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A rising tide of stolen guns helps fuel Philadelphia’s gun violence epidemic

A surge in new gun owners and a spike in gun thefts from cars are contributing to the city's gun violence crisis, police and experts say.

Images of guns recovered by the Philadelphia Police Department through Violation of Uniform Firearms Act arrests, which hit a record 2,255 so far this year.
Images of guns recovered by the Philadelphia Police Department through Violation of Uniform Firearms Act arrests, which hit a record 2,255 so far this year.Read morePhiladelphia Police Department Tweets

One in an occasional series, Under Fire, about Philadelphia’s unchecked gun violence.

When Maurice Quinn went into a corner store in Germantown to use the ATM machine, he got into an argument with an employee and spotted a gun behind the counter. He tried to grab it but failed, according to police and court accounts of the 2019 crime.

Later that day, Quinn returned to RD Grocery with two armed accomplices, who trained their black handguns on the staffer and the owner. “Take everything: the gun and the cash,” one accomplice ordered, according to police reports.

They left with $100 from the register and, much more valuable, a 9mm Glock 26 semiautomatic pistol loaded with eight rounds.

And in that moment, another weapon entered Philadelphia’s surging tide of stolen guns, one that has risen in the last two years to an unprecedented high water mark.

Reports of stolen guns reached a new peak this year, with 1,388 to date, police records show. That is 11% higher than last year, 38% higher than in 2019, and the highest tally since 2011, the first year figures were available.

At the same time, Philadelphia has recorded more homicides this year than ever before — 545 — the vast majority of them caused by gunfire. In all, nearly 4,500 people have been injured by gun violence since 2020. The medical trauma and emotional toll on their family and friends fuel an immeasurable public health crisis.

The city’s vexing gun violence crisis is taking place alongside several overlapping trends:

More people with guns

The pace of people purchasing legal guns in Philadelphia has soared, with many of them first-time owners.

Experts say the legal purchase of guns swelled following a turbulent 2020, led in part by the uncertainty of the pandemic and unrest following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. Across the country, many people turned to gun purchases at record-setting levels last year — an estimated 23 million guns were sold, up about 9 million from the year before and far more than was projected, according to Small Arms Analytics, which tracks gun sales.

In Philadelphia, handguns sales more than doubled from 2019 to 2020, and statewide sales spiked 66%. Overall, State Police say about 1.5 million people in Pennsylvania are permitted to carry a firearm, about 1-in-7 Pennsylvanians 21 and older.

The swelling ranks of gun owners over the last two years has likely made the stolen gun problem worse, said Daniel Semenza, a Rutgers-Camden University criminal justice professor who coauthored a study this year that examined how the availability of guns impacted the homicide rates in 226 cities for years 2017 to 2019.

“There are more guns in stock in the community as a whole,” he said. “There’s a greater likelihood that at least some of those guns are going to be informally traded, or gifted, or handed off between family members, and some of those could end up in the hands of people who use them for violent means.

“The thing that really correlates with gun homicide rates is the access to stolen guns,” he said. “It trumps any kind of effect that the number of firearm dealers and general legal access has in a city, and it’s particularly important in cities that have poorer socioeconomic status.”

More guns stolen from cars

Most guns reported stolen in Philadelphia in 2021 are the result of thefts from individuals, rather than burglaries or thefts from businesses.

What’s changed significantly: Although car break-ins in Philadelphia have stayed flat for years, car break-ins that yield guns have shot up 37% this year, according to police data.

The rise in new gun owners and gun thefts from vehicles may be related.

According to Brendan O’Malley, chief deputy attorney general with the Attorney General’s Office’s gun task force, the influx of first-time gun owners means fewer may be familiar with best practices for storing guns securely.

“In the heat of the pandemic and the heat of the civil unrest,” he said, “not storing them safely was causing them problems.”

With any increase in gun sales, you are going to see an increase in stolen guns, he said.

Inspector Frank Vanore of the Philadelphia Police Department warned: “Keeping guns in the car is a definite no-no. No matter what the situation is, it’s never safe to leave a gun in the car.”

It can lead to traumatic consequences. While walking to SEPTA’s Fern Rock Transportation Center, a 33-year-old woman was struck by a bullet from a gun that had been stolen from a car.

“I just parked my car to get on the train and I was getting my phone out of my bag to put my ear buds in. Then I heard the pop, pop, pop and my arm was burning. I laid on the ground and just stayed there,” the woman told police about the shooting two years ago.

Contacted at her home last week, the woman said she didn’t know who shot her, and slowly shook her head. The shooting was in the past and she just didn’t want to talk about it, she said, before closing the door.

