Triad agencies working to recover stolen firearms amid nationwide rise in gun violence

North Carolina

HIGH POINT, N.C. — On Tuesday, April 13, around 10:30 at night, shots rang out in the area of Eastchester Drive and Wendover Avenue in High Point. A gun, now confirmed to have been stolen, was pointed in the direction of a car carrying three people. All three were shot, including 22-year-old father Johnneil Emerson, who was in the back seat. He didn’t survive.

“I wish my son was still here. I can’t bring him back,” Johnneil’s mother, Johnnette, said of her only child. “There’s nothing I can do.”

Outside of the High Point Police Department the following day, Johnette pleaded with those plaguing the Piedmont Triad with gun violence to put the guns down.

“Can’t you see what y’all doing to each other and to other peoples’ families? You are hurting people who don’t need to be hurt,” she said, fighting back tears, hours after officers announced they had arrested two people in connection to Johnneil’s killing.

To date, there have been four homicides in the city of High Point in 2021. There have also been eight homicides in Winston-Salem this year, in addition to 16 in Greensboro.

Of those, the vast majority have involved firearms.

“Traditionally, what we discover are that most are stolen firearms,” said Winston-Salem police Lt. Amy Gauldin, of firearms used in violent crimes.

Since 2018, Gauldin says about 250 firearms are stolen in the city every year.

“Those are typically unsecured firearms,” she adds.

Greensboro police say in 2020, when there were a record 61 homicides in the city, more than 1,100 stolen firearms were recovered. This year, the department says 300 – 400 stolen firearms have been recovered. As of April 18, homicides were up 50 percent in the city compared to that date in 2020.

Nearly all of the city’s homicides in 2021 have involved a firearm.

“I think nationwide, violent crime – and specifically gun crime – is increasing overall,” Gauldin said.

In High Point, officers say at least 130 firearms have been stolen since the beginning of 2020. In that same time frame, at least 80 firearms have been recovered in the city.

“The firearms are stolen, and then transitioned through different criminals and things very fast,” Gauldin details. “They charge a higher price than when you’d buy it legally.”

Gauldin says there’s no good accurate way to estimate how many stolen firearms may be in Triad cities.

While many firearms are used in a crime within three months of being stolen, the ATF says the average “time to crime rate” – or amount of time between when a firearm is stolen and when it’s confirmed to have been used in a crime – is more than eight years in North Carolina.

In 2019, the ATF says thousands of firearms were recovered in North Carolina after being stolen in – from greatest to fewest – South Carolina, Virginia, Georgia, Florida, Texas and Tennessee. In that same year, firearms stolen from 48 states were recovered in North Carolina.

“The recovery rate is much better when we have make, model, serial number of a firearm,” Gauldin said.

In a partnership of local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies, the Winston-Salem Police Department participates in an initiative called Operation Save-A-Casing, which can help the agencies quickly identify stolen firearms subsequently used in committing crimes. Gun owners are encouraged to save two spent bullet casings from their firearms, placing them in an envelope marked with the serial number, make and model of the firearm. If that firearm is stolen, officers can enter the casings into a national database, which can be searched for possible matches.

Officers say knowing where a gun came from can give investigators useful clues while investigating a crime, and they’ll know who the gun belongs to, so it can eventually be returned.

“Sometimes when those firearms are recovered, if it’s involved in a crime, that rightful owner may not get it back immediately,” Gauldin said.

Officers say the easiest way to keep firearms from being stolen is by owners making sure their guns are stored safely and securely, which would dramatically reduce how often criminals are able to obtain them.

“It would reduce, potentially reduce the impact of violent crime throughout the community,” Gauldin said. “Securing your firearm is the number one priority that would help us a lot.”

In 2019, the ATF says Greensboro, Winston-Salem and High Point all ranked in the top six cities in the state for firearm recoveries. Greensboro and Winston-Salem were ranked numbers two and three respectively, with Charlotte ranked number one and Raleigh coming in at number four.

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