CONWAY, S.C. (WBTW) — In 2015, New York Police Department Officer Randolph Holder was killed after being shot by a gun that was illegally trafficked from South Carolina.
It’s not the only case.
Officials are working to crack down on illegal gun trafficking as South Carolina’s violent crime rate continues to rise.
About 70% of guns that are recovered or used in crimes in New York City come from southern states with more lax gun laws, according to Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez.
Last year, he announced the indictment of four men for trafficking guns from South Carolina and Virginia. Those guns, he said, are running up Interstate 95, which is referred to as the “Iron Pipeline.”
Criminals use “straw purchasers” to legally buy guns for someone who can’t — like a convicted felon, who is banned from owning firearms.
“They know these guns will be used to commit a crime and they simply don’t care,” Gonzalez said.
New York City is one of five cities where the U.S. Department of Justice is launching a gun trafficking strike force, but some Democrats said more efforts are needed in states that are funneling guns to the area.
More than 7,650 guns were recovered in New York City in 2019, according to the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. Of those, 420 were traced to South Carolina.
From 2015 to 2019, South Carolina was in the top 10 source states for guns that were recovered in New York.
In the majority of cases, almost all firearms that are recovered and traced were purchased in the state they were recovered in, according to Brian Mein, the ATF assistant special agent in charge.
Gun trafficking doesn’t necessarily have to happen across state lines. Federally, gun trafficking is defined as when a gun goes from a legal market to an illegal one.
In 2019, of the 7,100 guns recovered in South Carolina, 4,545 were from the state, and 400 were from the Myrtle Beach and Conway area.
The agency’s strategy is to figure out where the guns are coming from, making gun training crucial.
“If we start to see a particular individual that has purchased numerous firearms and those firearms are showing up in crimes, we can use that information to proactively investigate that individual,” Mein said.
However, there is no national database of firearm purchases. The hard records filled out at gun stores are kept there, and only guns used in crimes or recovered are traced in the electronic system. Not every agency in the state uses ATF’s tracing system, either.
ATF has found that most trafficked guns are stolen.
“What we’re seeing is this whole issue of folks not locking their car doors and people having guns in their cars, leaving them in their cars overnight, or even for a short period of time is not advisable,” said Horry County Police Department Chief Joseph Hill.
In the last month, the department has recovered more than 50 illegally obtained guns.
“We are finding folks that we have arrested with these firearms are guilty of a myriad of crimes, whether it’s shooting into occupied dwellings, street robberies, or in condition with drug sales,” Hill said. “We have good people in our communities and they feel like they’re under siege.”
It’s turning to federal partners for help. The federal system has harsher jail penalties, higher fines, and other methods to try and keep convicted criminals off the streets.
Traffickers can be prosecuted under the Gun Control Act of 1968 for straw purchasing, being a felon who owns a weapon, or transferring a firearm to a convicted felon.
The area was the second in the country out of 94 districts when it came to prosecuting armed career criminals, according to Assistant U.S. States Attorney Justin Holloway.
“And what that shows you is that when we prosecute someone federally for a gun crime, we are identifying the folks that have done the most serious criminal histories,” he said.
The White House is cracking down on rogue gun dealers, as well. But federal and local policing agencies said they still need the community’s help.
“We take a bad guy or girl out, we’ll have a bad guy or girl take their place,” Hill said. “So it’s a never-ending cycle, and that’s why we have to stay vigilant. And that’s why we need the help from the public.”
ATF takes preventative measures such as educating licensed gun dealers on how to spot straw purchasers and advises them to report anything suspicious.
Mein said additional attention on violent crime allows the agency to investigate better and help local partners get resources — like a grant the Fifteenth Circuit Court received to fund a prosecutor who will focus solely on gun crimes.