.) Then there’s the elderly man who hopped onto the passenger side of a moving UPS truck brandishing a .9mm Smith and Wesson when the driver refused to give him his package. (Police reports do not specify whether the gun was legally obtained or not.) And there’s the petite 24-year-old woman who sold drugs while walking her pit bull and kept a rifle with 45 rounds in her bedroom. (Her gun was illegally owned.)

But just where did those guns come from?

The question turned all the data I had been provided into a funnel: I started with seemingly lots of information, but I ended up with only a narrow trickle of insights. Those 734 pages corresponded to 164 reports of crimes which involved — or were believed to have involved — a gun. In about half of those cases — 81 to be exact — the gun was recovered. Incomplete information about the source of the gun was available in at least 18 of the cases. Most of those were stolen, but the name and location of the owner was not known. Or, if they were, police did not indicate it on their reports.

In just nine cases out of 734 pages and 164 reports were the cities or towns where the guns had been stolen revealed. And one — Steuben, a tiny town in Downeast Maine — turned out to be erroneous. The town was actually nearby Cherryfield, according to a Maine State Police report, which was otherwise equally sparse in detail, revealing only that two guns were stolen from the backseat of an unlocked car or truck while the owner was shopping on June 12, 2003.

A decade later, one of those guns — a .22-caliber Ruger rifle — somehow found its way into the hands of Merissa Piccoli, a skinny light-skinned young woman who was caught selling drugs — allegedly heroin, cocaine and marijuana — while walking her pit bull in the North End of the city, according to a police report.

Local police are on the front lines in the war against guns, if it could be called that. But they do not have the resources to track the flow of firearms across state lines, from legal manufacturers to murderers, from gun shows to gang shootings. It turns out the people with the answers work for one of those many three-lettered federal agencies: ATF (short for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; somehow the last word got cropped out of the acronym.)

There’s just one catch: A local ATF agent told me he could not discuss any of the data the bureau collects on the record. He wouldn’t even go on background or off the record with me. Agency rules supposedly barred him from answering my questions.

Instead, he pointed me to the agency’s national website, which has trace data reports on guns seized, displayed by state. The latest ones available — for 2012 — show that of the 305 guns recovered in Rhode Island, the source was identified for 209 of them. A little over half — 124 — came from Massachusetts. The rest fanned out across the United States, as far west as Texas, the source for four guns, and south to Florida, the source of eight guns.

And that’s about all the 11-page report will tell you.

The bottom of my funnel had widened, but only ever so slightly.

One person who was able to answer my question was Ray Duggan, a street-worker who mans the reception desk at the Institute for the Study of and the Practice of Nonviolence. His answer: most guns — at least the ones used by gangs — come from “Down south.” “The gun laws are so much more lenient down there and they act like people won’t take a drive down there,” Duggan told me.

“It’s too freakin’ easy,” Duggan said.

Duggan should know. The only white member of the Young Bloods, an Asian gang, he got his first gun when he was 16 or 17, before he graduated from high school in Providence. Over the years, he would own all types of guns, including two shotguns, a .357 Magnum, a .38 revolver and even an AK-47.

Getting the AK-47 wasn’t hard. But bullets were another thing. Duggan says he stopped using the gun when it ran out of ammunition because he was afraid to go to Walmart to buy more of it.

“You get them different ways,” Duggan said. “Sometimes you get them for 20 bucks. I mean you can get them for really cheap. Depends on how bad the person needs the money. You can get — you could literally just be chilling on the block and somebody can walk up to you and be like ‘Yo I got a gun. Want to — want to buy a banger?’ You might not know the person and you going to get it.”

No questions asked? I wonder.

“Certain things you just don’t ask,” Duggan explained. “It’s like, ‘Hey where did you get it from?’ …‘What? What? What the hell do you want to know that for?’”

It wasn’t exactly don’t ask-don’t tell, however. Sometimes buyers volunteered information, revealing that a gun being sold had been used in a shooting, Duggan recalled. That seemed to make little difference in the sale — at least for Duggan. “I never cared when people [were] like ‘Oh they got bodies on ‘em,’” he said.

Another way to get a gun is through a ‘custy’ — a customer who pays for drugs with guns. Customers like that might live in a quieter upscale city neighborhood or a suburb and have no use for a gun. They might also have the kind of clean criminal record that would allow them to buy one.

