MANATEE -- With gun violence and firearms restrictions hotly debated throughout the nation in the aftermath of recent mass shootings, the Herald asked local law enforcement officials to weigh in.
At least 20 of the 27 homicide victims in Manatee County this year died as a result of gunshot wounds. One reason for the trend: Guns are easily accessible, said Manatee County Sheriff Brad Steube.
But Steube cannot guarantee stricter gun control laws would reduce the number of gun-related incidents.
"Bad guys are going to get guns," Steube said. "Each time we arrest someone for a violent crime and there are guns in the vehicle or at the house, I would say a high percentage of those guns have been stolen from home, car and business burglaries.
"Bad guys with criminal records cannot walk into a business and buy one legitimately," the sheriff said, "so they get them by illegitimate means."
Guns, narcotics and cash are often traded on the streets, he noted.
"They're out there," Steube said. "If you want a gun in Manatee County, there are places you can go and
people you can see to get those guns."
In some cases involving gang-related incidents, Steube said a pool of weapons are often shared by members. The type of firearms used in crimes vary, he added.
"The AK-47 is the one that's been used here recently in the Chinese restaurant robberies and at the gaming locations, as well as handguns," Steube said. "You have the whole gamut here."
For gun control laws to decrease deaths and other crime, he said, it would take time.
"If today they put a ban on all assault rifles, I don't think you can measure the outcome of that for 20 or 30 years," the sheriff said.
Many local gun shops have seen an increase in AR-15 sales since the firearms debate began anew in the aftermath of the school shootings in Newtown, Conn.
"They already had laws outlawing assault rifles and they repealed that," Steube said. "If you go back and look at statistics, there is no difference."
Deputy Chief Scott Tyler from the Palmetto Police Department echoed those sentiments.
"It's my belief that stricter gun controls may not have prevented these incidents," Tyler said. "The vast majority of lawful, responsible gun owners secure their weapons. I don't think gun control alone is the answer to these mass shootings. The nation has to have a dialogue about personal responsibility, family responsibility, mental health issues and violent video games -- all of these are factors."
For now, law enforcement agencies are doing what they can to keep guns off the streets, sponsoring several gun buyback programs held throughout the year. When detectives arrive on scene at burglaries, they immediately determine if any firearms were stolen. Agencies also work to file additional charges on convicted felons using firearms.
"Depending on who the person is we arrested and what their prior arrest and conviction history is, we actually contact the feds and see if the U.S. attorney's office will take them to the federal level," Steube said. "If convicted, they get even more prison time. We do everything we can when we arrest a convicted felon with a firearm to get them through the state and federal systems."
Officials urge gun owners to learn proper handling techniques and take safety measures.
"Part of that message is if you own a gun, lock the guns up when you're not using them," Steube said. "You have to try to teach gun responsibility to gun owners."
Elizabeth Johnson, Herald crime reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7041. Follow her on Twitter @EJohnsonBHcrime.