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‘It’s real easy to get a gun’: How ample access, lax laws pushed a city’s gun violence to new heights

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Illustration: Andrea Brunty, USA TODAY Network, and Getty Images

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — With a few swipes of his thumb, a Louisville, Kentucky, teen flipped open a Snapchat post picturing a .40-caliber Smith & Wesson handgun in someone's lap.

The caption read, simply: "Who wants it?" 

The answer, it seems, is nearly everyone.

More than ever, Kentucky, and Louisville in particular, is awash in guns — both legal and illegal. Some estimates suggest slightly more than half of Kentucky’s 3.5 million adults live in a home with a firearm, and thousands of weapons are being carried on Louisville's streets or in vehicles.

How easy is it to get a gun in the state's largest city? 

“It’s real easy," said another young man, who like his younger friend didn’t want to give his name for fear he could become a target for retaliation. "Say if I got into a beef with somebody, and I just need me a little pocket model. I can go to my block and walk up to somebody I know and be like, ‘I’m trying to get a gun. You know where I can get one?’ He can point me out."

The easy access to firearms coupled with Kentucky’s minimal gun controls are pushing Louisville’s violence to historic heights: 160 people dead, 587 wounded in shootings last year. Another 58 have died and 216 have been wounded in shootings this year.

“The accessibility and saturation of guns has skyrocketed,” said Louisville activist Christopher 2X, who arranged an interview with the two teens for an unvarnished glimpse into the city’s illegal firearms market.

"Young people know they can get weapons, and so they know the best way to have respect and show power through the streets is by letting that gun off."

Christopher 2X Alton Strupp/Courier Journal
Louisville activist Christopher 2X
The accessibility and saturation of guns has skyrocketed. Young people know they can get weapons, and so they know the best way to have respect and show power through the streets is by letting that gun off.

To better understand the ways in which weapons are falling into the wrong hands, The Louisville Courier Journal, part of the USA TODAY Network, spent nearly a year interviewing police, lawmakers, gun violence victims, gun dealers, gun owners and community leaders.

The Courier Journal also examined thousands of public records — some previously shielded from the public.

The Courier Journal found four main weapons pipelines that fuel crime and rising gun violence, with Kentucky unable — or unwilling — to stop it:

  • Nearly 10,000 guns were reported stolen in Louisville from 2014 through 2019. More than 1,000 have been recovered at crime scenes across the city.
  • Kentucky's roughly 1,600 licensed gun dealers reported more than 3,200 guns lost or stolen in those same six years.
  • Those dealers are targets for both thefts and straw purchases, while unregulated private sales flourish on social media and other websites — funneling guns into the hands of teens or people who wouldn't pass a background check at a gun store.
  • Yet, instead of disrupting these pipelines, lawmakers have put more guns on the streets through the mandatory auctioning of guns confiscated by police. More than two dozen guns sold at state auctions were later tied to criminal cases in Louisville.

The lasting damage caused by these weapons disproportionately afflicts the city's Black residents, who make up less than 25% of Louisville's population but accounted for roughly 80% of last year's shooting victims.

The deadly toll goes further. Kentucky also has one of the nation’s highest rates of firearms suicides, losing somewhere around 460 people a year for the last 10 years. 

These grim statistics do not include the harm done by armed robbers who never fire their weapons, or the lasting trauma faced by generations of families who have had to bury loved ones, or who live in neighborhoods where gunfire is an almost nightly occurrence.

They also don’t capture the steep economic burden of these shootings in a state that already ranks among the nation’s poorest. A 2019 Congressional report estimates that gun violence costs Kentucky roughly $3.6 billion a year, equal to about $800 per resident.

The violence Kentucky’s guns inflict spreads far beyond its borders.

In 2019, more than 2,300 guns first purchased in Kentucky were recovered at crime scenes in 43 other states, The Courier Journal found by analyzing data from the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which traces guns tied to criminal investigations.

