Darrow Montgomery

Acquiring a gun in D.C.’s roughest neighborhoods is as easy as A-B-C, Loose Lips is told, but the question of how those guns get to the street continues to weigh on the mind. If police can work drug trafficking cases up the chain of distribution, some in these communities want to know, then why can’t they do it for guns?

D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham says the Gun Recovery Unit, a squad of 22, specializes in locating and seizing illegal firearms and connecting those guns to violent crimes. Going after the gun traffickers and distributors is not practicable, law enforcers will tell you. There’s no federal gun trafficking statute, insufficient local penalties for possession or distribution, and not enough manpower.

Yet D.C., with some of the strongest gun laws in the country, is surrounded by gun-friendly states and remains a major importer of illegal firearms. It has a “Firearms Bounty Fund” for anyone who provides tips that lead to the conviction of a gun trafficker, though such cases are rare.

A recent story by ProPublica Illinois, the Chicago Sun-Times and WBEZ Chicago examines a different approach—a sting operation to root out and punish gun traffickers and street level entrepreneurs who sometimes don’t even touch the illegal guns that make their way to the streets.

The story involves John Thomas, a 33-year-old single father who was raised by an aunt and uncle in a violent South Shore neighborhood known as “Terror Town.” Thomas is described as a natural born hustler who as a teenager sold everything from dime bags of marijuana to crack cocaine to cheap knock-off sneakers. He once caught a gun charge, but he steered clear of violence, and guns in general.

One day, however, a co-worker at a tobacco shop told Thomas he was looking to buy guns for a man who could give Thomas a better job if he helped out. Thomas contacted his cousin, who he knew could hook him up.

Thomas arranged a meeting between his co-worker and his cousin in the back of the tobacco store. After the gun sale went down, he got paid $200. He didn’t even have to touch the gun. The co-worker then turned around and sold the gun at a steep markup. It was all so easy that they did a similar sale the next day, and the day after that.

But the story wasn’t so simple. Turns out the co-worker was selling the guns to an informant for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco Firearms and Explosives. Once approached by ATF agents, the co-worker became an informant, while Thomas continued to help broker transactions with multiple gun suppliers—more than 70 in all—until one day, when ATF agents arrested Thomas and more than a dozen suppliers who had been lured into the plot, including his cousin. Thomas received a seven-year prison sentence.

The relationship between D.C. police and the ATF is more complicated, law enforcement sources say, because of the District’s unique jurisdictional status. But the cities have more in common than not: They are both surrounded by states with more relaxed gun laws, they both have laws against distribution of firearms, and they both prohibit possession of a gun by felons or while engaged in drug trafficking. And they both rarely charge anyone for violation of those laws.

The key difference is that Illinois lawmakers and federal law enforcers in Chicago are looking for answers. U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly, who represents the violent South Side of Chicago, co-sponsored the Gun Trafficking Prevention Act of 2017, which would prohibit purchasing or selling a gun with the intent to transfer it illegally. The bill lacks support, but serves as a sign that some public officials want to force a discussion.

In reporting on a recent gun trafficking story in City Paper, local authorities repeatedly referred LL to the ATF for answers as to why, with so many D.C. laws that prohibit going anywhere near an unregistered firearm, there appears to be no real strategy for targeting gun sellers. Yet the ATF showed little interest in discussing the matter, lending credence to perceptions that the gun lobby has made federal enforcement of gun trafficking in D.C. a third rail.

The argument that guns differ from drugs in that they originate from legal sources supports the tracking of guns all the way to points of legitimate sale. But what about the activity in between, the mid-level movement of illegal guns by brokers or local dealers who are known sources of illegal guns? Why should the law leave them be?

Acquiring illegal guns in the District is like buying a pack of cigarettes, according to peace activist and entrepreneur Ronald Moten. He oughta know, based on his own experience as a drug trafficker in the 1990s, and his subsequent efforts to lure youth out of risky situations and into productive pursuits.

LL interviewed Moten this summer for a gun trafficking story. In his day, youth didn’t need to find guns, the guns found them. “You always got people coming into your community to run guns,” he says. “I was getting my guns from a military guy who used to bring bags of guns.”

One source who contacted LL recently says abandoned vehicles make good storage units until a street broker is ready to make an illegal gun sale. Once on the street, that gun can be re-sold, borrowed, rented, bartered, shared, or stolen. Some neighborhoods will pool resources to get a gun and stash it away for community use. Once a gun is hot—meaning it has been used in a murder or other crime—it still might stay in circulation, but at a marked down price. Each time it is touched, a felony occurs.

The point is, there is very little risk in getting in the middle of such transactions, because even if caught and convicted, court sentences can be as light as six months. Youth will take that time, cops say, come out, and go right back to what they were doing.

“I think those people should be given the time,” says Moten, speaking of the dealers. “That’s who you should be tracking down, give ’em 20 years. You’re telling me if a person is trying to stop drug dealers you’ll go to the top of the chain, but for gun dealers, you won’t?

“It has to do with narrative and mission,” he continues. “If your mission is to go and get the people who are bringing guns to the community, then that’s what you would do. If your mission is to go get people at the low end of the totem pole like we did during the crack epidemic, then that’s what you do. It’s no different.

“So you gonna always be locking people up for guns until you lock up the people who are bringing the guns. And for some mysterious reason, with all the technology and all the equipment all the agencies have, it seems like it’s so difficult to find out how the guns are making it to our communities, but we can find out everything else.”