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Frank Gray

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Have gun, it’ll travel; jot down its number

On Feb. 20, a 21-year-old man walked into the CVS pharmacy on East State Boulevard, pointed what was described as an assault rifle with a pistol grip at the clerk and fled with a small amount of cash.

Police spotted the man running from the store, gave chase and cornered him in a stairwell of a nearby apartment complex, and shot him when he pointed his gun at officers.

It was a rather cut-and-dried event, but there were some other things I wanted to know. Exactly what kind of gun did this man have, and who did it belong to? Was it stolen? Are most weapons used in crimes stolen? It just seemed to me that guys who rob drugstores in the middle of the night don’t use weapons that they bought at Gander Mountain a few days before.

The weapon the man had, it turned out, was anything but a run-of-the-mill firearm. It was a 7.62 mm semiautomatic Draco pistol made in Romania. It was a variation on the AK-47 rifle.

What was also unusual is that police were able to identify the owner of the weapon. It had been stolen in a burglary in June 2011, and the only reason police were able to determine that was because the owner had a record of the gun’s serial number.

That’s unusual, I was told.

Bill Turriff is the firearms manager for the Fort Wayne Police Department.

When a firearm comes in to the police, it is his job to try to track down the gun’s origin.

I asked if he could estimate what percentage of guns used in crimes are stolen, and Turriff said that was a statistic that isn’t tracked, largely because there is often no way to tell.

People are told to record the serial numbers of their television sets, computers and other valuables so they can be identified if they are stolen and later recovered. But few people do that.

People with guns are the same way. Turriff estimates that fewer than 10 percent of gun owners keep any record of the serial number of firearms they own. In fact, Turriff said, until he took his present job, he never kept serial numbers of anything, either.

So if a gun is stolen in a burglary and the serial number isn’t known, the specific weapon can’t be listed as stolen. Later, if that gun is recovered after being used in a crime, police can use the serial number to track the gun back to the original owner, but there is no way to say that it was stolen.

The police department comes across 500 to 600 guns a year. Some come from legitimate owners when they are involved in domestic disputes or arrested for drunken driving while carrying the gun.

If a person is caught with a gun that has been reported stolen, they can be charged with receiving stolen property. When it comes to guns used in crimes, though, police often have no way of knowing how a gun got into a particular person’s hands, or if it was stolen.

How guns change hands and get into the hands of drug dealers and gangbangers and robbers is hard to say.

Police Chief Rusty York told an unusual story of a gun he once owned. In 1975, before he was on the police department, he bought a new handgun from a local gun shop. Later, he returned the gun to the shop and traded it in on a different weapon. Presumably, York said, the gun shop then sold the gun to someone else.

Then, two years ago, York got a call from the police property room. Someone had found a handgun in their yard and called police. Police picked it up and traced the serial number. It led back to York, the original owner. So for three decades that gun that York had purchased in 1975 and then traded in had been floating around in society, and no one has any idea whose hands it passed through – or how it ended up in someone’s yard.

Had it ever been stolen? Maybe, but the record only shows that it was originally sold to the police chief.

Frank Gray reflects on his and others’ experiences in columns published Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. He can be reached by phone at 461-8376, by fax at 461-8893, or by email at fgray@jg.net. You can also follow him on Twitter @FrankGrayJG.

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