That makes Kentucky the eighth largest per-capita exporter of guns traced by the ATF, the analysis showed.

"We’re promoting a gun environment and a gun culture," said state Sen. Gerald Neal, D-Louisville, "and what does result from that is gun injuries and fatalities."

‘I don’t see how you’ll be able to stop this’

‘I don’t see how you’ll be able to stop this’

The young men who talked to The Courier Journal about guns, who were 18 and 19 at the time, grew up in a predominantly Black part of the city, where disproportionate rates of gun violence and poverty underscore decades of structural racism and neglect by city leaders.

People in their neighborhood carry guns to fit in with their peers or to feel a sense of power or control, said the men, now 19 and 20. Others believe they need to be armed so they can safely walk home from school or work. 

"You can't be in a gang, or around a gang, without a gun," one young man said.

Guns are held in storage at the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office property room on March 1, 2021.
Guns are held in storage at the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office property room on March 1, 2021. Alton Strupp/Courier Journal

In their short lives, the young men say they've known too many people killed or wounded in shootings, and many others who have pulled the trigger. The younger of the two nearly died several years ago when a bullet tore through his stomach as he was caught in gang crossfire.

He doesn't see an end to the violence.

“I don’t see how you’ll be able to stop this gun situation,” he said. “Guns will be on the streets forever.”

When they were younger, the brothers of one of the Louisville teens would tell stories about people cutting the locks on boxcars and finding caches of weapons to steal.

He never met anyone who did that. In his neighborhood, he said, people didn’t need to.

Break into any home or car in Louisville and, odds are, there will be a gun to steal.

Boxcars sit along dead-end streets in Louisville, Kentucky, on March 1, 2021.
Boxcars sit along dead-end streets in Louisville, Kentucky, on March 1, 2021. Alton Strupp/Courier Journal

For years, city officials and law enforcement have sounded the alarm about the problem of stolen guns, crafting social media campaigns pleading with gun owners to secure their weapons.

Those pleas, records show, have been largely ineffective.

In Louisville, nearly 10,000 guns were reported stolen between 2014 and 2019 — an average of four guns stolen every day.

And those are just the ones police know about.

Across the U.S., an estimated 40% of all guns stolen are never reported to law enforcement.

Because Kentucky is one of 37 states that does not require individual gun owners to report lost or stolen firearms, the total number of weapons taken in Louisville over six years could be closer to 16,000.

A handful of Democratic lawmakers have introduced bills over the years requiring gun owners to report lost or stolen firearms, or to penalize gun owners for failing to responsibly store weapons.

No legislation has made it out of committee.

Louisville leaders can't adopt a similar city ordinance because Kentucky law prevents municipalities from passing gun laws locally.

"We can’t even use the word ‘gun’ or ‘firearm’ in any of our legislation," said Louisville Metro Council President David James.

Meanwhile, the number of guns swiped from homes, cars and businesses in Louisville keeps piling up.

No target, it seems, is off-limits:

Algonquin Parkway case
Preston Highway case
Dixie Highway case

Shortly after 9 a.m. July 7, 2017, Louisville police were called to investigate a theft at a familiar place: the department’s firearms training center. Eight shotguns, a handgun, five pepper-ball guns and two grenade launchers — worth $8,953 — were reported stolen. None appear to have been recovered.

In November 2016, thieves popped out a window air conditioner to get into an apartment and pried loose a safe mounted to the floor and wall. Stolen were 26 guns — most rifles and shotguns — worth $6,525. Three have been recovered: One in Indiana, one in Illinois and the third in Louisville.

In December 2014, thieves cut a hole in the fence and roof of a pawn shop, stealing 46 guns valued at $8,527. About half have been recovered, including one a 17-year-old tried to sell at a Taco Bell, two by police in Chicago and Indianapolis and one at a different pawn shop in Louisville.

