Listen: Following the Firearms: Gun Violence in Minneapolis, pt. 1 of 4

MPR News presents the series "Following the Firearms: Gun Violence in Minneapolis," which looks at where guns are coming from, and the impact of gun violence in Minnesota's largest city. In this report, MPR’s Brandt Williams examines the sources for guns on the streets of Minneapolis.

This is the first in a four-part series.

Click links below for other reports in series:

part 2:

part 3:

part 4:


2012 RTDNA Murrow Award, Radio - Large Market, Region 4 / Audio: News Series category

2012 National Association of Black Journalists Salute to Exellence Award, RADIO - Investigative category

2011 NBNA Eric Sevareid Award, first place in Series - Large Market Radio category

2011 Minnesota AP Award, first place in Series/Special - Radio Division, Class Three category

2012 MNSPJ Page One Award, first place in Online - Best use of Multimedia category


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BRANDT WILLIAMS: In January of 2010, three men were gunned down during an apparent robbery attempt at the Seward Market in South Minneapolis. One of the victims worked at the store. The second victim was the clerk's cousin who stopped by to chat. The third was a man who just happened to walk into the store at the wrong time. A Minneapolis Police report from the homicide investigation shows five casings found at the crime scene appear to match a test casing supplied by the maker of a 40-caliber pistol stolen from a Saint Louis Park Gun Store.

Just a few weeks before the shooting, early in the morning on December 8th, 2009, Saint Louis Park Police officers were dispatched to an alarm call here at the Frontiersmen gun store. It's located along a frontage road near 394 and Louisiana Avenue, and the officers found that back door had been pried open, and they initially found that 18 handguns were stolen, including a Springfield Armory XD .40. It's a semi-automatic pistol. It's a compact model, sells for around $500. This is the gun that Minneapolis Police Department report lists as being a likely match.

MPR News has learned that six guns from the burglary were recovered in 2010-- one in Eagan, one in Saint Paul, and four in Minneapolis. Minneapolis Police did not recover a gun at the scene of the Seward Market shooting. But the older brother of the teenager, who pleaded guilty to robbery in the case, was later caught with another of the stolen guns, a very similar .40 caliber pistol.

According to the ATF, in 2009, the same year as the Frontiersman break-in, 74 guns were reported stolen in burglaries from licensed gun dealers in Minnesota. That's a small portion of the more than 550 guns reported lost or stolen that year. ATF Special Agent Bernard Zapor says most often the people who break into gun stores are gang members, looking for quality guns they can use or sell for a good price on the street. Zapor says, that was the case in some of the most notorious burglaries.

BERNARD ZAPOR: We've had one that was a gang and another one that was sort of a loose knit group of different gang members that had a social connection that committed this crime together.

BRANDT WILLIAMS: Zapor says most crime guns are obtained through straw purchases or from traffickers. In a straw purchase, a person who is legally able to buy a gun buys one for someone who's not. Gun traffickers are like straw purchasers, except they buy and sell more guns. However, if a straw buyer or trafficker buys a gun from a licensed gun dealer, there will be a paper trail.

That's because the buyer needs to first pass a state and federal background check, and a licensed dealer is required to report to the attorney general if someone buys more than one handgun within five business days. There is a way for a person to buy a gun without showing proof that they are legally able to buy one. It's known as the gun show loophole, although it doesn't just apply to gun shows. It's an exemption to the state law requiring background checks on gun buyers. The loophole allows private citizens to sell or transfer guns to someone without running a background check on them.

The gun and knife show at the Anoka Armory is abuzz as hundreds of people, mostly men walk by long rectangular tables laden with a wide variety of weapons. Some of the gun Sellers here are private citizens and can sell weapons to people without a background check. Most are licensed gun dealers like Mark Norden, who is standing behind a table full of black AR-15 assault rifles. Norden says media coverage makes it seem like a lot of people are illegally buying guns at gun shows. But as a licensed dealer, he still has to run background checks, whether at his shop in Oak Grove or here at the Anoka armory. Norden says private gun sales happen all the time and mostly outside of gun shows.

MARK NORDEN: No different than if your grandfather wanted to give you a rifle, or you wanted to sell one of your rifles or handguns for that matter to a neighbor down the street or something. There's no law prohibiting private sales.

BRANDT WILLIAMS: Private sales are legal, but there are restrictions. Under state and federal law, it is a felony to knowingly sell a firearm to a minor. It is also a felony to provide a firearm to someone that the seller knows will use the gun to commit a crime. Neither the ATF nor Minneapolis Police can quantify the number of crime guns that have originated from gun shows. However, Minneapolis Deputy Police Chief Rob Allen estimates they make up a small portion of guns recovered in Minneapolis. Instead, Allen says, the bulk of crime guns here are stolen from lawful gun owners.

ROB ALLEN: It is legal gun owners who, frankly, are fueling illegal gun violence in the city of Minneapolis, that's where the guns are coming from, and so at least, make it harder for our criminals to obtain guns by securing the guns you have in your home.

BRANDT WILLIAMS: If gun owners don't lock up their guns, they can get stolen and wind up here.

KERISTIN HAMMARBERG: In this room, this is our large gun vault. This is where we keep weapons for extended periods of time.

BRANDT WILLIAMS: Property and Evidence Unit Supervisor Kerstin Hammarberg leads a tour of the facility rarely seen by anyone outside of the police department. For security purposes, Minneapolis Police have asked NPR News not to reveal its location. The vault is a long, narrow room with white stone walls. It is not a place for anyone who feels uncomfortable in confined spaces or who feels nervous in the presence of firearms.

KERISTIN HAMMARBERG: We take in an average of 900 weapons a year, and this covers a five-year span. So there's the math.

BRANDT WILLIAMS: And the math there. OK.

BERNARD ZAPOR: 4,500 weapons.

BRANDT WILLIAMS: Fluorescent lights illuminate several rows of various forms of rifles and shotguns sitting on racks with their barrels pointed toward the ceiling. Brightly colored tags, which indicate the year the gun was recovered, hang from their barrels. The handguns, which are the majority of recovered weapons, are enclosed in Manila envelopes and stacked side by side on wooden shelves along the walls. The room is a death row for recovered guns. If they aren't returned to their owners or donated to a museum or matched to another investigation, Hammarberg says the guns will be destroyed. The guns are melted down and turned into rebar, the steel bars that reinforce sidewalks and roads. Sergeant William Palmer is a police department spokesman, and he's also a firearms aficionado who hates to see quality guns manhandled by criminals. Palmer says, most of these guns, like the camouflage-painted Beretta shotgun he's holding, will be destroyed.

WILLIAM PALMER: It's an A391-Xtrema, 12-gauge shotgun. It's had the stock removed. It's had the barrel cut off. That's probably around 1,500 to $1,700 worth of new shotgun.

BRANDT WILLIAMS: Palmer says, this looks like a lot of the hunting guns he sees that are stolen from their owners and modified by a person who wanted to conceal it. He says, people saw off the barrels or the stocks of shotguns in order to make them easier to hide in a coat sleeve or down a pant leg. As Palmer walks through the vault, he comes across vintage rifles and shotguns, even a World War II German machine gun. He says these weapons should be on display in a museum or locked in a collector's vault. But Palmer knows it's better to keep a dangerous weapon here or melt it into steel rods than to let it fall into the hands of someone who will use it to commit crime. Brandt Williams, Minnesota Public Radio News.


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