MANATEE — Illegal gun sales in Manatee are booming, and the weapons are falling into young and dangerous hands, law enforcement officials warn in the wake of a second teenager gunned down in a month.
Guns are for sale on the same corners where drugs and violence plague neighborhoods in Manatee County, and the market for guns is just as lucrative and prevalent as the selling of drugs, Manatee Sheriff Brad Steube said Tuesday.
“Just like there are people with money who will do whatever they can to get crack cocaine,” Steube said, “there are people with money who want to buy guns. If they know where to go to get them, they will do it.”
Most illegal guns are obtained through burglaries or robberies, and the weapons are rarely sold where there might be a trace.
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“It is extremely rare for us to recover a gun in a pawn shop because of all the checks and balances,” Steube said.
Instead, street sales make criminals big money — to the tune of thousands. More than $68,000 worth of guns were stolen in burglaries alone in the first six months of this year, and $105,000 in guns during the same time frame in 2008, sheriff’s statistics show.
“Those numbers are going to be high because victims give the highest estimate they can, but it is significant,” sheriff’s spokesman Dave Bristow said.
Guns in the hands of the young took center stage Tuesday as a room full of politicians, law enforcement officers and school officials exploded with anger over the killing of 17-year-old Bayshore High School cheerleader Jasmine Thompson.
“I am down right pissed about this,” said Manatee County Commissioner Gwen Brown. “I am just angry this is happening over and over, and every weekend I am asking,‘Who’s next?’” Manatee County Sheriff’s Office detectives say Thompson died from a gunshot wound to the head after 18-year-old Daniel Floyd Williams fired a gun into a car outside Southeast High School.
Williams has been arrested on a charge of second-degree murder. He has been “somewhat cooperative” with authorities, but he has refused to say where he got the gun, and it has not been recovered, Bristow said.
Williams does not have a felony record, but he was arrested in 2008 on a charge of driving with no driver’s license. School officials said by law they could not release his school records, other than his last enrollment with the district at Horizons alternative school on Oct. 21, 2008. Students are typically transferred to Horizons because of discipline problems.
Mike McCann, the district’s head of discipline and dropout prevention, did say that incidents involving students and guns have grown more troubling. Over the summer, McCann reassigned 16 students to Horizons for their involvement in off-campus incidents involving weapons. Since the school year started, he has already begun to investigate a case in which a student threatened to steal a law enforcement officer’s weapon and shoot him with it.
“In my opinion, we have got to find out where these kids are getting these guns,” McCann said.
Bristow said it is unclear if Williams got the gun illegally because it is not against Florida law for a gun owner to sell a firearm to someone 18 or older. Federal law prohibits licensed gun dealers from selling firearms to anyone younger than 21, according to the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Thompson was killed exactly one month after Bayshore graduate DeJuan Williams, 18, was gunned down in his backyard as he searched for teens who had been in his home with his teenage sister without his parents’ permission. Sheriff’s detectives charged former Southeast High School student Byron Galloway, 16, with second-degree murder in that case. In Galloway’s case, detectives recovered the gun but have not been able to trace it. Detectives are running it through state and federal databases to find any leads as to how the teen got the gun, Bristow said.
“They are very hard to trace, so that doesn’t usually get us very far,” he said.
Florida law enforcement ranks only behind California as making the most requests for federal help in tracing weapons recovered, with 18,296 in 2008, according to a recent ATF study. Of those in which an original gun buyer could be located, the average time from a firearm’s first purchase to the time it was recovered during a crime was 9.7 years, a little faster than the national average of 10.3 years, according to the study.
Thompson’s shooting has grabbed the attention of the community, as many from all walks of life expressed sorrow for her family and outrage over the killing.
Sarasota Pastor Al Davis, who works with troubled youth in Sarasota and Manatee counties, said his granddaughter was in the car with Thompson the night of the shooting. Guns are just too easy for kids to come by, he said.
“In these neighborhoods where there are a lot of robberies, a lot of these kids say they need to get a gun for protection, and it often ends badly,” Davis said. “My granddaughter is just devastated.”
Famed ESPN sportscaster and Lakewood Ranch resident Dick Vitale pledged to help Thompson’s family pay funeral expenses, which are expected to hit $1,500. Vitale is also looking to establish scholarships in the names of Thompson and Williams at $1,000 each to go toward two students’ college educations.
“My heart just bleeds for these families,” he said. “This senseless killing is absolutely appalling. I cannot understand how someone can grab a gun and shoot this beautiful young girl. We have to get to our kids, and that starts from the crib — the love, the caring.” More than a dozen public officials echoed Vitale’s outrage at the morning press conference in Manatee County Commission chambers, decrying both the slayings and gun violence in general.
“I’m tired of our children killing other children,” said state Rep. Darryl Rouson. D-St. Petersburg. “A gun does not make a boy a man.”
Rouson pledged to give $4,000 from a recent fund-raiser to Manatee County officials to use toward rewards for students who report gun possession.
Commissioner Brown also pushed for parents to get involved in their children’s lives, a step that may save a life as the homicide rate in Manatee County has reached an all-time high.
“Our children are carrying guns like it is a fad,” said Brown. “Parents need to be searching rooms, looking under beds, in drawers and in bookbags.”
Others urged students to step forward to report gun possession by their peers before the worst happens.
“Kids know who the stoners are, who the jocks are, and I’m pretty sure they know who has the guns,” Bradenton City Councilwoman Marianne Barnebey said.
Steube also pleaded for parents to help in the fight against guns and drugs, saying law enforcement can react to crime but cannot instill morals in those willing to take a life. “I am upset. I am mad. I want the community to step up,” Steube said.
The sheriff urged students to call the Manatee Crimestoppers tipline to report anyone with a weapon or involved in illegal activity.
“I certainly would have taken some action if I knew someone had a gun outside Southeast High School the other night,” Steube said. “But I didn’t have that information.”
Anyone with information on these cases or crimes being committed can call the sheriff’s office at (941) 747-3011, or Manatee Crimestoppers at (866) 634-TIPS.