Many guns start legal, but find their way onto Modesto streets

Thirteen shootings left eight people dead, including a 10-year-old boy, and injured 15 others in July. It was the most violent month of what has been a violent year in Modesto.

Just the sound of gunshots can shock a neighborhood at its core. And, unlike a knife or blunt object, you don't have to get close to kill with a gun. Bullets can be sprayed indiscriminately, hitting bystanders caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Modesto's streets are flooded with hundreds of illegal firearms -- weapons exchanged for cash or drugs in an underground black market operated by dope peddlers and thugs who use guns to protect their illicit profits and intimidate rival gangs.

Where do those guns come from?

Authorities say the most common pipeline starts in the homes of law-abiding citizens who follow the rules and adhere to waiting periods to purchase firearms. Thieves burglarize homes, steal legal guns, and sell them to drug dealers and gang members.

Detectives said about five to 10 guns are reported stolen each week in Modesto. On the other end, police seize about 10 guns a week that were used in a crime or confiscated during a search.

"Not many days go by that we don't take a gun off the street," said Sgt. Brian Findlen, a Modesto police spokesman.

Federal officials say Modesto isn't the only Northern California city awash with stolen guns. The same violent trend is evident in cities such as Stockton, San Francisco and San Jose, according to the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

According to the state Department of Justice Bureau of Firearms, 370,628 guns were bought legally in California in 2007, and 425,244 were bought in 2008.

Law enforcement officials say they do not want to discourage legal gun purchases or attempt to prevent residents who follow the law from owning a gun for protection. Officials, however, urge people to lock up their firearms properly when they're not at home.

"We're asking residents to stem the tide by securing their firearms," Findlen said. "That is a primary way criminals get firearms."

Shift from legal to illegal use

A gun's journey to street warfare often starts in the home of a resident who bought a gun legally for hunting or protection.

While ransacking a home, a thief will stumble upon a gun stored away but not locked in a cabinet or gun safe. The thief will take it to sell on the street along with the rest of the items stolen from the home.

Like stereos, TVs and jewelry, a stolen gun easily can be traded or sold. Authorities say many thieves in the Northern San Joaquin Valley steal to feed their meth- amphetamine addiction, and stealing guns is just another way to get that fix.

"They might go to a drug dealer and trade it for some dope," said Stanislaus County Undersheriff William Heyne. "Then the drug dealer will turn around and sell it to someone else."

The drug dealer might keep the gun for protection against competitors fighting over a street corner or small neighborhood. But more often, the dealer will sell it.

There's no need for a criminal background check, a 30-day waiting period or even a valid ID to get a gun on the street. All you need is cash.

Heyne said a typical handgun sells for about $100 on the black market and can change hands several times before used in a crime.

"It's on the street; it's word of mouth," he said. "You make the request out on the street that you need a gun and the word gets around."

Heyne said to blame the person who committed the crime with the gun, not the gun itself. He said the vast majority of licensed gun owners follow the law, and the people who use guns to commit a crime "are people with no regard for human life."

He said it's rare to discover that a person went to a licensed firearms dealer, bought a gun, then used that gun in a shooting.

What's more common is someone buying a stolen gun for illicit purposes. And it's often gang members who use these illegal guns, said Sgt. Jeramy Young, a supervisor for the Modesto police Street Crimes Unit.

A variety of weaponry

He said such gun trans- actions are numerous, and there's a variety of weapons. Some of the guns seized by police include assault rifles bought at legal gun shows out of state and illegally brought into California.

"We're seeing all kinds of guns, even the newer guns you would think are too expensive for gang members to buy," Young said.

Gang members respond with violence to any friction, such as a rival gang member in their turf or someone looking at them the wrong way. They do this to elevate their status within the gang. If they don't, it can be seen as a sign of weakness.

The weapon of choice for gang members is a handgun. Rifles are too big to conceal in pockets or under the seats of cars, Young said.

Rifles, however, can be stored with other guns in makeshift arsenals placed in hidden but accessible locations. Young said these gun stashes are available to the entire gang, which shares the weapons to fight off or eliminate rivals.

"They wait until they need the guns, and then they go get them," Young said. "It's community property, basically."

