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Officials plead for gun owners to be responsible as Pittsburgh weighs options on juvenile gun crime

A brown-handled Smith & Wesson revolver is in the middle of other handguns in a display of guns taken in during a gun buy back day, Saturday, Dec. 8, 2018, in the basement of the Wilkinsburg Police Department.
Keith Srakocic
A brown-handled Smith & Wesson revolver is in the middle of other handguns in a display of guns taken in during a gun buy back day, Saturday, Dec. 8, 2018, in the basement of the Wilkinsburg Police Department.

Nearly half of the guns recovered from juveniles in Pittsburgh last year were reported stolen by their legal owners, according to federal and local law-enforcement officials.

At a Friday morning press conference, Pittsburgh Police Chief Scott Schubert announced findings of an investigation into juvenile gun crime — a joint effort with the U.S. Attorney's office and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

About 63% of the guns reported stolen were taken from a vehicle, the findings suggest.

Start your morning with today's news on Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania.

Officials "cannot express how important responsible gun ownership is," said Matthew Varisco, Special Agent in Charge with the BATFE. "And we're calling on the public to make sure they utilize common sense to secure their firearms in their homes, and not in their vehicles."

About 17% of the guns in juvenile possession were the result of so-called "straw purchases." A straw purchase is when a person legally purchases a firearm, but then either sells or gives it to someone who is barred from purchasing it directly.

The City of Pittsburgh has had a "lost and stolen" ordinance on the books to address that issue for over a decade. Straw purchasers often claim a firearm used in a crime was stolen from them, and the law would require gun owners to report their firearms lost or stolen within 48 hours. But the law has never before enforced, due to concerns about likely legal challenges.

City Councilor Bruce Kraus, who has long been an advocate for gun control, said it may be time to dust the law off.

"You have people who are legal to purchase firearms, who will purchase them, sell them as straw purchases and if or when used in a crime, and they are tracked back to the owner, they go, 'Oh my god, it was here, I must have lost it.'" Kraus said. "It begs the question: How does a responsible gun owner not know where their gun is at all times?"

Police could not provide updates Friday on the North Side shooting last weekend that left two teens dead. But Kraus said he would not be shocked if the firearms used during the shooting were obtained illegally through straw purchase.

"Are we so wedded to our politics that we're willing to ignore young boys and girls whose lives are being lost in record numbers to gun violence?" Kraus asked.

A spokesperson for Mayor Ed Gainey said the administration does support the legislation. But "the ordinance can’t be enforced while it’s being resolved in courts," said Maria Montaño. "They’re being challenged, and we’re waiting for that in order to proceed,"

Philadelphia has its own lost-and-stolen reporting law, but this past winter a state appeals court set it aside. The city has appealed that decision to the state Supreme Court.

In the meantime, Montaño said, "The mayor is in favor of the existing ordinances and doing what we can to keep the guns off the street and out of the hands of kids. There’s no reason we wouldn’t enforce the legislation as it exists."

Born and raised in Birmingham, Ala., Ariel finally made a “big move” 45 minutes down the interstate to the University of Alabama where she studied Journalism and International Studies. During her time in college she interned with Tuscaloosa News, a daily newspaper in her college town. After college, she got her first job back in her hometown with Birmingham Times, a weekly where she served as reporter and editor. Ariel made an even bigger move to Pittsburgh and joined the 90.5 WESA family as digital producer. She is adjusting to experiencing actual cold weather.
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