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Gun seizures by local police soaring, many illegally used in violent crimes

Published: Mar. 10, 2022 at 8:22 PM EST
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CLEVELAND, Ohio (WOIO) - Homicides and shootings continue to rise in many cities across Northeast Ohio.

Meanwhile, hundreds of guns, often used in crimes, have been taken off of our streets by police officers.

Police say they can’t keep up with the flood of firearms and gun seizures are soaring.

19 Investigates has an inside look at how firearms can help solve crimes.

Gun seizures setting records

Euclid Police gave us an exclusive look at what they’re dealing with every day.

They brought out dozens and dozens of guns that are now evidence and set them on a table for us to see.

This included mostly high-end guns, from Glocks to assault style rifles.

“Where you find illicit guns, you’re always going to find criminals and crime,” said Capt. Mitch Houser.

And these were just the guns officers seized in January and mid-February this year, more than a 300% increase in the firearms they seized over the same time period last year.

It’s the highest they’ve seen in five years.

“The amount of firearms that were seizing-- is just, I can’t even imagine the number, I would have never guessed this,” said Euclid Police Chief Scott Meyer.

19 Investigates found in January, Euclid Police seized 30 guns.

In February, they seized 31 firearms.

And the crimes they’re used in can be deadly.

“You’re going to find a lot of people committing murders, committing felonious assaults or just being used to threaten people for robberies,” Houser said.

We learned Euclid Police seized the most guns in 2021 from inside homes, on a person’s body and under the driver or passenger seat of a car.

“Once it’s out, once it hits the streets, it’s going to find its way to the hands of a criminal,” he said.

Many of these guns were taken from teens involved in car jackings and robberies.

“A lot of these guns are stolen,” Chief Meyer said.

“I mean, they’re not breaking into the cars. They’re simply entering an unlocked car and taking a you know, a fully loaded weapon that they’re stealing and then using it many times for other crimes,” he said.

The problem isn’t just in Euclid, it’s across northeast Ohio.

In Cleveland, 19 Investigates found police confiscated nearly 3,300 guns total last year.

That’s up nearly 65 percent from 2019.

In Solon, police said they seized 48 guns last year, compared to nine guns in 2019.

The ATF’s role in gun investigations

Once seized guns are in evidence, police check the serial numbers against a national database called eTrace.

The ATF will contact the gun manufacturer, asking who they sold it to.

Tracing guns can provide valuable leads to police
Tracing guns can provide valuable leads to police(woio)

“And the manufacturer will list the wholesaler, then we contact the wholesaler, say who did you send it to, name the gun shop they send it to. And we contact the gun shop, and say okay, who was the first purchaser of that firearm?” said Suzanne Dabkowski with the ATF.

We found in 2020, the latest reported year, the ATF recovered and traced more than 16,562 firearms in Ohio.

Dabkowski said tracing alone doesn’t usually solve the crime, but it can provide valuable leads to police.

“And that can be really crucial, that is link that now has a name and an address to try to talk to someone and go hey, what happened with this firearm. How did it get from you, legal purchaser to being involved in whatever incident it was involved in?” she said.

Local police also test fire seized guns and collect those shell casings, along with spent casings from the crime scene.

Forensics help solve crimes

Then they often wind up at the Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner’s office, where they are examined by a forensics team.

“This cartridge case will be marked uniquely from each gun. So it’s almost like a fingerprint,” said Tina Stewart, a scientific examiner with Cleveland Police.

The gun library at the Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner's Office.
The gun library at the Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner's Office.(woio)

That’s where the NIBIN machine is located.

NIBIN stands for the “National Integrated Ballistic Information Network.”

According to the ATF, the NIBIN Program automates ballistics evaluations to help provide investigative leads to law enforcement.

Stewart explained how it works.

“Because what we’re doing is we’re looking at the markings on the surface of the cartridge case right here. That’s what we’re exploiting,” she said.

NIBIN takes digital images, so examiners can compare the evidence to what’s in the database locally and across the country.

“So we put in the crime scene cartridge cases into NIBIN as well as the test fires. It goes to a central computer, where it kind of compares everything, almost like Google,” Stewart said.

The next day, they see if there’s a match.

Stewart offered us a rare glimpse behind the scenes of how forensics can help solve crimes.

“Notice this line here this line here, see how these have the same markings. To me, it tells me that this is probably a match,” Stewart said as she looked at shell casings side by side on the computer screen.

Once Stewart gets a NIBIN match, that doesn’t mean they’re ready to make an arrest.

But they could be close.

First, firearms examiners must confirm a match.

Then they send a report to detectives, saying this gun was possibly used at a certain crime scene.

“We had a firearm the other day that was responsible for 20 different shootings. Yeah, that was that was one of our biggest ones,” Stewart said.

We also got a look inside the gun library at the medical examiner’s office.

It includes several hundred guns, donated by local police department.

They use these guns as references for solving cases, putting them to use instead of destroying them.

What’s the solution?

Back in Euclid, we asked the police chief what’s the solution-- why are so many guns being used in crimes?

“I think the solution is a societal solution. The police cannot be the answer, the sole answer to this. Sure we can seize firearms, you know, we can arrest folks, but I think it’s important for society as a whole to start to value human life again, to respect each other’s property,” Meyer said.

“You’re not going to arrest your way out of this. That’s just not going to happen,” he said.

So how can you do your part as a responsible gun owner?

Police urge you to secure your firearm.

Whether it’s in your car or your home, make sure it’s stored and locked properly.

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