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Operation Target aims at gun offenders

Saturday, December 04, 1999

By Torsten Ove, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Last year, Jerry Johnson of the Hill District ran from police who suspected him of stealing a car and was caught carrying a loaded .38-caliber revolver without a license -- a felony offense.

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He was sentenced to jail for four months, followed by two years of probation.

In July, police in the Hill District said they caught Johnson again carrying a loaded gun when they arrested him on drug possession charges. He posted bond and got out. A month later, police arrested him again on an illegal gun charge, this time in connection with a trespassing complaint. He's being held on a $15,000 bond.

According to jail records, Johnson, 21, has been in and out of the county lockup four times in two years, all for weapons charges and related offenses.

He's the kind of street criminal police arrest again and again, the repeat offender carrying a gun.

"Here's a guy who's had several weapons violations, and to date, the penalties within the state system have not been effective in preventing this behavior," said Cmdr. Bill Valenta of the Hill District station.

But that could soon change.

Under a new federal, state and local program called Operation Target, authorities say they're stepping up efforts to put criminals with guns in prison using laws already on the books.

It boils down to this: A convicted felon caught with a gun could go to federal prison for five years.

It's worked in Richmond, Va., Boston, Minneapolis and other cities where the program, or some version of it, has been credited with dramatically reducing shootings and homicides.

"These firearms in the hands of criminals are what are perpetuating the violence," said Brandt Schenken of the Pittsburgh office of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. "We saw that there was a need to remove firearms from their hands. This is a renewed effort to reduce firearms violence."

Operation Target, announced here in October by U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, is a broad initiative.

It sets up a task force of police and prosecutors to trace guns, crack down on "straw" purchasers who buy guns for those who aren't allowed to own them and encourage community groups to help combat gun violence.

But the teeth of the program is the threat of a federal prison sentence.

Although he wouldn't give specific numbers, First Assistant U.S. District Attorney Leon Rodriguez said the feds were investigating a substantial number of local gun offenders. Some already have been indicted.

Last month, for example, convicted felon Jason J. Harper, 21, of Homestead, was indicted on a carjacking charge. Police said he was carrying a semiautomatic pistol when he committed the crime, and officers found two other guns in his house. If he's convicted, the gun charges will get him an automatic five-year minimum sentence in a federal prison.

The same sentence could await the three men charged with using guns to rob a Dollar Bank in Monroeville on Oct. 7. Charles Stubbs, 34, and his brother, Jasper, 42, both of Braddock, and Larry Brown, 51, of Wilkinsburg, are all prior felons. Like Harper, they're awaiting trial.

"We want to make it crystal clear to you that if you're caught with a gun, it's going to happen, you are going to get charged with a federal offense," said Rodriguez. "There is a certainty to this that you will go to prison."

The idea is so basic that some local police wonder why it hasn't been enforced consistently before. According to the Boston Gun Project, a pioneering research project started in Boston in 1995, 75 percent of the victims of shootings and the offenders have prior arrests.

What's more, many of those arrests are for serious violent crimes.

Both federal and state laws prohibit people convicted of felonies and some misdemeanors from carrying guns. But federal penalties for repeat offenders are harsher -- five years in a prison far from home, with no chance for parole.

The local task force will evaluate each gun case to determine if state or federal charges should be applied, then prosecute according to whichever tactic produces the most prison time.

"My approach is, 'Let's go get them,'" said Assistant Chief William Mullen, who is in charge of the investigations branch of the Pittsburgh police. "We need help. We're getting pounded by shootings and homicides, especially in the East End. All I'm looking for is someone to give them maximum prison time. I don't care if it's the state or the U.S. attorney's office. I just want the guns off the street."

Homicides are up in the city this year compared with last, and more than half of the 45 have occurred in the East End.

In addition, Mullen said, officers from the East Liberty station have been confiscating many more guns than in past years.

Since much of the shootings in the East End are done by a small group of repeat offenders, putting them in prison on weapons charges will help clear the streets of those most likely to shoot someone.

Mullen said it might also intimidate those who normally carry guns into leaving them behind. That's what happened in Richmond under Project Exile, where street officers noticed a marked drop-off in the number of guns they confiscated during arrests.

But Mullen cautioned that the heavy penalty had to be imposed in every case, without exceptions, to be effective.

"The mentality on the street is, 'I'll be the one person who won't get caught,' " he said. "The punishment has to be severe and certain."

That hasn't been the case in the past. Police say the U.S. attorney's office has not been aggressive or consistent in pursuing gun offenses, despite a task force that was formed in 1994.

Also, gun charges are often withdrawn by prosecutors during plea bargaining or dismissed altogether by district justices at preliminary hearings.

And occasionally, gun offenders aren't charged in the first place.

Last month, the Nuisance Bar Task Force raided Red's Ringside Cafe on East Warrington Avenue in Allentown and confiscated seven guns and 12 bags of heroin and cocaine that patrons had dropped on the floor.

Police arrested Roy Blankenship, 24, of Beechview, who they said was carrying 180 bags of heroin.

Mullen said officers heard a gun hit the floor when Blankenship stood up, then saw the weapon lying at his feet, but chose not to arrest him on gun charges even though they had probable cause.

If they had charged him, it wouldn't have been his first offense. In 1995, Blankenship pleaded guilty to possession of a sawed-off shotgun. He was sentenced to five years' probation. Under Operation Target, Blankenship might have been a candidate for federal prosecution.

For his part, Mullen has begun collecting the standard arrest reports he receives on weapons violations. Each Tuesday, an officer assigned to the ATF office picks up the reports and delivers them to ATF for possible federal prosecution.

He also has assigned a new officer to the Police Bureau's gun tracking unit and directed the office to provide more complete information about where guns are coming from.

Bought, not stolen

Contrary to what police have believed for years, research has shown that many guns used in crimes are purchased illegally, not stolen. The most common method is a "straw purchase" in which someone buys a gun legally from a licensed dealer and then distributes it to a gang member or someone on parole.

Prosecuting these "conduits" of illegal guns is one of the main goals of Operation Target, Rodriguez said.

The track records of similar programs in other cities is encouraging.

After Boston and Minneapolis saw sharp drops in their homicide rates by targeting illegal guns, Richmond became the poster city for aggressive federal prosecution with Project Exile.

Richmond, with a population of 200,000, had been plagued by a homicide rate in the mid-1990s that was three times as high as Pittsburgh's. In 1994, 160 people were murdered in Richmond, giving the city the second-highest murder rate in the United States.

In 1997, city and federal authorities launched Exile, complete with billboards that announced: "An illegal gun gets you 5 years in federal prison." The name Exile was chosen because offenders would be "exiled" to out-of-state prisons, where they would have no contact with their buddies in state prisons or local jails.

Since 1997, fatal shootings have dropped 36 percent in Richmond, and Exile-like programs have spread to the Virginia cities of Norfolk and Hampton Roads. From there, the idea has been adopted by cities across the United States, including Chicago, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Baton Rouge, La., and Oakland, Calif.

There have been some complaints, of course. Street crime cases have traditionally been handled by state prosecutors, and some federal authorities resent their courts being clogged by gun cases.

In Richmond, senior U.S. District Judge Richard Williams wrote a letter to Chief Justice William Rehnquist complaining that "our court has been transformed into a minor-grade police court."

Locally, however, Rodriguez said he didn't anticipate such a crush of cases that the U.S. attorney's office can't handle them.

Operation Target, Project Exile and similar programs have allies beyond the various law enforcement agencies involved.

The approach has managed to bring together two groups who ordinarily have little common ground -- the National Rifle Association and Handgun Control Inc.

Both groups support the concept.

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