Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Out on New York Avenue NE, on an access road less than a half mile from the D.C.-Maryland line, is a nondescript building that houses the Metropolitan Police Department’s Gun Recovery Unit. 

Lieutenant Lashay Makal leads the 22-member unit. In July, she says, the GRU took 194 guns off the street, putting her staff on pace to blow past its five-year average of 300-plus guns recovered per year. Formed in October 2007, the unit, through July, has made 1,772 gun arrests and recovered 3,611 guns. Since 2014, it has recovered 53,572 rounds of ammunition, according to department stats. 

The GRU’s philosophy, says Makal, is that every round they recover is a life they potentially saved. “It just takes one bullet,” she says, noting a recent case in which her detectives seized two handguns, two rifles, two high capacity “drum magazines,” and more than 200 rounds of assorted ammunition from one location. “Imagine the damage that can do.”

That’s not hard, given recent incidents. Two weeks ago, a stray bullet crossed the street and ended the life of 17-year-old, college-bound Jamahri Sydnor. She was driving less than a mile from her home in Brentwood when the bullet killed her. Earlier this summer a 1-year-old boy in Northeast survived after a neighborhood dice game turned violent and a bullet meant for someone else hit the baby. And just last week a stray bullet shattered the window of a Potomac Gardens apartment and hit the wall of the bedroom where Tyrasha Johnson’s 3-year-old slept. 

Makal and her unit work tirelessly to get the machines that threaten District lives out of circulation. “Every day we’re trying to prevent as many violent crimes as we can,” she says. “We’re looking to close out crimes where guns are used. We want to improve the overall quality of life and make it safe for kids and grandmothers, grandfathers—the cornerstones of our society. We want to make tourists feel safe. I believe we are truly making a difference.”

It would be hard to argue with that. She and her unit are good at confiscating illegal guns and connecting them to illegal activity. 

There is, however, a massive hole in their operation: The department rarely finds, or brings to justice, those who cross into D.C. with illegal guns and distribute them. The police department’s website claims that detectives in the unit “focus on identifying and apprehending illegal gun traffickers.” But for the most part, the department hasn’t lived up to that claim. 

This failure to disrupt the supply chain calls to mind the evolution of drug enforcement. For years police arrested drug users and low-level dealers as if it would reduce the scourge of narcotics, until they realized that using those arrests not to imprison people but rather to build relationships and cases and work their way up to bigger targets was more effective than going after one dime-bag seller at a time. 

Guns do not sell as easily in bulk, but once put to use they are more likely to kill. So the question nags: Who is responsible, say, for a gun stolen from a home in Maryland, or from a gun store in Florida, that is sold and then passed around in a D.C. neighborhood and perhaps used in a shooting? How did that gun make its way into D.C.? 

“That’s the million-dollar question,” says Makal. “If we could figure that out, we’d be cooking with gas.”

Lieutenant Lashay Makal Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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To legally obtain a handgun in D.C., you have to buy it from a federally licensed dealer in another jurisdiction and have it shipped to the District’s only licensee who will facilitate a transaction, a man name Charles Sykes. He works out of an office in the gun registration unit at MPD’s headquarters and charges a fee to receive the gun and walk the purchaser through a registration process that is onerous and expensive relative to more gun-friendly jurisdictions. He is one of 29 federal firearms licensees in the District, and most of them are gun collectors. 

Guns enter the illegal supply chain in a variety of ways: Straw purchases, where a person buys a gun from a licensed gun dealer on behalf of another person; gun show purchases, which in most states do not require background checks; gun store robberies, which are on the rise, law enforcers say; and burglaries of homes and cars, which is by far the most common way illegal guns change hands, according to the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (commonly called ATF). 

Comparing D.C.’s illegal gun supply to that of other cities is problematic. Among cities with a population between 600,000 and 700,000, in 2015 it ranked sixth with respect to total guns recovered at 1,465 guns, according to ATF data. But for most cities in this data set, the recovered guns came from their home states, whereas roughly half of the guns recovered in D.C. traced back to states along the Iron Pipeline, a 10-state gun smuggling corridor that follows I-95 from the Mid-Atlantic to Florida. About half of the firearms from the Iron Pipeline were traced to Virginia, which itself recovered 7,823 guns that year. 

Because of its strict gun laws and proximity to states where guns are sold,  D.C. is a magnet for black market sales. D.C.’s illicit gun customers also are getting younger. In 2015, the average age of possessors of recovered guns was 30, which was six years below the national average for states, and down from 39 the year before. In 2014, District law enforcers recovered one gun from a person under age 17. In 2015, they recovered 36 guns from youth under 17. 

Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen, chair of the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, gets it. “To what degree do we know how the guns get here, how can we disrupt that?” he says. “Folks tell me in confidence that the way you get your gun is a guy shows up with a trunk full of them and you pick one out. It’s obviously illegal, it’s obviously dangerous, we obviously want it to stop. But to what degree is that a lone guy with a trunk full of guns? I tend to believe that there’s not just that guy who’s got an idea to go sell some guns. I tend to believe there’s some coordinated efforts.” 

Allen recognizes that the GRU is proud of every round of ammunition that it takes off the street. “I understand that every bullet is a potential link to saving a life, and that every gun is an opportunity to resolve a dispute with lethal force. But we don’t want [officers] on a hamster wheel, because a criminal is just going to go get another gun. We do want to find out where that other gun is coming from, so we can break up that cycle.”

Authorities have few stringent laws to work with. There is currently no federal anti-trafficking law, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, though ATF maintains an office called the National Tracing Center to assist state and other federal agencies in discovering the origin stories of guns used in crimes. And attachments to U.S. Department of Justice’s appropriations bills since 2003, known as the “Tiahrt Amendments” after their sponsor, former U.S. Rep. Todd Tiahrt, a Republican from Kansas, prohibit ATF from releasing firearm trace data to city and state law enforcement agencies except in aggregate form. For major urban police departments, like MPD, the information gap contributes to making gun trafficking investigations costly, time-consuming and, by all appearances, sporadic. 

Meanwhile, a patchwork of regulations from state to state leaves loopholes that gun traffickers are able to exploit. About a third of the states have laws against purchasing guns with an intent to traffic them. Such laws—which are on the books in California, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Maryland—are among the most effective at reducing illegal gun flow. The remaining states’ laws are aimed at straw purchasers. Virginia, for example, punishes the person who solicits a straw purchase. Maryland punishes anyone who willingly engages in a straw purchase. D.C. has no explicit gun trafficking law.

A handful of states have established anti-gun trafficking programs. Connecticut has a task force designed to coordinate with in-state and out-of-state agencies to identify and prosecute traffickers. Maryland has a Cease Fire grant program that funds anti-trafficking activities. New York has established an interdiction program aimed at stopping guns from illegally entering the state. D.C. has a “Firearms Bounty Fund” that rewards tips that lead to the adjudication or conviction of a person engaged in illegal gun trafficking or a person who has committed a gun crime. Since that program began in 1994, MPD has issued $56,725 for gun tips and recovered 3,348 guns, according to MPD officials. Gun distribution arrests, however, appear absent from that tally. 

That’s a lot of guns off the street, but not all. And from dubious origins to the neighborhoods of D.C., where just last Saturday night yet another child, age 8, was struck and injured by a stray bullet in Southeast, the path of the average illegal gun across the District line remains a mystery. “It’s a challenge to get on top of that and prevent these guns from getting inside the city,” Lt. Makal says.   

Makal notes that, while her unit is always interested in gun trafficking leads, her counterparts in the Major Case Division would be the most likely to work with the feds to identify and investigate gun traffickers. But MPD officials declined to authorize a representative of that unit to answer City Paper’s questions, and officials in the Washington field office of the ATF also did not agree to an interview despite several requests. “We see guns trafficked and retrieved by locals but ATF doesn’t necessarily investigate those individual cases,” says one of several ATF spokespeople City Paper contacted for this story.

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Credit: Darrow Montgomery

In Southwest D.C., near L’Enfant Plaza, stands a gleaming government building that serves as a virtual monument to the scientifically possible: The Consolidated Forensic Laboratory, home to the D.C. Department of Forensic Sciences and the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

On a recent Friday, Jonathan Pope, a veteran firearms examiner and manager of the firearms unit, escorts a City Paper reporter and photographer down a long, cool, bright hallway with polished gray floors and tan walls and into an office that houses the firearms testing lab. 

Established in 2011 and operational in October 2012, DFS houses one of just a few major city forensic labs not under the direction of a law enforcement agency. It is an independent civilian agency that aims to use science and technology to support law enforcement and enhance public safety. 

When a shooting occurs, the Department of Forensic Sciences dispatches crime scene scientists to collect any recovered guns or shell casings left behind with an eye toward processing the scene as quickly as possible. The department’s technicians have access to state of the art technology: alternate light sources across multiple bandwidths, 3D laser scanners, reconstructive software, chemical and physical developers for fingerprints, and biometric devices for fingerprint searches. 

