Domenech says gun crime could be reduced in DC if Jeff Taylor would take more cases to federal court.
Taylor says it’s “flat-out false” that his office is unwilling to prosecute major gun cases in federal court: “Edgar and I have an understanding that if we’re not handling cases in the way he wants, I am happy to discuss it with him.”
Taylor does agree that “for defendants with multiple prior felony convictions, a gun-crime conviction will likely result in a more appropriately severe sentence in federal than Superior Court.”
Gun-control advocates often blame Maryland and Virginia for allowing guns to be shipped illegally into DC. Domenech says the days of rampant gun trafficking into DC are past.
“The bulk of DC’s guns are not what we would call trafficked guns,” he says. “Of the 1,500 guns we were able to trace, the time of sale to crime was over three years.” That means fewer people than before are acquiring guns by purchasing them illegally or stealing them.
“Most guns are being traded on the secondhand market,” he says. “Our criminals are trading guns among themselves.”
The ATF’s most recent bust of a major dealer in illegal guns was Garfield Hedlam, who used straw purchasers to buy guns one at a time legally in Virginia, then sold them illegally in DC.
“That’s not happening as much any longer,” says Domenech. “The criminal element is moving guns among themselves—trading guns, bartering guns.” Domenech says federal investigators need to refocus their efforts: “We have to get closer to the streets and the hand-to-hand sales.”
If there is any good news in the fight against gun crime in DC, you might find it in the police department’s Gun Recovery Unit and its leader, Sergeant Curt Sloan.
Sloan has focused on getting guns off the street since he made sergeant in 1993. He was on the case until former chief Charles Ramsey disbanded the gun-recovery units and dismantled gun-crime teams that were working with federal agents in the late ’90s.
Late one night in early 2007, Sloan says, he had just fallen asleep when the phone rang. He answered, and a woman said, “Hey, Curt, how have you been?”
“Fine, baby, how about you?” Sloan recalls saying. “Sergeant Sloan,” the woman said, “this is Cathy Lanier.”
“Sorry, Chief,” he said. Lanier had just been named to run DC’s police department.
“I want you to start up the gun-recovery unit again,” she said.
The unit now has 29 cops whose primary job is getting guns out of the hands of criminals. They solicit tips on illegal guns, get search warrants, batter down doors, and round up illegal weapons. Since they started in November, they have taken in more than 220 weapons. But Sloan knows the limits of DC’s gun laws.
Acting on a tip from Alexandria police about a suspected armed robber, Sloan’s unit located the suspect’s home, got a search warrant, raided it, and discovered an unregistered pistol. The suspect walked in during the raid and was arrested.
Sloan sent the suspect directly to Virginia for prosecution on the armed-robbery charges. Though cops found a gun in his place, DC’s possession laws make it hard to prove it belonged to him, and the worst he could get was a misdemeanor with no jail time.
Even after restarting the gun-recovery unit, Cathy Lanier knew reducing gun violence would take an assault on the enforcement system.
“We’re on the front end of the system,” she says. “In the last 40 days my officers have taken 312 guns off the street. That’s a lot of guns.”
It’s the last week of April. Nine people have been killed by gunfire in and around the Turkey Thicket neighborhood of Northeast DC. Lanier has just deployed 1,200 cops to try to stop the bloodshed.
“We keep arresting people on gun charges, and they keep getting back on the street,” she says. “What the street cops see is a revolving door.”
Having been a street cop before climbing through the ranks to become chief, Lanier has felt the frustration. Last fall she asked Mayor Fenty to examine the system from arrest through court. She now chairs the monthly Gunstat meeting that brings together cops, prosecutors, and court officials to track cases.
Unfortunately, Councilmember Phil Mendelson, whose Judiciary Committee is responsible for many of DC’s weak gun laws, is not part of these sessions.
“We’re trying to look at all the people we’re bringing in and check their histories,” she says. “If they have been arrested 23 times since 1999, and some of those arrests are for possession of a weapon or armed robbery or murder or CPWL, why is this person still on the street? Where is this falling through the cracks?
“If we are arresting people,” she asks, “what happens then? Ten different things can happen from the day I lock you up until I see you back on the street.”
Cops locked D’Angelo Thomas up for gun possession, but a magistrate freed him because the paperwork for his arrest didn’t show up on time. Before cops rearrested him, he allegedly killed Delonte Kent.
Thomas awaits trial on the murder charge. He now has been convicted on the gun-possession charge and sentenced to five years. Delonte Kent’s sentence was death.