Marlo — a bold, yet weary 21-year-old — tugs the pistol out of his sweatpants. The magazine pops out, and he slides the barrel open, letting it crack to show there’s not another bullet in the chamber.
The Ruger SR9 carries 18 bullets. Any one of which can tear through the body, causing a ballooning explosion of tissue. And if bullets fly, he’ll keep careful tally, so he’s not the first in a gunfight with an empty gun.
Tonight, he rests it on the table and explains ugly facts:
He no longer wants the life of a shooter. But disarming could cost him his life altogether.
“They didn’t stop making guns when I got mine,” he said, casting the firearm — which he obtained illegally through a connection on Pittsburgh’s North Side – as a tool of survival.
He’s not alone.
Since 2012, the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police recovered more than 3,600 guns from suspects, and roughly 2,600 of those firearms are believed to have been carried illegally, according to a PublicSource analysis of police data. That’s the most detailed account to date on the scope of Pittsburgh’s illegal gun market. But it’s incomplete, failing to count guns later deemed illegal after searches through state and federal trace systems – data police said is prohibited from release. It also fails to quantify the scores of guns never seized.
What’s indisputable, based on interviews with local prosecutors, law enforcement and young men who carry, is that the illegal gun market is thriving.
Police seizures of illegally carried guns
Concentrations of illegally carried guns seized by Pittsburgh police since 2012
Yes, guns are routinely seized in Pittsburgh. Hundreds of cases are filed, plots are foiled. But with abundant replacements, little keeps high-quality, lethal firearms from getting in the hands of those prohibited from carrying them.
“There’s so many guns on the street,” said Steven Stadtmiller, a deputy district attorney in Allegheny County knowledgeable of both local and federal investigations. “...there’s no real way to curb it.”
Marlo got his first gun, a Smith & Wesson, around age 14.
He was a “small dude” at the time, he said, and he was drawn to the respect afforded to shooters. That’s not fantasy. In neighborhoods where gunfire is frequent, like the Hilltop, Homewood, the Hill District and portions of the North Side, it’s a norm.
“It’s not uncommon at all to see a 12-year-old with a gun,” Stadtmiller said. “And 14-year-olds riding around in cars together with a stolen gun.”
This year, his office filed more than 700 cases involving illegally carried weapons in Allegheny County, and at least 120 additional firearms cases involving juveniles.
Marlo talked about it plainly, like gunplay is a normal part of teenage life: the rush of shooting for the first time, the way the echo of gunshots cling to the ear.
But his life can’t be reduced to a stereotype. He’s a smart, self-aware, frustrated young man, armed in part because he feels setting his gun down would mean embracing death.
PublicSource spoke with several Pittsburgh youth, ages 17 to 21 — both black and white — on the condition that they be granted anonymity to discuss how they obtain firearms and why they carry. They did not detail any specific crime or shooting. The reported names are aliases.
Their decisions are illegal, sometimes violent. But their motivations spring from the realities of growing up around gun violence and concentrated poverty, where opportunities seem elusive and trauma from shootings are a fact of life.
At 16, Marlo was locked up for a non-fatal shooting. After two years, he thought he might come back to a life away from guns. Instead, relationships soured into feuds, and with guns in hand, conflicts escalated into shootings.
Now, at 21, he wants out. Becoming a father shifted Marlo’s view of life. He wants to survive to see his infant son grow up.
But because of nearby conflicts, he feels the need to be armed when he visits with his son. Sometimes with the weapon out and the safety off.
So in the fight to keep illegal guns off the street, for young men like Marlo the question is: How does putting my gun down stop the killing power of a weapon pointed my way?
“There’s no change,” he said recently, slumped in a chair months after his son’s birth, like he’s heard the scoldings and sees no alternative.
“I already put it down and almost got killed.”
Infographic: How police trace guns
Anyone who knows him, he said, just assumes he’s armed, carrying a 9 mm he traded for after deciding the .380 caliber he’d been carrying lacked firepower.
If he needed a more powerful gun or just another gun, he said he could call someone right now. Pay cash. Trade.
No record. Nothing tying him to the gun, and if the seller isn’t the original buyer, probably nothing tying them to it either.
Aaron, a 19-year-old from Pittsburgh’s Hilltop, got his first gun at age 11.
That’s 10 years before he’d be eligible for a license to carry a handgun. Yet as a teenager, he had no trouble acquiring his own arsenal, at times buying essentially a weapon a week.
“It’s the neighborhood,” he said. “It’s how you grow up.”
He speaks with low-key confidence, not volunteering much, but answering plainly when asked.
He talked about the adrenaline rush of firing a gun, how not getting caught comes down to keeping a low profile.
Illegally carried gun types seized
in Pittsburgh since 2012
Source: PublicSource analysis of Pittsburgh
Bureau of Police data
These days, his weapon of choice is either a .40 Beretta, or a “chop” – a miniature assault-style weapon that’s small enough to tuck down his waistband. He got that through a connection at a gun store he declined to name.
Getting a gun, he said, is no trouble at all. But it all depends on trust.
“It’s not open to anybody,” he said. “You have to be known.”
