(NEW YORK) — Federal and local law enforcement in Pennsylvania said they are struggling to locate the bulk of firearms stolen in a recent string of burglaries of licensed firearm dealers.
Of the 93 guns stolen, officials have been able to locate 33 — some of which were involved in later robberies and shootings — leaving the status of 60 guns unknown, according to a joint press release.
The Montgomery County District Attorney, Bucks County District Attorney, Special Agent-in-charge of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ Philadelphia Field Division and the Springfield Township Police Chief announced on Wednesday that they had arrested 13 people, including 11 juveniles, on charges related to three burglaries and one attempted burglary.
Two adults — aged 40 and 22 — and two people who were listed as juveniles were charged as adults, police said. Angel Mason, 40, and Donte Purnell, 22, were released after bail was set. Elijah Terrell, 16, was arraigned and remanded to the Montgomery County Youth Center, and Liv Hall, 18, was incarcerated in Philadelphia on unrelated charges, police said.
The remaining nine minors, who ranged in age from 14 to 17, were charged in juvenile court.
Police said they traced at least four of the guns to later crimes, including a September double shooting in Philadelphia that left a 16-year-old dead and a 14-year-old injured, as well as an additional shooting incident. At least two other firearms were used in armed robberies.
“With 60 firearms unaccounted for, we still don’t know the extent of the damage by this corrupt organization’s criminal activities, including shootings and murders,” said Montgomery County District Attorney Kevin R. Steele.
The 60 missing firearms represent a small portion of the total number of stolen firearms circulating in the United States. Roughly 1.2 million guns were stolen from individuals between 2012 through 2015, according to data collected by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and analyzed by the Center for American Progress. Twenty-two thousand were stolen from gun stores. In total, during that timeframe, a person in the U.S. stole a gun every two minutes.
“Together, we fight hard every day against lawless criminals that steal and use crime guns to terrorize our communities, regardless of whose borders they cross,” said Bucks County District Attorney Matthew Weintraub. “And we will not rest. More to come.”
Some of the defendants in Pennsylvania belonged to a Philadelphia juvenile youth gang called “54th Street,” authorities said. Between Sept. 23 and Nov. 20, the group allegedly executed three successful burglaries in Montgomery and Bucks Counties and attempted a fourth that was foiled when a bystander heard breaking glass and called 911. According to the release, the group also allegedly planned two additional robberies that had not yet been executed.
For each successful robbery, the defendants are alleged to have entered the store between 2 a.m. and 4:30 a.m., smashed the glass display case, grabbed the firearms, then fled. Their first heist yielded 26 guns, the second produced 32 pistols, eight rifles, and one suppressor, and their last provided 27 firearms, officials said.
“Detectives found that those stolen firearms were rapidly distributed and illegally transferred between members of the corrupt organization and to others, which led to the use of these stolen guns to commit crimes,” the release noted.
The arrests resulted from cooperation across multiple local, county, state and federal law enforcement entities. The Springfield Township Police Department said law enforcement quickly analyzed the volume of cell phone and social media data through membership in the U.S. Secret Service’s Philadelphia Area Cyber Fraud Taskforce.
“This was truly interagency cooperation at its best,” wrote the Springfield Township Police Department in their release.
The Department of Justice announced in 2021 the creation of five firearms trafficking “strike forces” aimed at disrupting firearms trafficking by leveraging existing resources in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.
Such task forces work to stop the traffic of guns from where they are more obtainable into cities. For example, ATF data shows that 81% of guns recovered in New York in 2022 originated from out of state, with cities like Chicago and Baltimore seeming similar sourcing for illegal firearms.
“All too often, guns found at crime scenes come from hundreds or even thousands of miles away,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said in 2021.
Following the fatal shooting of two New York Police officers with an illegally obtained gun in 2022, President Joe Biden called for strengthening task forces to stop the illegal flow of firearms.
At the time of Garland’s 2021 announcement, Philadelphia did not acquire a dedicated strike force from the DOJ; however, the Pennsylvania Attorney General, Philadelphia Police and District Attorney’s Office run a similar gun violence task force with multiple federal agencies to trace the origin of gun crimes.
“These defendants brazenly broke into gun stores and stole nearly 100 firearms, then sold and transferred them widely throughout Southeastern Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware,” said Steele.
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