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Seized firearms are displayed on a cart in the lobby of the property evidence room at the Police Services Center on Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2015, in Chattanooga, Tenn. The Chattanooga Police have seized an unusually large number of guns in only a few weeks.

GUNS SEIZED BY CHATTANOOGA POLICE

2016: 191 as of March 12

2015: 754

2014: 702

2013: 697

2012: 609

Source: Chattanooga Police Department

 

When police officers found the handgun inside a backpack tucked behind a tree on East 12th Street, the man in handcuffs was quick to speak up.

"That's not my tree," the suspect said.

Police Lt. Eddy Chamberlin laughs as he recounts the story.

"He didn't say, 'That's not my gun,'" Chamberlin said. "Just, 'That's not my tree.'"

The moment of humor came at the end of a tense March 9 incident. A day care worker called police to report that a man was walking outside with a gun, and Chamberlin was the first officer to arrive. He focused his attention on the man the day care worker had said was carrying the gun, a member of the Gangster Disciples, not realizing others in the group also were armed.

Chamberlin was outnumbered by about eight to one and, although he didn't realize it at first, he was outgunned.

Some men were uncooperative, creating tension as Chamberlin called for backup.

"They kept trying to circle behind me and put me at a tactical disadvantage and that was just — obviously they're up to no good when they try to get behind you," he said.

After more officers arrived, police found an assault rifle in the suspect's vehicle, as well as marijuana and the backpack handgun.

"Those are two more guns that won't be out killing someone," Chamberlin said. "Two down and how many more to go?"

***

Police routinely seize illegal guns in Chattanooga, especially from gang members and gang associates. In 2015, police took 128 guns from 98 gang members and associates, according to police records. That's nearly a fifth of the 757 guns the department took in during the year.

That 754 count includes lost guns found and turned in by citizens and guns taken from cars or from people who had them illegally, as well as various other circumstances that warranted seizure. Chattanooga police arrested 465 people for illegal firearms during 2015.

Police took 107 handguns, four rifles and two shotguns from gang members during the year, according to CPD. They also seized 15 .22-caliber weapons, which included both rifles and handguns.

"These are just the ones we're actually able to get," Chamberlin said. "Who knows how many are out there that we're not getting, and who is riding up and down the road with them."

Andrew Fox, an assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, said the actual number of guns that police pulled from gang members may be higher than the 128 reported, because it can be difficult to track who is a gang member and who isn't.

"The fact that you have 98 gang members and 128 guns came from them, that's more than one gun per person," he said. "It's obvious that there is a high concentration of guns within the gang members they know of — and that's kind of the hard part: How many of the gang members do we know, out of how many there are."

***

In general, gang members are more likely to carry firearms and more likely to use them criminally than people not in gang, research shows. There are about 1,300 gang members and associates in Chattanooga, according to police.

Guns are an essential part of the typical street gang, Fox said.

"Gangs have formed as a form of stability and social control in those neighborhoods, and a big part of it is protection," he said. "The prevalence of guns and the proliferation of guns has been part of that."

One Chattanooga gang member told the Times Free Press last week he first started carrying a gun when he was 11, about a year before he officially joined his gang. He used a gun that his mother, a single mom who worked long hours, kept in the house.

"With my 11-year-old mind I decided it was time for me to pick up a gun, and I just went and got my mom's," he said. There wasn't any particular event that pushed him to carry. "It's just, guns are a part of the urban culture. It's an accessory, almost like wearing a belt or a hat or a watch."

In March, Tennessee lawmakers voted down a bill that would have required background checks on private gun sales. The bill's sponsor, House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Stewart, bought an AR-15-style rifle with cash in a Nashville parking lot and brought the weapon to a committee meeting to try to cultivate support for his bill.

Stewart told the committee he not only bought the gun without a background check, but he also never showed the seller — a private citizen he found online — any identification. Current state laws don't require background checks when one citizen sells a gun to another citizen. Background checks are only required when licensed dealers sells guns.

Even if such a bill were to pass, it would likely do little to temper the flow of guns to gangs, whose members often obtain guns from family, friends or through their social network, Fox said. There is also a steady stream of stolen weapons hitting the streets each year, records show, and those firearms can be hard to trace back to their original owners.

The typical gang member is active for only about one-and-a-half to two years, Fox said, which means police must constantly update their information and intelligence.

Officers use a variety of information to determine whether someone is part of a gang, including a person's tattoos, behavior, company, clothing and criminal history. A validated gang member is more involved in the gang than an associate. An associate may spend time with and around gang members without becoming a full-fledged member.

For Chamberlin, it matters less whether someone is a gang member and more that a he or she intends to use a gun criminally. Seven of this year's eight homicide victims were shot to death, according to police, and at least four of those homicides were likely gang-related.

Chamberlin said he's seen an increase in both the quality and quantity of the guns used on the street since he began his career in the 1990s.

"There are more guns on the street, whether or not they're [with] gang members," he said. "The problem is having the weapons in the wrong hands."

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

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