Federal agents, prosecutors targeting guns
Pittsburgh TRIBUNE-REVIEW | April 25, 2005
By Chris Osher
Federal agents and prosecutors are going after the guns in Pittsburgh, and criminals are taking note.
The U.S. Attorney's Office prosecuted 127 people on federal gun charges last year, more than triple the 38 defendants tried for such violations in 2003.
"The drug dealers aren't carrying guns as much as they used to because they don't want to get caught with it," said Pittsburgh police Deputy Chief William Mullen. "They stash it somewhere nearby."
Law enforcement authorities in one recent investigation discovered that drug dealers were storing their guns in the aluminum siding of a house near the corner where they dealt drugs, said U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan.
Such anecdotal evidence, she said, shows that the initiative is succeeding and that drug dealers are more reluctant to carry weapons. The minutes it would take them to retrieve a gun stashed nearby could mean the difference between life and death, she stressed.
"I have no doubt that people involved in criminal conduct in this district are aware of this initiative," Buchanan said.
Mullen suggests the effort has contributed to a decline in homicides. The increase in gun prosecutions coincided with a 38 percent drop in homicides in Pittsburgh, from 69 in 2003 to 43 last year.
All gun arrests in Pittsburgh are reviewed by federal prosecutors and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Every other week, federal and local authorities meet with the U.S. Attorney's Office to decide which cases to pursue.
Criminals fear the federal system because there is no parole, stiffer penalties and a 98 percent conviction rate, Mullen and Buchanan said.
A federal conviction on a charge of possessing a firearm used in connection with a drug crime carries a mandatory five-year prison sentence.
Someone convicted of a similar state charge, however, could serve as little as two years with the possibility of parole, said Westmoreland County District Attorney John Peck, who also has forwarded a few gun cases to the U.S. Attorney's Office.
He calls the federal initiative a "valuable tool."
Prosecutors say the case of Jason Korey is a perfect example.
Korey, 22, twice was acquitted of homicide in state cases. But a federal jury convicted him two weeks ago of a firearms charge in connection with one of those homicides --- the 1999 execution-style slaying of drug dealer William Kuhn III, 24. Korey, formerly of Baldwin Borough, now faces a minimum of 30 years in prison and could get life.
The effort does have its detractors, who argue that it targets poor and primarily black neighborhoods. Critics contend that taxpayers' money would be better spent fighting white-collar crime and public corruption.
"It's not a good use of federal resources," said Gary Zimmerman, a defense lawyer who often represents accused drug dealers. "Why pick on the poor people? They end up snagging some poor kid who had a felony 10 years ago."
Prosecutors and police counter that many of the crime victims live in those poor areas that are targeted. Buchanan also denies the effort is harming prosecutions of other crimes, such as business fraud.
One leading crime analyst, however, said studies of federal gun initiatives show them to be less successful than police and prosecutors claim.
The city of Richmond, Va., embarked on a similar push about a decade ago. That program, dubbed Project Exile, initially was heralded for pushing down Richmond's homicide rate, but the homicides there have since soared despite the effort, said David M. Kennedy, director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.
"Lots and lots of jurisdictions have tried to drive the homicide rate down by going after gun offenders and pushing them through the federal prosecutorial track," Kennedy said. "Almost none of them have had what look like a substantial or sustained impact."
In Pittsburgh, the push helped authorities catch Martell Smith, 28, a Penn Hills man who was convicted of aggravated assault for shooting two people in 1994. Pittsburgh police arrested him in December 2003 after they found him in Wilkinsburg with a .45-caliber handgun, binoculars and wearing a bulletproof vest.
In March, U.S. District Judge Thomas Hardiman sentenced Smith to 32 months in a federal prison after Smith pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm.
The effort to prosecute gun crime vigorously in Pittsburgh builds on an earlier initiative, Operation Target, started in 2000 by Buchanan's predecessor, Harry Litman.
Buchanan has used much of the $758,000 her office received under the Justice Department's Project Safe Neighborhoods program to boost the gun crackdown effort.
She gave $378,000 to the Allegheny County Coroner's Office to hire firearms personnel, add firearms training programs, buy gun residue-detection equipment and build a gun violence-tracking database.
She also gave $90,000 to Allegheny County police to hire a gun specialist; $30,000 to the state police to help whittle down a backlog of firearms cases; $25,000 to the county probation office to defray the cost of investigating firearms violations; and $41,000 for billboards stating, "Gun Crime Hits Home. Hit back by calling your local police or 1-800-ATF-GUNS."
Pittsburgh police are being trained about the importance of gun arrests and how to do them successfully, said Louis Weiers, the resident agent in charge of the ATF's firearms group in Pittsburgh.
Pittsburgh last year was one of 14 cities designated by the Justice Department to form a Violent Crime Impact Team in which the ATF and local police join forces to attack gun crime by flooding high-crime areas.
Gov. Ed Rendell also has announced plans to assign 20 state troopers to the federal task force dealing with interstate gun trafficking through the ATF. Six of the troopers will be from the Pittsburgh area.
Pittsburgh police Detective Joe Bielevicz, who is assigned to the local ATF team, said wiretaps of drug dealers reveal the effort is making an impact.
"On these recorded phone calls, I hear these guys talking about the ATF and the federal system," Bielevicz said. "There's no doubt about it. This is having a ripple effect."
Weiers said his office now has four Pittsburgh police officers and an Allegheny County sheriff's deputy assigned full-time to help 13 ATF agents on gun cases.
Their different roles and law enforcement powers dovetail effectively, Weiers said.
While ATF agents can't make traffic stops, Pittsburgh police can, he said. If a gun is found, the ATF uses its resources to determine whether the gun was stolen or bought by a straw purchaser who traded the gun to a felon for drugs, he said.
"We're going in there as a force multiplier," Weiers said. "And every time there's a gun seizure, I'm asking the team, 'Where did he get his gun? Where did he get his gun?'"