Then the stolen gun might be used in a crime -- robberies, assaults, drug deals gone bad and gang turf wars.

Once shots are fired, a criminal might decide to keep and hide the gun or get rid of it. Police said the serial numbers on most confiscated guns have been altered or removed, which is a clear in- dication the firearm was stolen.

Serial numbers allow law enforcement officials to track guns through a nationwide database.

ATF agents use that database to trace guns recovered by law enforcement at crime scenes or during searches, or seized as part of an investigation. Some of these firearms were found and given to authorities.

In 2007, more than 27,000 guns in California were traced by the ATF. More than 600 of them were used in homicides, more than 900 were used in aggravated assaults, and more than 600 were used in robberies and burglaries.

Once a gun is sold or traded on the black market for criminal purposes, the firearm never returns to the legitimate world of gun usage.

"It is destined for criminal activity, and usually violent crime," said Special Agent Nina Delgadillo, a spokeswoman for the ATF San Francisco Division office, which encompasses Central and Northern California, along with Nevada.

Wider world of trafficking

There are other illegal ways for criminals to get guns. Federal officials say underground gun transactions in Modesto are part of a much larger world of gun trafficking that provides firepower to fight street wars in U.S. cities and for a drug cartel war south of the border.

One gun trafficking method involves "straw purchasers" -- people without criminal backgrounds who legally buy guns and sell them illegally for a profit, Delgadillo said.

ATF agents keep track of straw purchasers by tracing the history of a gun's ownership from manufacturer to the last legal owner. Then they try to figure out how the gun got from the last legal owner to a crime scene.

One example Delgadillo cited is the case of an Arizona man who pleaded guilty in 2007 to buying dozens of guns in his home state and selling them illegally in California. Authorities said he sold 28 of the 68 guns bought in Arizona to a San Francisco man, who then sold them in the Bay Area.

Most of those guns were recovered at crime scenes, Delgadillo said. Some of them were used in Bay Area crimes 11 days after they were legally purchased.

Tracing gun ownership helps agents look for red flags that indicate gun trafficking in the United States and internationally.

Delgadillo said the same routes drug traffickers use to move drugs from Mexico through Central California often are used to fuel a deadly drug cartel war in Mexico.

As the drugs move north, the guns are funneled south through the Central Valley corridor to Mexican drug cartels fighting street battles with competitors and Mexican law enforcement.

Delgadillo said it's an "iron war" happening south of border that easily can spill into our back yard in California.

"People need to secure their guns, because bullets have no name," she said.

An owner's responsibilities

Gun shop owner Joseph Mangelos said gun owners should be responsible for their firearms. When at home, he said, the guns should be secured to keep them from children. When not at home, he said, the guns should be locked in a gun safe to keep them from thieves.

He also said it's gun thieves who should be punished more severely, not the people who follow the law and keep guns for protection.

"You're simply handcuffing citizens if you're telling them they can't have a gun," said Mangelos, who has owned the Barnwood Arms gun shop in Ripon for 32 years.

Sixteen people have been killed by gunfire this year in the Modesto area, and half of those deaths occurred in July.

All but one of the 13 July shootings that killed or injured people occurred on Modesto's west and south sides, along with the La Loma and airport neighborhoods.

These neighborhoods are filled with hardworking families forced to listen to the sound of gunshots, night after night. One 21-year-old man in west Modesto said he has heard gunshots so many times that he can distinguish the sound of automatic gunfire from that of a pistol.

These are streets with modest homes, where children's toys and tended yards contrast with iron security doors and bars on windows. They are places where residents are fearful of anyone they don't recognize and make sure they're indoors after dusk, where danger lurks in the form of the young men flashing red and blue who use guns to terrorize, control and kill.

Many of the residents can't move because they can't afford to live in safer neighborhoods.

A single mom gathered with others around the scene of a shooting that killed a 21-year-old man this past week in south Modesto. She said she and her four children moved into the neighborhood two years ago, and they hear gunshots "all the time."

The solution to stop the flow of illegal guns is much more elusive for the residents living in Modesto's more violent neighborhoods. Gunfire has become commonplace for them, and the only thing they can do is survive.

Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at or 578-2394.