How South Carolina's guns end up in the hands of out-of-state criminals 

Looking Down the Iron Pipeline

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Jonathan Boncek

New York City Police Officer Randolph Holder was murdered in the line of duty Oct. 20, 2015. The .40-caliber Glock handgun used to take his life was traced back to South Carolina. It is just one of hundreds of weapons that traffickers bring into New York State every year along I-95 on what is referred to as the Iron Pipeline. It starts here, in the South. But its root cause is much more difficult to pin down.

There are three main ways most guns end up in the hands of criminals. One obvious source is they simply steal them, but theft alone isn't enough to meet demand. Some say that traffickers capitalize on the less-restrictive guns laws in states such as Virginia, Georgia, Florida, and the Carolinas to purchase weapons before selling them off for four or five times their cost in states where firearms are more difficult to obtain. In South Carolina, it is illegal to knowingly sell to individuals who have been convicted of a violent crime, but no background check is required for private transactions with an unlicensed dealer.

When licensed dealers are involved in an unlawful trade, it's often the result of a "straw purchase." This is what happens when a trafficker uses a friend, family member, or maybe just someone they met in the parking lot to purchase firearms from a retailer. With no limit on the number of guns someone can purchase in a given month in South Carolina, this often proves an effective way for criminals to stock up before making the trip north.

Then there are those guns that just go unaccounted for. Reported lost or stolen, these weapons just disappear until they are rediscovered by law enforcement and traced back to their source.

In 2009, the number of crime guns exported out of South Carolina per 100,000 residents was more than twice the national average, according to data from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). Between 2010 and 2014, more than 1,420 firearms were traced back to South Carolina from New York State alone. At a press conference held the day after Officer Holder's murder, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio addressed a devastated police force, a grieving family, and a city mourning the loss of one of its finest.

click to enlarge Thousands lined the streets Oct. 28, 2015, to pay their final respects to fallen NYPD Officer Randolph Holder - PROVIDED BY NYPD
  • Provided by NYPD
  • Thousands lined the streets Oct. 28, 2015, to pay their final respects to fallen NYPD Officer Randolph Holder

"Our officers do much, so much, every day to protect us, and yet they grapple every day with an unrelenting flow of firearms into this city from outside. There's a disconnect in our society that somehow people who say they believe in law and order still support the notion of the free flow of weapons, and so often it is our officers who pay the price," he said. "We pray that this tragedy sheds a little more light on that reality, so that we can protect our residents and officers alike."

On Oct. 27, 2015, de Blasio appeared alongside Police Commissioner Bill Bratton and Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance as they stood behind more than 70 firearms seized from traffickers after a yearlong undercover investigation. During that presentation, Vance said that the weapons used to kill detectives Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, and officers Brian Moore and Holder came from out of state. Commissioner Bratton spoke about the need to address both sides of the Iron Pipeline — supply and demand — but doing so will require the efforts of those outside of the city. The mayor was less guarded in his words, highlighting what it's like to live and die on the other side of the Iron Pipeline.

"We've lost police officers. We've lost parents. We've lost children because somehow this country still tolerates the notion of the free flow of guns," said de Blasio. "We know for a fact the gun that killed Officer Holder originated in South Carolina. We keep seeing this pathway illustrated over and over again — a gun from South Carolina kills one of our finest here on our streets."

The Stolen and the Missing

Responding to a report of gunfire in an East Harlem neighborhood, Officer Randolph Holder was shot in the head by a suspect attempting to flee the scene on a stolen bicycle. The 33-year-old officer with five years of experience with the department died later that evening, surrounded by his family at Harlem Hospital. He was given the title of detective posthumously. The .40-caliber Glock handgun used to kill the officer was discovered by divers the following Sunday, 20 feet below the surface of the Harlem River. The weapon served as a key piece of evidence in the indictment of Tyrone Howard, but before allegedly making it into the hands of the convicted drug dealer, the semiautomatic pistol belonged to former South Carolina state trooper Roderick Hughes.

click to enlarge JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek

For four years, the Model 22 was Hughes' sidearm. That was until 2007 when a department-wide weapons upgrade led to the pistol being sold to a store in Columbia, the New York Post reported. Hughes acted on an opportunity that allowed troopers to purchase their weapons back for personal use. Five months later he reported the weapon stolen. It would be almost three years until the gun was returned to him after being discovered during a drug raid in Florence. By that time, he was no longer in law enforcement.

