GUNS GALORE: Hundreds more illegal firearms seized on streets of Chattanooga

GUNS GALORE: Hundreds more illegal firearms seized on streets of Chattanooga

August 15th, 2014 by Shelly Bradbury in Local Regional News

Trentyn Murrell, a sales associate at Shooter's Depot, holds a Glock 9mm semi-automatic handgun inside the store. According to recent data, 9mm pistols are the most common handgun confiscated by Tennessee police departments.

Photo by Dan Henry/Times Free Press.

GUNS SEIZED BY CHATTANOOGA POLICE

2014, as of July 31: 402

2013: 697

2012: 609

Source: Chattanooga Police Department

RECOVERED FIREARMS TRACED TO CHATTANOOGA

These firearms were recovered by law enforcement agencies all over the country and traced back to Chattanooga.

2013: 774

2012: 698

2011: 605

2010: 552

2009: 631

SOURCE: Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives

Thirteen-year-old Deontrey Southers was Chattanooga's first shooting victim in 2014.

He was shot once in the chest while standing in the doorway of his home and died on Jan. 21.

During the first seven months of the year, Chattanoogans shot at each other 67 times. Fourteen people died.

But in the same time frame, Chattanooga police seized 402 guns. Hamilton County Sheriff's deputies snagged 170 more.

In all, that makes almost 600 pistols, revolvers and rifles seized, all firearms that were either illegally possessed or being used to commit crimes.

Last year at this time, Chattanooga police had seized 389 guns.

The effort is critical to the city's safety, Chattanooga police Chief Fred Fletcher said.

"I feel absolutely certain that one of those guns would have shot somebody or killed somebody," he said. "These guns weren't taken off of people who weren't in trouble. These were taken off of people who encountered police for a reason."

Most often, officers seize illegal firearms during traffic stops, field interviews and while fulfilling search warrants, Officer Lauren Wenger said. She's on the department's Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms task force.

"We get all kinds of firearms," she said. "We range from .22 caliber to high-powered rifles."

Once the firearms are turned into the the police department's property division, they are kept in storage while cases are investigated. Eventually, police attempt to return stolen guns to their rightful owners, Wenger said. If a gun is not listed as stolen, Chattanooga police keep it in storage indefinitely.

Guns are only destroyed if they are broken or dangerously nonfunctional, she added.

That's a very different policy than some regional law enforcement agencies. The McMinn County Sheriff's Office auctioned 445 seized guns to the public in 2012, and Cleveland police held a similar auction the same year.

Whether it's a good idea for law enforcement agencies to sell seized guns has been debated for years. State law changed in 2011 to allow law enforcement to sell seized guns under certain circumstances, and allows the revenue to be used for some expenses.

Chattanooga police do not sell seized guns. Fletcher said the police department will not return any guns to the street, where they could potentially be used to harm people, as long as gun violence is a problem in the city.

The Hamilton County Sheriff's Office does not presently sell seized firearms, but expects to start selling them in the future. Lt. Chuck Gaston, who is in charge of the sheriff's criminal investigation division, said his department is setting up the procedures to allow such sales.

"We're making sure we have everything accurate before we do that," he said. "We're working toward that direction."

But one fact law enforcement agencies agree on is that many of seized firearms are stolen. And the number of stolen guns is rising, said Michael Knight, public information officer at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives' Nashville field office.

"Because Tennessee has a rich history of gun ownership, there are many legal ways to purchase a gun," he said. "But there is also an increase in stolen firearms. And those firearms often times end up in the hands of the criminal element, and more specifically in violent crimes like domestic assault."

Both Wenger and Knight emphasized that legitimate gun owners should be certain to write down the serial numbers of their guns. The serial numbers are critical to tracking and returning stolen guns. It's also a good idea to take a picture of each gun and store those in a safe place, Knight said.

"If you're going to own a firearm, you need to be safe and responsible," Wenger said.

Jeb Hodges, an employee at Shooter's Depot, said while the company fully supports legal gun owners, he's glad police are seizing illegal guns on the streets.

"If [people] have the guns illegally or are doing something illegal with the guns, then we're all for it," he said. "Because honestly, they've lost the privilege to own a gun at that point."

Contact staff writer Shelly Bradbury at 423-757-6525 or sbradbury@timesfreepress.com with tips or story ideas.