The man accused of shooting her is Lammar Clanton, 28, a felon barred from owning a gun, who was charged with possessing a stolen semiautomatic handgun linked to the crime scene by ballistics evidence. Police believe that Clanton and another gunman, who eluded capture, were firing at each other when the woman was shot. When police searched Clanton’s home, 31 packets of heroin were found, according to a search affidavit filed in court.

The Philadelphia Training Academy, in the 800 block of Ellsworth Street in South Philly, not only sells guns but also has 18,000 members who have access to a shooting range. The academy also operates a training program for armed security guards, said Jim Smith, the manager.

“We’re probably one of the busier stores,” Smith said recently. Still, Smith said his store takes steps to prevent guns being stolen from his store by only allowing the potential buyer to enter the store, requiring multiple forms of identification, and barring others from coming in. “We go above and beyond,” he said.

As for new owners not safely storing their weapons and leading to thefts, Smith said he has no comment because he doesn’t have access to stolen gun data. “If somebody reports a gun stolen and they call us, not that we blow it off but our immediate answer to them is to contact the authorities and call the police.”

Gun thefts soar but not all are reported or are false

Criminals are stealing more guns than ever from their owners, but the reported number for 2021 — a record 1,388 — likely undercounts the measure of the problem. Not everyone reports the theft of a gun to police, as required by a city code that is tangled in legal controversy.

Tucked into this rise in reported gun thefts is another troubling issue, O’Malley said: fraud. Not every gun reported stolen is actually a stolen gun, he said, a contention echoed by the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office. Instead, “straw purchasers” — people over 21 without a criminal conviction and eligible to buy guns — report to police, as a cover, that the guns they bought were stolen, then illegally transfer or sell those new guns to others who cannot legally possess them.

Some of those guns are obtained by people who may want them only for protection but can’t pass a background check to get a gun legally. Krasner has said he’s sympathetic to people who fall into this category, but that the fraudulent paperwork hinders arrests if the straw purchase shows up later at a crime scene.

Vanore said as of last month there were 52 open investigations of suspected straw purchases since 2020. Of those, 13 have resulted in arrests, he said.

An extreme example of alleged straw purchasing is the case of Tyrone Monroe Patterson, 22, a security guard at Jefferson Hospital who was arrested Dec. 1 and charged with selling three guns to three different men, all barred by law from buying the weapons themselves, according to the affidavit of probable cause for his arrest.

Patterson legally bought the three guns at American Arms & Ammunition on Bethlehem Pike, Colmar, Pa., then sold them to the three men, who have since been arrested.

Krasner said the record sale of guns during the pandemic gave rise to Patterson and other straw purchasers who, as with stolen guns, put illegal weapons into the community. “One of the things [the pandemic] did is enable somebody like Patterson, who didn’t have a felony conviction, who is a lawful purchaser — this is a guy who’s got a job. He’s walking around the street, you might think this guy is Joe Citizen. Well, there’s a lot of Joe Citizens out there who can walk into a gun shop … and then they put them on the street in ways that are incredibly damaging to society.”

Police are making more gun-related arrests

At the same time, police are charging more people with illegally carrying guns. In Philadelphia, you must be 21 to own or carry a weapon and not have any disqualifying offenses. Otherwise you can be charged with Violation of the Uniform Firearms Act. Police say this charge is a proxy for the potential of more gun violence and helps take more guns off the streets. The 2,255 people arrested for illegally possessing a firearm this year is a 46% jump over 2019.

In addition, as of last week, the department has confiscated 5,540 crime guns in 2021, surpassing last year’s tally by 11%, Vanore said.

“Some of these stolen guns that I’m talking about are being taken from cars, they’re being straw purchased and being dealt in illegal ways out to people who shouldn’t have them in their hands,” he said.

Another lethal passage

At another grocery store in another Philadelphia neighborhood, another stolen gun joined the rising tide of illegal weapons tormenting the city.

The owner of Sanz Grocery store on Middleton Street in West Oak Lane locked up his business for the night and headed to his car. From behind, in the dark, he heard footsteps.

When the owner turned around, a stranger fired a gun, striking him in the left hand.

Get on the ground, the gunman ordered, then rifled through his pockets, and stole a black-and-silver 9mm semiautomatic handgun, valued at $310.

As in the case of the armed robbery inside RD Grocery in Germantown, the gunman, only 16, was eventually apprehended and convicted. Ziear “Little Zah” Duncan was sentenced to 25 to 50 years in state prison for the 2018 armed robbery and theft, and for an unrelated third-degree murder. Maurice Quinn got 10 years for the Germantown store robbery.

Not long after being robbed of money and their guns, the owners of the two stores each sold his business.

“My life is more important than money,” the owner of Sanz told The Inquirer.

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