SAN ANGELO, Texas — While the rights of legitimate gun owners have dominated a long and noisy public debate across the country, little attention has been paid to the trade in illegal firearms.
In San Angelo, the black market in guns has become an acute public safety problem.
From 2013 through 2015, reports of stolen guns to the San Angelo Police Department have increased by 63 percent, according to data provided by the department. During 2013, 89 firearms were reported stolen; in 2015, the number rose to 145.
Only a fraction of those guns are recovered.
Illegally owned and stolen guns play a dark role in robberies, homicides, wounding and domestic violence, among other crimes, judicial and law enforcement records show. Local officials said pistols, rifles and shotguns are regular features of stolen property reports.
Seizures of firearms are also a common occurrence during drug busts, taken by police on the assumption that they were either stolen or purchased with the proceeds of criminal activities, San Angelo Police Chief Tim Vasquez said.
No one knows for certain how many stolen and illegally owned firearms there are in San Angelo. One thing is nearly certain: Guns are relatively easy to buy for people who aren’t supposed to have them, and the number of illegally owned firearms in San Angelo is growing.
A common and pervasive thread
Examples of stolen firearms used in crime or gun theft as an element of violent crime are not difficult to find, even in a casual look over the past few months in San Angelo.
A suspect, George Simmons, 37, was arrested on a charge of murder in November in connection with the death by strangulation of 23-year-old Brian Plunkett, who was killed in 2010. Prosecutors say the theft of several guns Plunkett had was part of the motive in his murder.
Kenneth W. Acy, 26, opened fire with a handgun on a group of people who stumbled upon him as he burglarized a vehicle near Etihicon in September 2014. A jury found Acy guilty of two counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and one count of unlawful possession of a firearm by felon and sentenced him to 40 years in prison in August 2015.
Jason Rowden, 29, is accused of shooting up the Econo Lodge at 415 W. Beauregard Ave. in November with a semi-automatic .45-caliber handgun. Police report they found drugs in his vehicle, and he was charged with unlawful carry of a firearm. No one was injured.
Most recently, a 14-year-old boy from Carlsbad was shot in the mouth on Jan. 8, allegedly by an older teen with a stolen handgun, according to a offense report from the Tom Green County Sheriff’s Office. The suspect teen was charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, although an incident report says the teen claims it was an accidental discharge.
In October, a man with a felony conviction background was accused of shooting up a room at the Comfort Inn and Suites, causing an evacuation of the hotel. No one was injured, and Mateo Reymundo Flores, 47, was charged with deadly conduct and being a felon in possession of a firearm.
These are just a few examples from the steady parade of charges seen by the district attorneys in Tom Green County involving the theft of guns and the use of illegal guns in criminal acts.
Jail and court records show almost daily charges of illegally possessed firearms and gun-related crimes in San Angelo. At the start of the year, about 31 out of about 767 pending cases in the 51st District involved firearms — 13 unlawful possession of firearms by felon, 11 aggravated assault with firearms, five firearm thefts and two murders with firearms — according to data from the 51st District’s Attorney’s Office.
Charges involving a firearm are nearly always secondary to a primary charge, such as homicide, robbery or assault. Under Texas law, unlawful possession of a firearm by felon is a third-degree felony punishable by two to 10 years in prison and up to a $10,000 fine.
“Sometimes we are limited to that 10 years, but we do take it seriously,” said 51st District Attorney Allison Palmer. “Two to 10 is kind of a narrow punishment range in our view because, for example, a first-degree felony punishment range is anywhere from five years up to 99 or life.”
Palmer said prosecutors are sometimes limited, but depending on a felon’s record the DA’s Office always seeks a harsher penalty on the primary charge by using the firearms charge as an enhancing factor.
“Say we have options of charges of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon or unlawful possession of firearm by felon,” Palmer said. “For one thing, aggravated assault is a second-degree felony. Your punishment range is already broader.
“So we’ll always go that route. We’ll always seek the deadly weapon finding. I’ve even sought deadly weapon findings on drug possession cases.”
Drugs and guns are often found in company with one another, she said.
“And what we’re saying there is someone’s using that firearm to facilitate their business of drug dealing, essentially,” she said. “As far as illicit transfer of firearms, we really struggle with that in the community. And it is a big problem in my mind.”
The root problem of violent crimes, theft, guns and gangs is drugs, Palmer said, and drug crimes are by and large the county’s most prevalent crimes. Of the 767 active cases the office was managing at the beginning of January, about 150 involved drugs.
Statistically speaking, that is an enormous number, Palmer said. The drug business is the primary motivator that drives the theft business, which includes firearm theft, Palmer said.
“It’s a very unsavory group that these firearms fall into the hands of, and the original thieves may not be the worst in the world, but they are looking for money,” Palmer said. “They are looking for drugs, and so they are going to trade them (the stolen guns) into the hands of the worst.”
A portion of the drug trade locally is gang driven, the illegal firearms trade is also gang driven, and the two worlds do very much collide, Palmer said.
