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Guns’ crooked paths to Compton’s streets

Times Staff Writer

To crack down on gangs and stem soaring violence in Compton, Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca asked his deputies and detectives not just to investigate crime but to also probe where gang members were getting their guns.

So sheriff’s officials embarked on an unprecedented census to track down the origins of nearly 900 weapons confiscated there last year.

The results, released Monday, offer a glimpse into the complex and unexpected ways guns get into the hands of gang members.

Sixteen guns recovered in or near Compton were traced to a single store in Sparks, Nev., through databases of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

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That same location, officials said, accounted for more than 350 weapons recovered nationwide by law enforcement officials last year, including 65 in the Los Angeles area.

The bureau is investigating the store, and law enforcement officials declined to identify it, Baca said.

The bulk of the weapons confiscated in Compton were originally sold in California. But scores of others came from Arizona, Nevada and Colorado. Nine weapons were registered in Connecticut and a few others were registered in Ohio.

Several of the weapons were traced to killings. Five of the recovered weapons were among 37 taken in a burglary of a Westminster gun store in October.

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In all, however, only a couple dozen of the guns had been reported stolen, even though almost none were found in the possession of the registered owner.

“It tells us that these people are selling them,” said Cmdr. Ralph Martin, referring to a practice known as “straw buys” in which a person who is legally able to buy a weapon turns around and passes the gun to someone who cannot.

By the end of 2006, gang suppression deputies and detectives, along with street officers working out of the Compton station, seized 875 weapons, about 10% of the total recovered by law enforcement countywide last year.

“There’s only one or two gun stores in Compton,” Martin said. “We thought: Is there a gun store or two that is selling to cons? If so, we thought we should know that.”

Sheriff’s officials said clear patterns have already emerged showing a disproportionate number of confiscated weapons originating from a relatively small number of gun dealers or retailers.

“Certain gun stores led the pack,” said Lt. Paul Pietrantoni, who headed a gang task force sent to Compton a year ago after the city experienced soaring homicides in 2005.

Those stores, he said, are the focus of an investigation that may be concluded in the coming weeks.

Now, sheriff’s investigators hope to go further, connecting the dots between the legal purchases and the guns ending up in the possession of known gang members on the streets of Compton.

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Local law enforcement officials said they were surprised by the connection between Compton crime and a store in Sparks, a suburb of 81,000 near Reno. There are at least half a dozen gun dealers and gunsmiths in the Sparks area, including a pawnshop, gun stores and a specialty precision weapons maker.

In 1999, one Sparks-based gun manufacturer was found negligent in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn, N.Y., for marketing and distribution practices that a jury determined had contributed to illegal drug trafficking in New York state. Los Angeles law enforcement officials said Monday that they did not know if that maker had any connection to the current investigation.

The next step, they say, will be to knock on the doors of as many of the registered owners as possible.

“We need to ask: Do you know where your gun is? Where’d it go? Did you sell it? Why didn’t you register the sale?” Pietrantoni said. “It shouldn’t be easy to lose track of a gun.”

Baca said the data collected so far suggest federal and local officials need to significantly improve the tracking of weapons that change hands.

He called the relationship between those who buy guns legally and those guns ending up being used illegally “the nexus between law-abiding and lawlessness.”

“That gap has to be closed,” said Baca, who added that he believed the survey of guns seized in Compton showed “the idea of checking people’s background who are the purchasers is not enough. It’s not only not doing enough, it’s then not holding the original gun purchaser accountable for their guns.”

He said he plans to pursue ways to go after gun owners who knowingly or willingly give or sell their weapons to people who cannot legally buy a gun.

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“I think there is virtually no control,” he said. “There should be a law against that. If you buy a gun, it is yours to care for and secure and you are prohibited from giving that gun to another person for any reason whatsoever.”

Baca announced the overall results of the task force Monday at a news conference outside Compton City Hall. He said the goal had been to reduce homicides by 40%, a goal he said was exceeded.

In 2005, the station reported 72 gang-related homicides, compared with 36 last year. In addition, two suspected gang members were shot and killed by deputies in 2006.

The task force made 1,622 arrests, 959 of them on felony charges. It executed 301 search warrants and worked closely with probation and parole officers assigned to Compton.

The sheriff said Monday that he plans to keep the task force, which is paid for with county funds, in place for “a long time.”

“When you have a crisis in any part of Los Angeles,” Baca said, “it’s absolutely irresponsible not to respond.”

His goal: “There is no longer a significant gang problem in Compton.”

Baca had moved several dozen gang suppression deputies and detectives as well as a narcotics team and homicide detectives to Compton a year ago, even though the city had no additional funds to increase services.

Since 2000, Compton has contracted with the sheriff for law enforcement, a move made by then-Mayor Omar Bradley, who said the police force was too costly to maintain.

When task force personnel were shifted back to other areas at midyear without the sheriff’s knowledge, the city and nearby unincorporated areas experienced seven homicides in eight days.

In 2006, Compton had only 13 homicides through early July and had been on a pace to set the lowest number of killings in a generation.

“It was a mistake,” Baca said of the task force’s temporary removal. “It showed how quickly the guns and the gangs and the drugs and the racial hatred will return if you leave. We learned the hard way.”

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megan.garvey@latimes.com


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