For Duggan, the guns were about more than show and tell. He’s shot people, but wouldn’t go into detail during our interview, except to stress that he never shot anyone who was ‘innocent.’

“There’s only two things you do with somebody. If I don’t get along with you I’m either going to jump you or I’m going to dead you. There’s no two ways about it. I’m not going to stab you because you don’t always kill somebody from stabbing,” Duggan said. “If you’re going to take the life you’re going to take the life, but you’ve got to do it right.”

On October 9, 2004, Duggan was shot five times outside his home on Bergen Street off Chalkstone Avenue. He took two bullets in the chest, one in the back, and two in his legs. It was just two months after he turned 22.

Duggan keeled over, closed his eyes and tried to die. “I said, ‘This sucks. This is my last vision of the world. This shitty ass street,’” Duggan recalled.

Instead, he was paralyzed from the waist down. “Death never scared me. I didn’t give a shit if I died. I never thought about being paralyzed, though,” Duggan said. “That really threw a wrench in it.”

As someone who has lived — and cheated death — on both sides of the gun, Duggan has become one of the Nonviolence Institute’s most compelling advocates against gun violence as well as a witness to the toll it takes. Now a receptionist and street-worker willing to share his story with anyone who will listen, Duggan hopes to prevent other misguided youth from enduring the less-than-glamorous fate he has endured — a life confined to a wheelchair, battling life-threatening bedsores. (Though Duggan says he would have it no other way. “Now I love my life. I love it that I’m not like that anymore.”)

In our interview, Duggan also has a message for public policymakers. Recalling how easy it was for him to get that AK-47 — something that clearly was not wanted for hunting — he says gun laws need to be ‘stricter.’

It might not just be an issue of better laws, but better enforcement of the laws that are already on the books.

Gross wonders how much is being done to crack down on the sellers of illegal guns. He’s says more attention needs to be put on the people who sell gang members the guns. “I want those people to be afraid. They’re not,” Gross said.

Over the last four years, the U.S. Attorney’s office in Rhode Island has prosecuted 15 cases in which an individual has sold or trafficked guns, according to spokesman Jim Martin, who said those findings were culled from a “significant review” of recent cases. “It is a priority in this office. Gun prosecutions always have been,” Martin said.

The number of federal gun prosecutions over the last four years is just one more than the number of drug distribution or trafficking cases where there was an arrest, indictment, plea, sentencing or other major similar development announced by the U.S. Attorney’s office in just a single year — 2013.

At the time of our interview, which was late June of this year, Martin could not comment on why there were fewer apparent gun cases than ones involving drugs.

But the U.S. Attorney is not only place where gun dealers are brought to account. The state Attorney General also has authority to prosecute cases under applicable state laws.

“There were zero. Between 2013 and 2015, there were zero prosecutions,” said spokeswoman Amy Kempe, referring to prosecutions for illegal gun sales or trafficking.

But she was quick to note the number of other gun cases handled by the office. For example, between January 1, 2013, and July 20, 2015, there were 870 cases of individuals who had a firearm without a license. During the same period there were 65 cases involving a stolen firearm, 122 cases of a larceny of a firearm, and 272 cases involving a convict of a crime of violence done by someone who was in possession of a firearm, according to Kempe. (The figures are statewide, but most cases are from Providence.)

In all, there were 3,334 cases involving a charge over a gun-related crime during the two and a half-year period, according to Kempe.

When I pointed out that those cases involve buyers, not the sellers or dealers, Kempe countered that dealers could also have been netted in the above cases, even if they did not face a formal charge related to trafficking or illegally selling a gun. “It’s not as black and white as just saying there have been zero prosecutions,” Kempe said.

Her figures were consistent with the Providence police reports I reviewed: not a single suspect was charged with the illegal sale of guns, though plenty of people had charges for illegally owning a gun or possessing a stolen firearm. But those people are usually the buyers, not the sellers.

Gross says the federal law enforcement community has not put enough of a priority on cracking down on those selling guns.

“It’s got to be a priority in my opinion that we got to get who gave the gun to the silly kid. The silly kid is not the problem alone. You will not run out of silly kids. It’s the people supplying them the guns that are the problem,” Gross said.

Read more of our coverage on guns below:

The Right to Overthrow

The Right to Self-Authority

The Right to Not Be Shot At

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