After reclaiming the handgun in 2011, Hughes is said to have reported the weapon stolen from his vehicle once again four months later. The whereabouts of the pistol remained unknown until it was pulled out of an Upper Manhattan riverbed after the murder of Officer Holder. For this weapon, the path it took before ending up in the killer's hand remains a mystery — the question is how many other firearms go unaccounted for until it's too late?

In 2013, after President Barack Obama announced a plan to reduce gun violence throughout the country, the ATF tallied the nation's missing and stolen weapons reported the year prior. Of the 190,342 lost and stolen firearms reported nationwide, 9 percent were from federally licensed dealers, also known as FFLs, who are required to report any missing or stolen weapons within 48 hours of their disappearance. South Carolina accounted for 5,839 total losses that year. According to incidents reports from the Charleston Police Department, more than a dozen guns were reported stolen in the month of February this year, many pulled from cars and trucks throughout the city. While the weapons plucked from private citizens is cause for concern, a look at the recent numbers of lost and stolen firearms reported by dealers to the ATF reveals an unsettling trend.

In the years prior to 2015, FFLs in Arkansas reported around 300 guns lost or stolen annually, but last year that number shot up to almost 3,000 following major audits by the ATF. Previous audits in other states have shown similar increases indicating that the true number of weapons that go unaccounted for throughout the country may be greater than we know. So with that in mind, where did South Carolina rank in 2015?

Well, not accounting for the ATF's big bust in Arkansas, South Carolina reported the highest rate of lost weapons in the nation, averaging 25.4 missing/stolen firearms per 100 federal licenses, followed closely by Mississippi with 24.9 and Alabama with 20.4. But these numbers aren't necessarily a sign of criminal activity across the board. In Arkansas' case, almost all of the lost weapons were reported by a single unnamed dealer, according to an article by The Trace, a news website that reports on guns in the U.S. The weapons were found to be missing during an ATF inspection, and without any paperwork explaining their disappearance, the weapons had to be marked down as lost.

Call around to local retailers in Charleston, and they'll tell you that ATF requests vary. Some are as simple as turning over a few documents, whereas full inspections are scheduled in advance and can last for several days as investigators pore through a shop's records and inventory. No shops contacted were willing to comment as to whether or not they reported any firearms missing or stolen in 2015.

For both North and South Carolina, FFL inspections are overseen by the ATF Field Division office in Charlotte, where Gerod King serves as the public information officer. In King's 26 years with the ATF, he says most of the dealers he encounters are law-abiding citizens with legitimate businesses.

"You have to determine, is it sloppy record keeping? Negligence? Is it criminal intent? It is always case specific. You may have someone who is illegally selling firearms out the back door or you may have someone who is legit and had a coworker or an employee who stole some guns and they never knew about it and it didn't get divulged until the inspection. Or it just could be sloppy record keeping," he says. "When you talk about if you actually have a bad actor, per se, then you may have someone who's actually acquiring firearms illegally, disposing of them illegally, or any number of things. The big thing is, from what we normally see in North Carolina and South Carolina, we just don't see a lot of that."

Bad Apples

So if a majority of dealers are going by the book, where are the trafficked weapons coming from?

According to John Grimpel with the NYPD, the majority of crime guns that end up in New York City are obtained through straw purchases. When it comes to sales like these, it falls to dealers to recognize when a buyer is serving as a middle man for traffickers. The ATF's King says it's just a matter of common sense when spotting criminals such as these.

GRAPHICS BY SCOTT SUCHY
  • Graphics by Scott Suchy

Where does Arkansas rank?

In 2015, comprehensive audits of several federally licensed firearms dealers in Arkansas led to unusually high reports of lost or stolen guns for the state. The ATF's findings revealed 147.62 lost or stolen firearms per 100 licensed dealers — compared to the average of 15.4 reported the previous two years.

