Sentinel special report
Henry Pierson Curtis
Sentinel Staff Writer
October 12, 2008
Many of America's best-armed criminals call Orlando and the rest of Florida home.
AK-47s, other military-style assault weapons and expensive handguns have become so common that cops across the state routinely encounter suspects equipped for urban warfare, complete with 75-shot magazines and bulletproof vests.
In Orange County alone, the number of crime guns seized last year -- 3,333 -- was only 500 weapons fewer than the total seized in all five boroughs of New York City, which has eight times the population.
Another indicator is the sound of gunfire. Orlando police responded last year to 477 calls about shots fired. Orange County deputy sheriffs handled 10 times that amount -- 4,883 "discharge weapon" reports. In just those two jurisdictions, that adds up to more than 14 shootings a day.
The killers of two men slain in Pine Hills last week fired 58 rounds from two AK-47s during a furious gunbattle, detectives said. Investigators still are tracking a shotgun, a revolver and a stolen pistol found at the scene.
Such events, along with guns seized at a rate of nearly 10 a day, suggest a community at war with itself.
"Guns are everywhere," Orlando police Chief Val Demings said. "We are looking for guns in places where we never looked before. . . .
"When we're making drug arrests, nine times out of 10 there's going to be a gun nearby in the bushes, around the corner or in the house."
In March, the Orlando Sentinel began to collect public records on every firearm seized by Florida's largest police agencies, spurred by a surge in murder and gunfire locally since the end of the federal assault-weapons ban in 2004. The idea was to see whether what is happening in Orlando and Orange County was part of a larger trend.
The reports disclosed that the police agencies surveyed had removed nearly 60,000 guns from the streets during the past five years -- an arsenal better suited for combat in Afghanistan than the streets of Fort Lauderdale, Miami or Ocoee.
The actual number was much higher because several departments kept only partial records from 2003 through 2007.
9 mm pistol dominates
However you count it, Florida is synonymous with firepower.
Compare one year's take in "The City Beautiful" to those in much larger U.S. cities.
In Orlando (population 200,000), police seized 1,160 firearms last year. Police in Las Vegas (population 1.5 million) seized 601. Police in San Francisco (population 744,000) seized 1,091.
Florida law makes it easy for any adult without a criminal record to buy a gun. Yet many legally purchased guns end up being used by criminals. The state routinely turns up in law-enforcement surveys as one of the top three sources of firearms that turn up in crimes elsewhere.
All the 60,000 guns tracked by the Sentinel involved criminal charges or had been abandoned at crime scenes. None of the guns came from police buyback programs in which citizens trade firearms for sneakers or store credits. Gun busts occasionally turned up machine guns and other illegal oddities, but handguns were the most common.
Of them all, the 9 mm pistol reigns as the state's most-popular crime weapon: 10,297 seized from 2003-07.
Firing up to 32 bullets without reloading, it's the same handgun that persuaded U.S. law enforcement in the 1980s to abandon six-shooters forever to keep from being outgunned by criminals.
As a sign of their popularity, confiscations of 9 mm pistols have more than doubled in Orlando, Jacksonville and Hillsborough County in recent years.
They turn up everywhere, even in tourist bags.
Last year at Universal Studios in Orlando, security guards found a 9 mm pistol, two 30-shot magazines, two 16-shot magazines and 69 bullets in a patron's backpack outside the City Walk nightclub complex.
The patron, an electrician from South Florida, didn't feel comfortable walking unarmed in the crowd of thousands. His choice cost him two days in the county jail, but a plea bargain let him go home without a criminal record for carrying a concealed weapon.
His gun was a $500 Czech import. The most popular seized 9 mms in Florida are made by the venerable U.S. company Smith & Wesson, followed by Glock, both in the $450 to $600 range. Only in Jacksonville was Hi-Point, an economy brand selling for $200 or less, confiscated more often than much-higher-priced competitors.
'So many guns'
Expensive brands also dominated the rising numbers of confiscated .40-caliber and .45-caliber semiautomatic pistols.
"Criminals are equal-opportunity types who think the same as consumers: You get what you pay for. They're going to go for the weapon that's most proficient and concealable," said Orange sheriff's Cpl. John Park, a member of the Tactical Anti-Crime Unit that targets high-crime areas. "We're pulling so many guns off the street."
Seizures of military-style weapons have skyrocketed since the end of the 10-year ban on assault weapons, which prohibited or severely restricted sales of the most deadly firearms on the market, along with magazines holding more than 10 bullets.
Those weapons included AK-47s and many others with two or more military-style features.
In Orlando, officers seized seven AK-47s and similarly high-powered AR-15s in 2003. Orange County deputies seized eight that year. Four years later, those numbers jumped more than 400 percent -- 31 in Orlando, 48 in the county. Total for the five years: 321.
Deadliest on the street
Cops consider assault weapons the deadliest firearms on the street. Their high-velocity bullets hit with three to four times the energy of a 9 mm pistol -- enough power to tear apart brick walls and human bodies.
The five-year total includes AK-47s, AR-15s and Tec-9 machine pistols but does not include 72 SKS carbines seized by the two agencies. Those weapons fire the same bullet as the AK-47 but were not included in the federal ban.
On New Year's Eve in 2005, a bullet fired from an SKS killed an Orlando man more than a mile away.
"What is the need?" asked Orange-Osceola's Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Jan Garavaglia, who autopsies the victims. "If you can shoot through the wall of a house, it's not for self-protection. . . . Why anybody has these types of rifles is probably not to do good."
Drug dealing was the most common crime connected to assault weapons in Orange County.
The confiscated weapons were linked to 148 drug-related cases; 120 home invasions, burglaries and acts of violence; and 39 domestic-violence injunctions, according to court records in each case.
Several suspects arrested in those cases bought AK-47s within days of turning 18.
One riddled a girlfriend's car for jilting him. Another robbed a gas station, leaving behind his home address on a receipt for the just-purchased assault weapon. A third, who went shooting near his home, simply described himself as angry.
'It's just crazy'
"When it happens to you, it's amazing," said William Bolden, recalling how a group of young men in three vehicles stopped in his Pine Hills neighborhood this summer and fired at least 66 shots. "I started running. That's when I got hit."
It was July 7 -- the day William and his twin brother, Willie, were celebrating their 52nd birthdays. Each twin was wounded: William in his right foot; Willie in his right ear.
Crime-scene technicians recovered:
*A dozen .22-caliber shell casings.
*Seven from a .380-caliber pistol.
*Twelve from a .40-caliber pistol.
*Eighteen from a .45-caliber pistol.
*Six from a .357-caliber Magnum revolver.
*Two unfired 12-gauge shotgun shells.
*Eleven from an M-1 military carbine.
One of the suspects turned out to be 17. The oldest was 25.
"It's just crazy," William Bolden said. "I don't understand these young people."
Yet rage and recklessness are not age-restricted.
In 2004, a 70-year-old Winter Park homeowner with a .223-caliber carbine was arrested and convicted for threatening to shoot a tree surgeon for trimming limbs that shaded his yard.
Looking over the data, Orange County Sheriff Kevin Beary said that Florida has become much more dangerous -- for residents and police officers -- since the end of the weapons ban.
"There should be a huge concern not just here locally but across the nation about the huge increases in the numbers of assault weapons and high-power semiautomatic pistols that our deputies and police officers are coming across," he said. "This shows that without the ban, the criminal element has definitely taken advantage of the market."
Vicki McClure and Katy Moore of the Sentinel staff contributed to this report. Henry Pierson Curtis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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