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Smoking Guns

Gregory B. Hladky

November 10, 2009

A 22-year-old thug from Stamford is convicted on Oct. 14 of possessing a "Street Sweeper 12 gauge revolving cylinder shotgun." Five days later, a Bridgeport coke dealer gets time added to his sentence for having a loaded Glock 23. The end of last month saw a career criminal from Hartford charged with carrying a .40 caliber semi-automatic pistol.

If you're wondering where the hell these low-lifes are getting all this firepower, you won't find out from Connecticut's Statewide Firearms Trafficking Task Force. It was created to deal with this exact problem, but it's become another victim of Connecticut's budget crisis.

The task force was formed in 2000 in response to surging gun violence. Three years later, its funding was chopped as state officials struggled to deal with an earlier fiscal fiasco. In 2007, another wave of urban shootings convinced lawmakers to restore the money. And now it's gone again, even though the gunfire continues to echo through Connecticut's cities. But state Public Safety Commissioner John A. Danaher III doesn't think the loss of the task force is anything to fret about.

"It was a tool for a problem that doesn't exist in that way anymore," Danaher said in a recent interview. "You just don't have organized firearms trafficking going on."

In fact, Danaher said, the task force hasn't even been using all of the funding it received in recent years. "It was kind of money without a place to go."

Danaher's statements came as a shock to West Hartford Police Chief James J. Strillacci, a former president of the Connecticut Chiefs of Police Association.

"I don't know where he's getting his information," Strillacci said. "We know criminals are regularly getting guns. They're getting them somehow. ... Whether it's organized or disorganized, it's very effective."

Activists on all sides of the gun-control issue think it's bureaucratic bullshit to claim Connecticut no longer needs to target illegal gun trafficking.

"What, do these guys get their guns from Wal-Mart?" asked state Rep. Michael P. Lawlor, co-chairman of the legislature's Judiciary Committee. "There are young kids killing each other with guns, mostly in the cities and mostly gang related. ... There appear to be a lot of guns out there and the purpose of the gun task force was to figure out where these guns are coming from."

Last year, 75 percent of Hartford's homicides involved guns. In a two-year stretch, New Haven suffered 55 gun deaths and 509 nonfatal shootings, most involving gangs.

"Some system is putting guns in the hands of kids in the cities, and it's up to the cops to figure out what that system is and to stop it," said Lawlor, a Democrat from East Haven and one of the legislature's top control advocates.

A spokesman for the anti-gun control group Coalition of Connecticut Sportsmen absolutely agrees with Lawlor something that doesn't happen often.

"The guns are coming from somewhere," said Bob Crook. "The task force was set up to bag these guys selling guns out of the trunks of cars. ... If you're going to get guns off the streets, somebody has to be investigating."

Danaher's gun trafficking attitude has a familiar ring for Ron Pinciaro, executive director of Connecticut Against Gun Violence.

"That's always been their [state law enforcement] position," said Pinciaro. "That it's not organized, that it's sort of random." Pinciaro believes Connecticut law enforcement isn't asking the right kinds of questions or doing the grunt work necessary to find where the guns are coming from.

"Eighty-seven percent of [firearm-related] prosecutions in Connecticut are for gun possession, not for gun trafficking," Pinciaro said. "They almost never ask the question, 'Where did you get that gun?'"

He argues that a significant portion of the guns showing up on the streets are coming from "rogue dealers" profiting by peddling firearms. Pinciaro cites the 2007 conviction of Frank D'Andrea, a notorious Stratford gun dealer. For years, D'Andrea sold an arsenal's worth of firearms to Bridgeport drug dealers and gang killers. D'Andrea is due to be released from federal prison next year.

Danaher, federal and local law enforcement officials tend to blame the flow of guns on drug addicts trading guns for dope, non-felons acting as "straw buyers" for criminals or youths gangsters. Police say guns are also stolen and then resold on the street or rented by one criminal to another.

"I'm certainly not suggesting there aren't illegal guns out there," said Danaher, arguing that stricter controls over gun sales have made it tougher for criminals to buy guns here. "I haven't seen large numbers of gun seizures," he said.

That could be because the officers assigned to the task force have been used for other purposes, or perhaps because the state police felt they didn't need to spend all of the $400,000 a year it got in the past couple of years. In 2007 to 2008, only $147,000 of the money was used, while just under $300,000 of the funding was spent in 2008 to 2009. Last year, according to the state police, the task force seized just 65 illegal firearms, a figure that has dropped to just 30 this year.

Danaher also said the task force was sent down to New Haven in 2007 to help local police after the scandal surrounding corrupt cop Billy White resulted in the disbanding of the city's narcotics unit.

There are still federal-local gun task forces operating in Connecticut's cities under the Safe Neighborhoods program. Hartford Police Lt. Lance Sigersmith said the program is "awesome in targeting illegal guns" in his city. The feds have prosecuted a number of cases of illegal gun buying and selling in recent years. The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is responsible for tracing how guns got from manufacturers to authorized gun dealers and eventually into the hands of criminals.

According to the ATF, there were 1,563 guns seized and traced in Connecticut last year. Of the 779 where a state of origin could be identified, 478 came from this state. Florida led the list of outside states of origin with 34, followed by Virginia with 31 and Pennsylvania with 23.

But the ATF is forbidden by law from telling the public exactly which gun dealers sold guns used in crimes. Congress approved a 2003 amendment barring public release of that information on the grounds it wouldn't be fair to gun dealers who may have legally sold those weapons to people who resold them illegally.

The fact is no one in Connecticut not local, state or federal law enforcement is able or willing to say how many of the firearms seized in criminal cases came from straw purchasers, were stolen, lost, or how many were sold directly by licensed gun dealers.

Everyone agrees tracing a gun is often a long, frustrating experience. Serial numbers may be obliterated, older weapons may not have serial numbers, gun dealers may go out of business, the gun owner of record may have moved or died.

That was supposed to have been the job of the gun trafficking task force, and now it's gone.

"I've got to believe they're not connecting the dots and following through," Pinciaro said of Connecticut law enforcement. "I don't think the political will exists to follow it through."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Advocate.
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