Once the scene is processed, recorded, and analyzed, the evidence comes to the forensics lab where the data is entered into the Laboratory Information Management System, Pope says. Scientists attempt to collect fingerprints and DNA, he says, and then send the gun to the firearms testing unit. Visitors to the unit—even detectives who come in as witnesses—must watch firing tests on a video screen that monitors a single-lane firing range and a ballistics water tank behind a door secured by an iris scanner. After testing the gun for function and operability, the cartridge casings are microscopically examined for suitability and the data from the analyzed casings is entered into the ATF’s National Integrated Ballistics Information Network.

ATF firearms examiners then use what is known as the Integrated Ballistic Identification System to match digital images of markings left on the outside of the cartridge casings against similar evidence gathered from other crime scenes. 

“ATF conducts its analysis and generates a report that goes to the detectives on the case,” Pope says. If there is a match to another crime scene, “it becomes a NIBIN lead,” he says, noting that such leads result in further microscopic analysis of the physical evidence until there’s a direct NIBIN link, or hit. Once all of the data and physical evidence is gathered and processed, the gun is sent to the MPD’s evidence control branch for preservation and storage.

Since NIBIN launched in 1999, law enforcers have captured 2.8 million  ballistics images and confirmed more than 74,000 NIBIN hits. “But the true performance metric of NIBIN is the successful arrest and prosecution of shooters,” ATF’s website states. “Violent crime investigations can go cold very quickly … Linking otherwise unassociated crimes gives investigators a better chance to identify and arrest shooters before they reoffend.”

NIBIN has been instrumental in closing gun cases and solving violent crimes, according to Pope, who lays out two unloaded guns. Both are models the GRU might recover on the street: a Glock 22 .40 Caliber handgun, and a Glock 17 9mm. Beside the guns, he places a pair of empty magazines—one that holds 17 rounds and one that holds 32 rounds—and motions to a box of rubber gloves before giving the okay to handle the guns. 

The power of not just the weapons but the technology available to identify and trace them is lost on no one in this chilly, clinical setting. The challenge, once lab technicians and scientists have generated investigative leads, is for detectives to link the gun to suspects in a city surrounded by gun states with porous borders along a gun trafficking superhighway.

That challenge requires comparing notes with other agencies, says Pope, whose unit attends an inter-agency meeting every two weeks with the MPD, ATF, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Yet asked who sold or transferred these guns to whomever last used them, and by what means, Pope pauses only slightly and raises an eyebrow: “That’s a great question.”

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Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Once in a while, Makal’s unit at MPD solves a case that looks like it might involve gun trafficking, but it’s hard to tell whether these are proactive investigations or incidental to a routine gun seizure. In June 2016, then-chief Cathy Lanier held a press conference to draw attention to some major gun seizures. Lanier was looking to blame the spike in homicides between 2014 and 2015, at least in part, on large capacity magazines and high caliber weapons. Earlier that week, The Washington Post reported that police had arrested three men from Newport News after finding a Tec-9 semiautomatic assault pistol and a .45 caliber handgun in the trunk of a car that was parked in Edgewood. Were they gun sellers, or just suspects in a gun crime?

Some cases are more explicit, but they are few and far between, and they suggest that gun trafficking cases can be a high-cost, low-reward proposition for the government. Last August, 27-year-old Lonnel Boyd pleaded guilty in federal court of conspiring to sell firearms without a license in D.C. According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which prosecuted the case, Boyd’s arrest followed a year-long investigation into a network of firearms traffickers in the D.C. area that required multiple confidential sources, wiretaps, and almost two dozen recorded drug buys. Yet the penalty was light: In November, Boyd was sentenced to time served.

In May, the U.S. Attorney charged 38-year-old Clark Calloway, a retired Marine who had been the subject of an undercover investigation, with purchasing and transporting a firearm—an AK-47—with intent to do harm to police officers. No one else connected with the sale of the illegal firearm  has been charged.

Last month, federal prosecutors in Virginia brought a case against two D.C. men who allegedly used a U-Haul utility van in a gun store robbery in Chantilly that netted them 35 semi-automatic pistols. In 2015, that office also convicted a Waldorf man for his role in the illegal purchase of 12 guns, including one that was used in multiple shootings in D.C. And federal prosecutors in Virginia convicted a D.C. man in 2014 of using straw purchases to acquire an assault rifle and a semi-automatic pistol. He was sentenced to 78 months in prison and three years probation. 

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District doesn’t claim much of a record  when it comes to prosecuting gun traffickers. “Whenever a firearm case is presented, part of the screening function is a gun trace,” says Assistant U.S. Attorney Gilberto Guerrero, referring to the process of using a gun’s serial number to see if it has been involved with any crimes. “And if it’s a good charge, we typically ask law enforcement to follow up to determine, ‘how did [the gun] get here.’ But normally it’s ATF’s role to answer that. The challenge is to drill down further and build an investigation. We would like to be more aggressive.”