‘Lying and buying’

‘Lying and buying’

Not yet 21, the two Louisville young men who talked to The Courier Journal are too young to legally buy a handgun. No matter, they said, all they’d need is a couple hundred dollars cash and the right friends.

“We could call the pawn shop and see how much the gun is first,” said one of the young men. “I need a Taurus 9. Bam, it’s $250. I can get a 21-year-old my money.

"He goes in there and gets the gun and brings it out to me.”

There are around 1,600 federally licensed gun dealers in Kentucky, according to a recent ATF report. Roughly 100 are in the Louisville metro area, each potentially susceptible to a straw-purchase attempt.

Isaac Hutchins, 22, looks at rifles while shopping at the Kentucky Gun Co. in Bardstown, Kentucky, on March 18, 2020.
Isaac Hutchins, 22, looks at rifles while shopping at the Kentucky Gun Co. in Bardstown, Kentucky, on March 18, 2020. Sam Upshaw Jr./Courier Journal

Simply put, a straw purchase happens when those unable to pass a background check, or who do not want a gun registered in their name, get another person to buy a gun for them.

Anyone buying from a licensed gun dealer must fill out a form that, among other things, asks if the person is the actual buyer of the gun. Falsifying that form is a federal crime, punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

Known in law enforcement circles as “lying and buying,” straw purchases are a significant source of crime guns, said Shawn Morrow, special agent in charge of the ATF’s Louisville field office.

David Downs, left, and Jerry Mills, co-owners of Rocky's Private Protection in Louisville, checked out rifles while shopping at the Kentucky Gun Co. in Bardstown, Kentucky, on March 18, 2020.
David Downs, left, and Jerry Mills, co-owners of Rocky's Private Protection in Louisville, checked out rifles while shopping at the Kentucky Gun Co. in Bardstown, Kentucky, on March 18, 2020. Sam Upshaw Jr./Courier Journal

Nationally, it’s estimated that upward of 30,000 attempted straw purchases happen each year at federally licensed gun shops, according to the gun-safety organization Giffords Law Center.

At Kentucky Gun Co. in Bardstown, owner Patrick Hayden estimated his staff turns down a sale or two a week based on a suspicion the customer is there for a straw purchase.

"Our livelihood depends on guns getting to legal, law-abiding gun owners," he said. "We don’t want those guns getting to people who shouldn’t have them."

Patrick Hayden, right, owner of the Kentucky Gun Co. in Bardstown, Ky., and Addison Boone Patrick Hayden, right, and Addison Boone. Sam Upshaw Jr./Courier Journal
Patrick Hayden, owner of Kentucky Gun Co. in Bardstown
Our livelihood depends on guns getting to legal, law-abiding gun owners. We don’t want those guns getting to people who shouldn’t have them.

Prosecuting straw purchasers is tough, particularly with Kentucky’s limited gun laws.

A suspected straw purchaser can say they no longer have the gun because it was stolen — something gun-safety advocates say could be fixed with mandatory lost or stolen firearm reporting laws.

A straw buyer also could say they sold the gun to an unknown buyer. Kentucky doesn't require background checks for private gun sales — or any forms at all to document a sale.

Straw purchases are one way federal authorities say the Victory Park Crips street gang armed itself. In a sweeping, 40-count indictment from 2017, prosecutors accused a gang associate of buying four handguns from a Louisville gun shop for gang members with felony convictions.

US Attorney talks about cracking down on Victory Park Crips
Louisville Courier Journal

But there’s another, often easier way for people who cannot legally own a gun to buy one.

It's called the “gun show loophole” — buying a weapon from a private seller without a background check.

It’s perfectly legal to sell a gun without a federal license, and in Kentucky and 27 other states, only federally licensed firearms dealers are required to perform background checks on buyers.

Federal law says someone has to be "engaged in the business" of selling firearms to need a license, but it doesn't say how many guns must be sold to need one.

