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Stronger firepower a factor in deadlier street violence, experts say

Stronger firepower a factor in deadlier street violence, experts say

From the Gun violence in Missouri: 'There's no war going on, but if you count up the body count ... you might think there was' series
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Man shot in leg during fight on Washington Avenue downtown

An uninjured boy lays on the ground while St. Louis police investigate the shooting of a man during a fight outside Pop's Kitchen restaurant at 14th Street and Washington Avenue on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2020. Photo by Robert Cohen, rcohen@post-dispatch.com

ST. LOUIS — Although handguns are still most commonly used in violent crimes, police officials in the St. Louis area say they’re seeing an alarming rise in shootings involving firearms with large-capacity magazines capable of firing more rounds and thereby causing more injury and death.

“In the ’80s, guys had Saturday night specials,” said St. Louis police Officer Jay Schroeder, president of the St. Louis Police Officers Association. “Now guys have firearms with 30-round magazines. They’re spraying bullets all over the place.”

St. Louis-area police and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives do not keep comprehensive data on large-capacity magazines used in shootings, in part because they’re unregulated by state or federal law. But police suspect their use in shootings is contributing to the area’s rising homicide rate.

With at least 225 killings in the city — of which about 72% are unsolved — St. Louis is on pace for the highest homicide rate in at least a half century.

Many semiautomatic rifles and handguns can use magazines of different sizes, allowing more shots before reloading. Higher-capacity magazines are generally defined as those capable of holding more than 10 rounds.

The top 15 gun models recovered and traced in St. Louis this year all have been handguns, ATF spokesman John Ham said.

“That has been the case and will likely always be the case because of concealability,” he said.

Of the 10,360 firearms the ATF recovered in Missouri last year, 75% of them were pistols, the most common being the 9 mm, followed by .40- and .45-caliber handguns, according to ATF data. St. Louis and Kansas City together accounted for 60% of the guns recovered and traced by ATF last year.

The recovery of high-powered rifles such as AR-15s and AK-47s is less common but Ham noted an uptick in the seizure of AR-style pistols in the Midwest.

“They are still a relatively new product so it’s hard to say if they are becoming a crime gun of choice or if recoveries are up because there are more in circulation,” he said.

Expired weapons ban cited

Chris Koper, a George Mason University criminologist, attributes an increase in the use of high-capacity semiautomatics to the expiration of the federal assault weapons ban in 2004.

Koper and other scholars published a 2018 study of 10 cities that included Baltimore, Minneapolis, Richmond, Virginia, and Kansas City and found that between 22% and 36% of guns recovered in crimes were those with large-capacity magazines.

The study concluded that “the federal ban curbed the spread of high-capacity semiautomatic weapons when it was in place and, in so doing, may have had preventive effects on gunshot victimizations.”

Researchers at the University of Missouri-St. Louis suggested last year that more people were dying in violent crimes that involved a firearm than in past years. Eight years of St. Louis police data showed shooters fired more bullets or bullets of a higher caliber, making shootings deadlier than before, the researchers found.

Despite an observed rise in lethal firepower, St. Louis and St. Louis County police say cases with two or more homicide victims still remain rare. In St. Louis, such killings made up 9% of the city’s 194 homicide victims last year. Since 2015, St. Louis County’s highest share of homicide cases with two or more killed was in 2018 with one triple homicide and five double killings from a total 63 deaths.

Duke University professor Phillip Cook co-authored research into shootings in Boston from 2010 to 2014 that concluded shooters with higher-caliber handguns were more likely to cause death. The study concluded that replacing the medium- and higher-caliber guns with smaller-caliber weapons in the same crimes would have resulted in nearly 40% fewer deaths.

“We had very strong evidence that the type of weapon mattered,” Cook told the Post-Dispatch.

Missouri and Illinois have no restrictions on large-capacity magazines. According to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, nine states plus the District of Columbia have enacted bans.

St. Louis County police Sgt. John Wall, who helps run the department’s team of homicide detectives, said that in addition to more homicides through October compared to 2019, detectives are seeing a troubling increase in high-capacity magazines used in violent crimes — perhaps because of broader access to them online.

“You can buy this stuff off the internet like crazy,” he said.

St. Louis County has had at least 56 homicides through Nov. 3 compared to 48 through the same time last year, according to county police. Guns were used in 49 of this year’s killings. Last year’s total homicide count in the county was 65.

Ari Davis, a policy analyst with the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, said the regulation of large-capacity magazines in conjunction with violence intervention programs such as Cure Violence can reduce gun deaths. He cited research linking a rise in gun deaths to the 2007 repeal of a Missouri law requiring handgun buyers to undergo background checks and get a permit.

“I think you really have to address root causes and you have to stop the bleeding in terms of interrupting those cycles of violence,” Davis said. “And when you pair all of those things together, I think it can really be effective at reducing gun violence.”

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