Stolen firearms, like drugs, can quickly become untraceable by being moved through a gang network, and that is another hurdle prosecutors face in trying to recover evidence, Palmer said. A firearm used in a crime can quickly vanish into an underground network, and where the gun goes from there is anybody’s guess, Palmer said.
“Those firearms then just kind of disappear in this network,” she said. “Firearms are used to commit the murders and then they disappear. We can’t recover the firearms, and often it’s through a gang network. Gang networks move very quickly to move firearms around and make them inaccessible to the police.”
Palmer estimated that her office has dealt with about 40 cases in the past two years that have involved illegal possession of guns, and in about 75 percent of them the firearms charge contributed to an enhanced penalty.
Into the vault, or into the dark
Most stolen guns vanish into the darkness of the firearms black market. Vasquez, the San Angelo police chief, said his department recovered 11 stolen guns in 2013, six in 2014 and 11 again in 2015 through the beginning of December.
Those that are recovered, along with any firearms being held as evidence in a crime, wind up in a secure vault at an obscure end of the fluorescent-lit rabbit warren of corridors in the depths of the San Angelo police station.
The evidence locker contains decades worth of confiscated firearms. Wooden racks line the concrete walls about waist high, stacked with labeled cardboard boxes containing individual pistols. An array of tagged rifles and shotguns are displayed around the small storage room, set upright and leaning against the wall. As of December, about 452 firearms were housed at the police station — about 323 handguns and 110 long guns, the remainder being toy guns or BB guns, according to SAPD.
Most of the firearms were involved in criminal activities and are being kept as evidence in pending trials. Some have been held for more than 30 years, subject to evidence requirements connected to homicides, the cases for which might someday be appealed, Vasquez said.
“When we’ve made gun recoveries, it’s usually been because we cleared a burglary investigation,” he said. “We were able to tie it to a particular person, and we caught that person before they were able to dispose of the evidence of the stolen property.”
Firearms also are found in traffic stops, Vasquez said. For example, a patrol office finds drugs during a traffic stop, does a search of the vehicle and finds a gun in the process.
Law enforcement officials do not know how many illegally owned firearms there are in the city.
“I couldn’t give you an exact number because we may take a report 15 years ago of a stolen gun and it’s still out there,” Vasquez said. “I can tell you that throughout my years that we see stolen guns a lot. I mean regularly, weekly. Weekly we see guns stolen.”
The first thing investigators do when they confiscate a firearm is find out whether it was stolen, Vasquez said, and for that the SAPD relies heavily on the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives database. The ATF regulates the sale, licensing, possession and transportation of firearms, among numerous other tasks. SAPD works with and depends greatly on the ATF’s resources in almost all gun-related matters because the department does not have a specialized unit that focuses on getting illegally owned guns off the street, Vasquez said.
“Auto, burglary, residential burglary. We’re in West Texas, so lots of people carry guns in their car,” Vasquez said. “Car gets broken into, the gun gets stolen, and next thing you know, it ends up in somebody’s hands.”
It’s a problem bigger than San Angelo, he said.
“I can tell you that every community, just about every community, at least one our size, has people that will buy stolen weapons,” Vasquez said. “That’s been around forever. They’re accessible. Firearms are easy to find if you know the right people.”
Vasquez said drug dealers are a portion of those “right people” because police often find firearms during a drug bust.
“People in the drug market want to do things to protect themselves, and so they are the ones who have guns,” Vasquez said.
Firearms collected by SAPD remain in storage until a judge issues a deposition. SAPD then releases the guns back to their legal owners, destroys, reuses or sells the firearms to a law enforcement distributor such as GT Distributors, Vasquez said.
Police confiscated 100 firearms over the past three years — 72 involved in unlawful carry or crimes and 28 determined to be stolen, he said, adding that his department has made and no seizures of legally held weapons that were not involved in a crime. .
The disposal of illegal guns actually helps the department. Vasquez said selling the weapons through a specialized auction site used by law enforcement agencies generated $11,500 in revenues for the department in 2015. The department sold 73 handguns and 47 long-barrel firearms accumulated over three years. During 2015 another 76 handguns and long-barrel firearms were destroyed.
Good guys, bad guys
Buying a gun legally in Texas is a pretty simple matter.
“If you’re legally allowed to possess a firearm, we go over there and we do the paperwork,” said Will Higgins, a licensed gun dealer at Outdoorsman. “I could probably have you in and out of here in 20 to 30 minutes.”
A few states, such as California, New York and Hawaii, require individual handguns to be registered with the police or another law enforcement agency, but gun buyers in Texas, like most states, are not required to register their firearms.
People who buy their guns from dealers are required to fill out the ATF Form 4473, which includes personal information and a checklist of questions, asking whether the buyer is under indictment or a fugitive of the law, a drug addict or has been adjudicated as mentally defective, among other things.
Once the form is complete, the licensed dealer runs the purchaser’s information through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, the FBI’s system for determining if a prospective firearms buyer is eligible.
People often assume that the firearms they purchase are registered when they undergo the NICS background check, but no such gun registry exists in Texas, said Daryl Presley, a licensed firearms dealer at Outdoorsman.