“You could have a collector who has 700 guns and decides, I’m done, I don’t want this, and I’ll liquidate my collection,” said Karl Stankovic, a retired ATF agent who once led the Louisville field office and now volunteers with the gun-safety advocacy group, Moms Demand Action.

Those private sales often take place at gun shows. But they’ve also found a vast, welcoming home on the internet.

A world wide web of guns

A world wide web of guns

The one Louisville teen only needed a few seconds to find a gun for sale on Snapchat.

“I could have slid up and asked how much, or what you selling it for?” he said. “Or do you want to trade?”

He said he also could have checked on Instagram, where people sometimes use the site’s “stories” feature to sell guns because, like Snapchat, those posts disappear after 24 hours.

“When people post it on their stories,” he said, “they say, ‘Who wants to buy two 40s (.40-caliber handguns) or a 40 and a 9 (millimeter) for sale?’ They’ll say they have both guns for $700.”

In early 2016, Facebook, which also owns Instagram, announced a ban on private sales of guns and ammunition on both sites.

Three years later, though, The Wall Street Journal reported on how users of the social media giant’s popular Marketplace feature easily sidestepped that ban by advertising gun cases or boxes for sale, and then offering the gun as well during subsequent private messages with would-be buyers.

A Courier Journal review of Marketplace found similar questionable posts still exist.

Facebook bans private sales of guns and ammunition, but Marketplace users get around that by advertising gun cases or boxes for sale.
Facebook bans private sales of guns and ammunition, but Marketplace users get around that by advertising gun cases or boxes for sale. Screenshot via Facebook Marketplace

An advertisement in Louisville, for example, sought $850 for a Glock G33 handgun case (similar cases sell for between $20 and $50 online).

There are also websites like Armslist.com, which bills itself as the ‘world’s best firearm classifieds,” selling everything from pistols to rifles and grenade launchers.

Facebook bans private sales of guns and ammunition, but Marketplace users get around that by advertising gun cases or boxes for sale.
Facebook bans private sales of guns and ammunition, but Marketplace users get around that by advertising gun cases or boxes for sale. Screenshot via Facebook Marketplace

The website’s terms of service put the onus on users to follow gun laws.

"I understand that ARMSLIST is NEVER involved in transactions between parties," reads the second term.

That didn't stop two men, Christopher Henderson and John Phillips, from using the website to buy nearly a dozen handguns from Kentucky sellers, according to a 2018 criminal complaint accusing them of helping resell those — and many other guns — in the Chicago area.

Federal authorities believe the pair bought at least 80 guns in Kentucky that were later taken at crime scenes or traffic stops in the Chicago area, some days or weeks after they were first purchased.

One of those guns was used to kill a 15-year-old Chicago boy 42 days after it was sold, the Chicago Tribune reported.

But in Kentucky, even if police do take a gun off the streets, a state law meant to help cops buy life-saving equipment means that gun could end up back in the hands of a criminal.

Kentucky, the gun dealer

Kentucky, the gun dealer

Map of Louisville showing a gun at the 3500 block of Manslick Road
Map of Louisville showing a gun at the 5500 block of Eelgrass Court
Map of Louisville showing a gun at Cecil and Virginia avenues

On Jan. 20, 2016, a .40-caliber Glock handgun surfaced on a Louisville road, where Aaron C. Williams, a 26-year-old father and former high school basketball standout, was found shot to death in a car — one of three people killed that day.

Exactly one year later, Louisville police found the same gun six miles away while investigating a report of shots fired at an apartment complex.

It resurfaced in Louisville a third time in October 2018, sticking out of the waistband of an 18-year-old spotted by a police officer going inside a corner store.

It’s unclear from police reports how the gun made its way to three different crime scenes, three years apart. But by June 2019, it was sold at a Kentucky State Police auction for $250 and recirculated back to the public.

For the last two decades, Kentucky law has banned police departments from destroying the guns they take off the streets. If the weapons can’t be returned to their legal owners, they’re sold to federally licensed gun dealers at state police auctions.

