TAMPA — Most of the 21 homicides and more than two dozen shootings Tampa police have investigated this year have several factors in common.
The violence primarily is a result of neighborhood feuds among groups of mostly young black men, police say. All of the shootings took place in East and West Tampa. And investigators are struggling to get information from witnesses and victims about who committed the crimes.
Another pattern has emerged that has Tampa police and federal authorities working together to put a stop to it: Most of the bullets are being fired from stolen guns.
“We believe that’s what’s feeding this area,” said Kevin Richardson, spokesman for the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
The federal agency always has shared intelligence with the Tampa Police Department, he said, but after a particularly bloody first half of 2015 it has dedicated a field office team to the issue of gun violence in the city.
“Now it has gotten to where we understand that we need to aggressively partner,” Richardson said.
So far this year, 177 guns have been reported stolen to Tampa police, records show. That number is up slightly from the 140 reported stolen during the first six months of 2014.
Investigators have recovered or found 583 guns on the street this year, up from the 527 guns recovered during the same period last year.
“It’s not organized crime,” said Tampa police spokeswoman Andrea Davis. “It’s kids on the street selling guns or trading guns.”
They get them, police officials say, primarily through car or home burglaries.
The use of stolen guns is not unique to Tampa, and it isn’t new.
It’s a nationwide problem, with multitudes of news reports describing gun caches stolen from homes or vehicles and shootings where a stolen weapon was used. Locally, there have been cases of thieves brazenly breaking into marked police cars and FBI agents’ vehicles to steal weapons.
Tarpon Springs officer Charles Kondek died in December after being shot by a convicted felon who got his hands on a gun that had been stolen from an unlocked car in Jacksonville. A Tampa 16-year-old was shot accidentally and killed this year as he and some friends were handling a gun they had taken from one of the boys’ uncles, the teen’s relatives said.
Davis would not give details about whether stolen weapons had been tied to the homicides in Tampa this year, citing the ongoing investigations. But police do know that none of the shooters obtained the guns legally.
“They’re committing crimes to get those guns,” Davis said.
Detectives were investigating two homicides that occurred June 27, including the death of a grandmother who was asleep in her bed when she was caught in the crossfire of a neighborhood dispute. That same day, the agency hosted a gun buyback where people anonymously could drop off guns for $50 each, thanks to a grant from the Tampa Bay Lightning Foundation.
Tampa police collected 521 guns — 213 revolvers, 125 pistols, 104 rifles and 79 shotguns — during the gun buyback. Investigators still are processing them to determine if any of the weapons had been reported stolen.
While the exchange yielded some guns that had been modified in such a way that they were “made for nothing but killing,” officials said, many were handed in by people who hadn’t used them in years.
“Those are people who are potential targets for the burglars,” Davis said.
Authorities have found guns that have been stolen in Tampa and guns that have been stolen from other places, she said. Sometimes, thieves target homes or cars where they know people have guns, and in other cases it is simply a crime of opportunity.
“That’s why we continue to ask people to take the proper safety precautions when it comes to your guns,” Davis said.
People should keep guns secure in a safe in their house when they aren’t home so burglars or children can’t get them, she said. If someone is going somewhere where they know they can’t take their weapon inside, they should leave it at home.
A gun should never be left in a car, Davis said.
“Leaving it in your car, you’re just asking for a criminal to get it,” she said.
The city has rolled out multiple new strategies to curb the violence surge so far this year, including extending some park hours and expanding summer camp offerings to help keep kids busy and off the streets. Thousands of dollars in reward money has been offered by Crime Stoppers with hopes of enticing tipsters to come forward with information that could solve the murders.
Last week, Tampa police held a news conference to plead — again — for information on the open cases, as well as announce the department will use federal grant money to pay officers overtime and increase police presence in parts of East and West Tampa.
Keeping illegal guns off the streets — and especially out of the hands of kids — is equally important to quell the violence, Davis said.
“Clearly, we don’t want a weapon, a gun, in a criminal’s hands,” she said.