“I think the idea of registration for most people is that somewhere the government has a list of what guns I own, that my gun is registered under my name titled like a car,” Presley said. “And we regularly have somebody call us up and say, ‘I want to sell my gun to a friend’ or ‘How do I get it out of my name into his?’ Well, it’s not in your name.”
In actuality, when an NICS check is performed, “what they do is they check your name and your information and they compare it to a list that they have of bad guys … known criminals,” Higgins said.
“If anything about your name is even remotely resembles somebody on that list, they can do what they call a delay or a hold.”
The FBI has three business days to approve or deny the transfer. If the dealer has not received a decision from the FBI within that time, the sale can go ahead.
More than 100 million such checks have been made in the past decade of which 700,000 resulted in denials, according to the FBI.
“A felony conviction alone in itself is going to prohibit you from ever owning a firearm,” Higgins said. “So that’s one good thing that they have set up is that if you come in here and try to, let’s say, buy a firearm for a guy out in the parking lot — you know, a straw purchase — what they’re going to do is that in itself prohibits you from ever owning a firearm again if you get caught.”
A straw purchase is a criminal act in which a person who is prohibited from buying firearms uses another person to buy a gun.
“Let’s say, for example, that I’m a bad guy and I say, ‘Hey look I would like to pay you $500 for you to purchase that $200 pistol in there for me,’ ” Higgins said. “So if you go do that, you give me the firearm, and I give you an extra $300 dollars. Even though you’re little miss innocent — ‘I just needed some extra money.’ — you’re a felon now.”
When the gun sale takes place between two individuals, the legalities are not so precise.
In Texas, the law does not require a NICS background check or any form of paperwork in the private sale or trading of firearms from one person to another.
“The law has now put into the sellers’ hands of whether they get to make the decision, basically,” Higgins said. “Now, what is my duty is to ensure to the best of my abilities, to the best of my knowledge, that (the buyer) is not prohibited from owning a firearm. I can say, ‘Are you prohibited from owning a firearm or anything like that?’ So he can lie.”
Despite these requirements, prosecution of people who sell guns illegally is rare.
Palmer, the district attorney, said she cannot recall any instance of her office receiving for prosecution any cases involving the illegal sales of firearms from investigating agencies.
Such cases nationwide are rare. A recent case in Chicago is the exception — a judge sentenced a man there to nearly 17 years in prison for bringing firearms from Indiana, which has gun laws similar to those in Texas, into Chicago, which has more restrictive laws, and selling them to street dealers there.
Addressing the problem
The city’s DA and police chief agree that stiffer penalties, not increased controls, are part the solution as a deterrent to keep crooks separated from firearms.
“When we look at gun control, the direction that I always stand on is that bad guys will always find guns, and so we need to be sure that the good guys have them,” Vasquez said. “But the bad guys will always find guns whether they have a permit or license or any of that kind of stuff. They’re going to find guns.
“How do we deter criminals from owning those guns? I think you put a mandatory sentence on them.”
Vasquez said if the law set a 25-year mandatory sentence for felons in possession of firearms, regardless of whether a violent or nonviolent felony crime was involved, that might make them think twice about trying to obtain a firearm.
“If they know, ‘I get caught with a gun in violation with the law, that’s 25-year minimum sentence,’ a lot of these criminals that the officers are having to deal with all over the country won’t be in possession of a firearm,” he said.
“Gang and drugs seem to me to be driving the illicit firearm business in town,” Palmer said. “I think that as far as being able to recover firearms once they are within those networks, that becomes very difficult to penetrate to the core where those firearms are,” Palmer said. “I think it’s just very, very difficult. It’s a very secretive system.”
Legitimate gun owners also have a responsibility, Palmer and Vasquez noted.
Gun owners are issued a bill of sale when they make the purchase, Vasquez said, and it is helpful to authorities when those documents are available when a gun theft is reported. Among other things, it generally includes the serial number and other information about the firearm.
For sellers, “the smartest thing you can do is say, ‘Would you mind signing a bill of sale?’ ” Higgins said “Every time you sell one, ‘Would you mind signing a bill of sale?’ Now if you have somebody that goes, ‘Yeah, I really don’t want to sign a bill of sale,’ that’s your first warning.”
Palmer said security of firearms is another matter gun owners should take seriously.
“I would not want firearms to be taken out of the hands of good citizens,” Palmer said. “I think it’s more of a public safety announcement, awareness thing: Keep your firearms safe. Keep them locked up.”
ILLEGAL FIREARMS, by the numbers:
Firearm thefts reported to the San Angelo Police Department:
2013 — 89
2014 — 103
2015 — 145
2013 — 19 seized, 11 stolen guns recovered
2014 — 27 seized, 6 stolen guns recovered
2015 — 26 seized, 11 stolen guns recovered
Guns being held in evidence by the SAPD: 452
Longest-stored weapons: More than 30 years
Disposal of seized firearms, 2015:
Hand guns and long barrel firearms destroyed — 76
Hand guns auctioned — 73
Long barreled firearms auctioned — 47
Revenue from auctioned guns — $11,500
Find the original story at gosanangelo.com .