More than 25,000 guns have been sold at KSP auctions since 2014, records show, raking in nearly $7 million.

A fifth of the proceeds go to KSP. The rest goes to the state’s Office of Homeland Security as grant money for police departments to buy body cameras, guns, ammunition, Tasers or body armor.

To the auctions' critics, the irony is frustrating — police selling guns to buy equipment to protect themselves from being shot by guns.

Prospective bidders look over the guns for auction on Jan. 30, 2018 at the Kentucky State Police's supply garage. Kentucky State Police holds a confiscated gun auction in Frankfort every two months where pistols, rifles and gun equipment is sold to the highest bidder.
Prospective bidders look over the guns for auction on Jan. 30, 2018 at the Kentucky State Police's supply garage. Kentucky State Police holds a confiscated gun auction in Frankfort every two months where pistols, rifles and gun equipment is sold to the highest bidder. Matt Stone, Courier Journal

Supporters, though, say the guns are sold to licensed dealers and are no more likely to end up in the hands of criminals than any other legally sold gun.

But it does happen.

A Courier Journal review of state police auction data and LMPD records found more than two dozen examples of guns sold at a KSP auction and later confiscated by Louisville police. 

“The state has put itself in the position of a gun dealer,” said state Sen. Neal. “They have exacerbated the situation by putting more firearms back into circulation. It’s highly inappropriate.

“But again, it’s consistent with this whole thing. The guns don’t cause these problems. The people cause these problems. That’s the typical refrain. Any child knows if you put dangerous instruments in front of people of ill will, they will be used for that purpose."

‘The camel’s nose under the tent’

‘The camel’s nose under the tent’

Gun rights supporters hold up their assault rifles on the second floor inside the Kentucky state Capitol, just outside the Senate chambers, during a Second Amendment rally in Frankfort, Ky. on Friday. Jan. 31, 2020
A protester carries a rifle and wears fatigues during a 'Patriot Freedom Rally' Saturday afternoon outside the state capitol. Around 150 people -- Trump supporters as well as militia and Second Amendment advocates -- attended the event to hear speakers rail against Gov. Andy Beshear and the state of the country.   Jan. 9, 2021.
Signs during the Second Amendment gun rally at the Capitol in Frankfort, Ky on Friday morning. Jan. 31, 2020
Gun rights advocate Dick Heller wears a "Make America Free Again" hat during a second amendment rally in Frankfort, Ky. on Friday. Jan. 31, 2020
Gun rights supporters attend a Second Amendment rally at the Kentucky state Capitol in Frankfort on Jan. 31, 2020. Gun rights supporters attend a Second Amendment rally at the Kentucky state Capitol in Frankfort on Jan. 31, 2020. Gun rights supporters attend a Second Amendment rally at the Kentucky state Capitol in Frankfort on Jan. 31, 2020. Alton Strupp/Courier Journal

The Second Amendment for many Kentuckians is seen as an insurance policy against tyranny and as a divine right. 

Some observers wonder whether there will ever be the political or public resolve to slow the proliferation of illegal guns.

“The gun culture in Kentucky is strong,” said Neal. “The gun lobby is strong. They feel if you raise the specter of a gun in any legislation, this is the camel’s nose under the tent, and it will lead to other restrictions.”

State Sen. Gerald Neal, D-Louisville Alton Strupp/Courier Journal
State Sen. Gerald Neal, D-Louisville
The gun culture in Kentucky is strong. The gun lobby is strong. They feel if you raise the specter of a gun in any legislation, this is the camel’s nose under the tent, and it will lead to other restrictions.

In 2013, amid a national reckoning over firearms access following the Sandy Hook school mass shooting that killed 20 children and six adults in Newtown, Connecticut, lawmakers in Frankfort introduced a sweeping gun-safety bill that, among other things, called for expanded background checks and limits on the possession of assault weapons.