But even when law enforcers identify suspects who are in the business of selling illegal firearms, Guerrero says, “that doesn’t answer how the guns got here, though at least we can charge them with unlawful distribution of firearms in the District.” Most gun cases, he adds, are linked to drug trafficking. “Every once in awhile we see a self-contained [gun trafficking case], but not that often.” 

For Tony Barksdale, retired deputy commissioner of operations for the Baltimore Police Department, it’s a matter of policing strategies and priorities. Years ago, Barksdale was in charge of a major gun effort, he says, in conjunction with ATF. “Everything was drugs, drugs, drugs at the time,” Barksdale says. “As with drugs, command staff was in love with gun seizures. But along the way, I realized that all those gun stats, all those weapons seized, just didn’t matter anymore. 

“I see all those pictures from D.C., all those seizures, but you have to  focus on proactive enforcement. You gotta set standards higher than seizures. Politicians have to ask more of law enforcement. There’s always a supply and demand issue. Like with drugs. An addict buys drugs. Do they have to go to jail? Why not climb higher to find the supplier? If I’m a carpenter, and you take away my hammer, am I still a carpenter? I’m gonna get me another hammer.” 

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Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Just over the District line, in District Heights, a large Craftsman-style house sits on an isolated lot with a gravel parking lot and entrance in the rear. A sign on the door reads, “Welcome to Realco, Outdoor World and Gun Hospital.” In 2007, MPD issued a report that ranked Realco as the number one source of crime guns seized in D.C. In 2010, a year-long Washington Post investigation found 86 guns sold by Realco that were linked to homicides during one 18-month period. From 1997-2008, the Post found, MPD and Prince George’s police seized more than 160 guns per year that Realco had sold, with its guns turning up at crime scenes almost twice as often as any other Maryland dealer that had 10 or more guns seized. 

The article states that Realco cooperated fully with authorities, who found little if anything to suggest the shop was selling guns illegally, underscoring how difficult it is to detect straw purchases. Such cases are hard to prove, the article concluded, and such stores are rarely prosecuted due to bureaucracy, limited resources, and politics—and the Tiahrt Amendments. 

Even though Realco was cleared by numerous inspections, the Post series “didn’t stop them from persecuting us and causing all sorts of trouble,” says the man behind the counter, who declines to give his name. (“I’ve found over the years that talking to the press is a way to get my ass bit off,” he says.)

Being a professional though, the gun seller walks me through the paperwork required to buy a gun and even pulls a couple guns out of the case for inspection: a Glock 19 Gen4 9mm with three 10-round magazines (“This one is very common,” he says) and a Smith & Wesson M&P Shield 9mm with two eight-round magazines.

His demonstration of the basic rules of gun safety and standard lesson on how to properly hold and fire a gun—in addition to a recent visit to a gun range in Virginia, which left this reporter startled by how easy it is to send bullets sailing past a target at 30 yards, even under controlled conditions—are in stark contrast to surveillance videos in the news of late. They show young men running out from behind cars, firing at other young men, also in motion, and hardly with a proper stance or firing mechanics. 

Imagining how the suspects in those videos obtained their guns, compared to the hoops one must jump through at Realco in the relatively gun-friendly state of Maryland is frustrating for people in the communities touched by gun violence who are sick of excuses. 

“I don’t know how guns are coming into the community, but it’s a serious issue law enforcement needs to get answers to,” says Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White. “We are in Washington D.C. with more police and intelligence than anywhere in the world, so it baffles me how a young man who lacks education or money can easily get an automatic gun with an extended clip, but no one is accountable.” 

White’s bafflement represents a piece of a larger puzzle for Dimitri Roberts, a former Chicago Police Department officer who serves as a law enforcement analyst for CNN and CBS. Roberts sees the work of specialized units such as the GRU as crucial but overburdened.

“Gun trafficking cases are resource-heavy, long-term investments,” he says. “Local law enforcement doesn’t have the budget and personnel for that investment. That’s why you don’t see us going after mid-level gun traffickers. Plus the burden of proof is too high. You have an ATF task force, but they’re strapped for resources too. We need to develop a trend in this country that places a lot of emphasis on these activities and the organizations engaged in these practices, then come up with the resources to offset the [gun lobby] and support federal and local law enforcers. And in this political, environment, it’s gonna be tough.

“It comes down to political will and valuing human life,” he says. “We know what to do, but the question is, are we gonna actually put resources behind it to get it done? If you don’t come from a place that pulls you to fight harder, then you will continue to cycle through these problems.”