Surprising? While Arkansas' numbers are extremely high compared to the rest of the 50 states in 2015, similar audits performed in previous years showed similar spikes in New York and Texas.


"Let me give you an example: A 22-year-old male, regardless of his race, comes in and wants to buy 10 .357 Smith and Wessons that are not collectible-type handguns. Why would you do that?" he asks. "That's not common."

As far as South Carolina goes, there is no limit on how many weapons a person can buy at any given time as long as they pass the required background checks, which don't apply in private sales. At one time, a state law restricted handgun purchases to one per month, but it was repealed in 2004.

"What the federal investigations show is there are a few common channels of diversion. Very commonly, the retailers are complicit in some manner in this diversion. Either they are going along with blatant straw sales or they are selling guns off the books in some manner," says Daniel Webster, director of the Center for Gun Policy and Research at Johns Hopkins. "So either they'll keep no records and maybe sometimes they'll report them as stolen or lost or they'll make up records that they sold to people that they really didn't sell to."

He adds, "Another channel is just more garden variety straw purchases that may not involve, at least in any explicit way, a dealer. Straw purchases range in how easily identifiable they might be to a retailer, and sometimes they're very blatant."

According to Jay Wallace, board member with the American Firearm Retailers Association, dealers keep a careful eye out for any criminal activity, but the more-restrictive gun laws in Northern states are to blame for turning gun trafficking into such a money-making opportunity.

"It's all about supply and demand. Your anti-gun people complain about guns coming into Chicago or coming into New York City. They've made it so difficult for an honest person to have a firearm that they're building up this huge demand," he says. "So they're not stopping the guns from going to a dishonest person, they're just affecting the price they pay. And when you make it more expensive, what does that do? It makes more opportunity for criminals."

Left to their own better judgement, licensed dealers face the challenge of spotting straw purchasers and keeping guns out of the hands of criminals. While it seems that most retailers do their best to follow the rules, it's inevitable that some dealers will fall under scrutiny as crime guns used in other states lead back to their doorstep.

The ATF's National Tracing Center is able to track many of the weapons used in crimes back to the dealers who originally sold them, but the agency is prohibited from releasing that information to the public under the Tiahrt Amendment. This piece of legislation only permits turning these details over to law enforcement agencies for use in a criminal investigation. So we can't tell you which dealers, if any, are proving to be a major source of the weapons used in crimes.

The NRA's Institute for Legislative Action argues that not all traces are crime guns, and the amendment ensures the confidentiality of sensitive law enforcement information. While agencies may have access to trace data for retail shops, the same cannot be said for the number of private sales that take place every day with little or no records kept. When it comes to shady private deals and straw purchases, the researchers at Johns Hopkins suggest a few measures that have proven most effective in reducing this type of criminal activity.

"We found in our studies that the most important measures are required background checks for all private transactions as well as retail transactions," says Webster, who argues that requiring buyers to apply directly with a local law enforcement agency is a useful step for dissuading criminals.

"If you're a felon and you want to convince someone to go buy a gun or you're a straw purchaser, it's one thing to say, 'Will you stop into this gun shop in the neighborhood and fill out some paperwork and buy this gun?' If that person's never been in any trouble, you're in and out after an instant check, and all is good," he explains. "Now you ask that same person, 'Will you buy a gun for me? The first thing you need to do is go down to the local police department, and they're going to photograph you and take your prints and record what guns you're purchasing.' You think you're going to get as many people willing to participate?"

So it seems legislators must not only consider how a state's laws affect those within its borders, they must also recognize the impact of those laws across the country. Because for the nation's gun traffickers making their way up I-95, the Iron Pipeline is paved in gold.

"People bring them up on a Chinatown bus. They bring them in the trunks of cars, possibly even on Amtrak. People are very creative," says Leah Gunn Barrett, executive director of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence. "They unload them in the Bronx and East New York and Harlem, in Queens, Staten Island, wherever. Right where there's a market, then they drive back and do it again. It's a money-making proposition."


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