The bill never made it out of committee. More recent efforts have been equally unsuccessful.

Instead of increasing gun controls, Kentucky has stripped them away.

In 2012, the state strengthened the law that stops local governments from passing gun laws, striking down efforts to prevent people from bringing guns on city-owned properties such as libraries and zoos.

And by early 2019, coming off a year in which more than 200 people were killed or injured in mass shootings in the United States — including two dead and 14 wounded at Marshall County High School in Kentucky — lawmakers made it easier for people to carry concealed firearms in the state by eliminating the need for a permit or a background check or safety training.

All that has left law enforcement to chase after people with illegal guns, filling up prisons and jails while the guns themselves stay in public circulation.

“You have some who are of the school of thought that we’re so saturated with legal and illegal guns,” 2X said, “that the eradication process is pretty tough."

To be sure, even the fiercest supporters of gun-safety laws recognize those measures alone will not completely stop gun violence. 

Protests over the police killing of Breonna Taylor in Louisville focused largely on tearing down systemic racism that often leads to poverty and violence, while a recently announced violence intervention program in the city is trying to bring social services to those most likely to be the victims or perpetrators of shootings.

In the meantime, the body count keeps climbing: One person shot every 12 hours in Louisville — 747 men, women and children — cementing 2020 as the city’s most violent year on record. 

Tanya Randolph, left, embraced her daughter Justice Randolph, 9, during a press conference on Aug. 16, 2020 to discuss the murder of Tanya's 3-year-old granddaughter Trinity Randolph, who died along with Trinity's dad Brandon Waddles in a shooting.
A photograph of Trinity Randolph is surrounded by a wreath of flowers at King Solomon Missionary Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky. Aug. 21, 2020
TOP: Tanya Randolph, left, embraced her daughter Justice Randolph, 9, during a press conference on Aug. 16, 2020, to discuss the murder of Tanya's 3-year-old granddaughter, Trinity Randolph, who died along with Trinity's dad Brandon Waddles in a shooting. ABOVE: A photograph of Trinity is surrounded by a wreath of flowers at King Solomon Missionary Baptist Church in Louisville on Aug. 21, 2020. TOP: Tanya Randolph, left, embraced her daughter Justice Randolph, 9, during a press conference on Aug. 16, 2020, to discuss the murder of Tanya's 3-year-old granddaughter, Trinity Randolph, who died along with Trinity's dad Brandon Waddles in a shooting. ABOVE: A photograph of Trinity is surrounded by a wreath of flowers at King Solomon Missionary Baptist Church in Louisville on Aug. 21, 2020. LEFT: Tanya Randolph, left, embraced her daughter Justice Randolph, 9, during a press conference on Aug. 16, 2020, to discuss the murder of Tanya's 3-year-old granddaughter Trinity Randolph, who died along with Trinity's dad Brandon Waddles in a shooting. RIGHT: A photograph of Trinity is surrounded by a wreath of flowers at King Solomon Missionary Baptist Church in Louisville on Aug. 21, 2020. Sam Upshaw Jr. and PAT MCDONOGH/Courier Journal

The two young Louisville men who talked about the ease of getting guns understand they could be the next victims.

The one who got shot was only 13 when it happened. Now, he and his friend shake their heads in dismay as they watch YouTube videos of neighborhood kids that age holding guns and rapping about pulling the trigger.

"When we pull up on your block you know that we f--- you up

"Pull up on your block let off 30 shots

"Your body drop

"They gonna need a mop"

“It’s a lifestyle," one of the young men said of the video. "You drop out of school, try selling drugs. You just lose hope, so you really don’t care what anyone else thinks about you.”

But where hope is absent, guns are everywhere.

“I can’t say one year I’ve grown up that I haven’t been around guns in the hood,” said one of the young men. “It’s all just normal to me.”

Follow reporter Jonathan Bullington on Twitter: @jrbullington.

This story is produced by designer Andrea Brunty.

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