In the Pittsburgh region, a thriving gun culture and a high concentration of gun ownership ensures anyone seeking a gun has plenty of possible sources.
Of the 2,600 illegally carried guns seized by police since 2012, all of them at some point were legal guns, sitting in a case at a gun shop, and in many cases, they were sold legally to a buyer who passed a background check.
Then they’re illegally passed on, either for money or drugs. Or they’re stolen.
“You got 300 bucks? You can get a weapon,” Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. said.
A recent report from the New York Attorney General’s office named Pennsylvania among the “Iron Pipeline” for being one of the top sources of guns likely trafficked into New York state.
That’s far different from Pennsylvania, where numbers from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives show about 80 percent of traceable guns recovered in-state from 2010 through 2015 were also bought here.
Looking down the barrel
Tahlee is not a shooter.
At 19, he’s been to college. He seemed bound for a life away from the struggles facing so many of the young men he grew up with in Pittsburgh. But he dropped out, with thousands of dollars in debt, and he’s returned to an environment of ruthlessness and easy access to lethal weapons.
“There’s been times I looked down that barrel,” he told of having a gun pulled on him. “I been through that.”
He’s friendly and soft-spoken, quick to chuckle about lighter subjects.
But he seems resigned to how little life seems to be valued in his neighborhood. It’s a bleak view, rooted in what he sees as a lack of role models: “Out there every day, every other second, every other minute, what are these kids getting inspired by?”
He only recently started carrying – a Ruger .380 he got from a friend – because he said he’s been threatened.
“I feel like I’m not ready to lose my life yet,” he said. “So I got to do what I got to do.”
That impulse isn’t really different from the motivations of many legal gun owners.
“By and large, a gun is a protective mechanism,” said Dr. Karen Hacker, director of the Allegheny County Health Department, which frames gun violence as a public health problem.
If one individual is armed, Hacker said, another finds a gun to level the conflict. Then things escalate.
‘Against the wind’
With a flooded market, that escalation is scarcely interrupted. So if Marlo ditches his gun, it’ll be replaced without more than a phone call and a few hundred bucks.
Jay Wachtel ran firearms investigations in Los Angeles area before retiring from the ATF in 1998. He knows his unit made important seizures and probably saved lives. But with the surge of illegal guns, he describes the impact of all those efforts as “not statistically significant.”
“We wouldn’t even be a blip in terms of violent crimes or murders or whatnot,” said Wachtel, now a criminal justice lecturer at California State University-Fullerton.
Louis Weiers, resident agent in charge at the ATF’s Pittsburgh field office, said the speed that guns are diverted and the number of hands that pass a gun around can make tracing impossible.
“When the chain gets broken, it’s tough to get those links back together,” he said.
But because gun owners have no obligation to report a lost or stolen firearm, anyone diverting guns has a simple enough alibi: Lie.
Pittsburgh tried to close that loophole in late 2008 by requiring gun owners who know their guns are lost or stolen to report to police. That effort drew ire and court challenges from pro-gun groups. The ordinance is not enforced.
Even if law enforcement can prove a person is guilty of selling or having an illegal gun, punishment may only be probation.
“The [sentencing] guidelines are low, and the jail is full,” Stadtmiller said.
Weiers said the ATF is focusing on the most violent individuals and cases that show impact, such as a recent prosecution of a McKeesport dealer who pleaded guilty after investigators found he'd illegally sold scores of firearms with no background check.
Federal prosecutors run sophisticated years-long investigations, closely partnering with local police and prosecutors. At the federal level, penalties are far stricter, but the U.S. Attorney’s office can’t take every case.
So even with hundreds of prosecutions and hundreds of gun seizures, illegal guns remain readily available in volumes that law enforcement struggles to quantify.
“We’re just pissing against the wind,” Wachtel said. “But you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.”
This story was fact-checked by Mary Niederberger.
PublicSource's interactives & design editor Natasha Khan built the graphics.
Jeffrey Benzing is PublicSource's public safety reporter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @jabenzing.
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About the data
PublicSource obtained firearms seizure and recovery data from the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police from January 2012 through September 2017. The data, which has not previously been released to the public, details more than 3,600 guns seized by city police. Of these, about 2,600 appear to be illegally carried, based on charging information listed in internal firearms reports that were analyzed by PublicSource. To be clear, saying a gun is carried illegally does not necessarily mean it was bought illegally. The listing includes firearms seized because the carrier did not have a license to carry it in public or in their automobile (a felony or misdemeanor offense, depending on circumstances). Other charges, such as possession by a minor or prohibited felon or possession of a gun with an obliterated serial number, indicate that the firearm may have been illegally diverted.
While the data sheds light on the prevalence of illegal firearms seized in the city, it’s important to acknowledge blind spots.
First, the data is likely missing illegal guns. Police use federal and state gun tracing systems to determine when recovered guns were illegally held. Those results are not available to the public. What is available here is data compiled before that process is complete, based on information in early reports on firearms-related charges. Deeper investigation could show that additional firearms are illegal, or that police wrongly identified an illegally carried gun.
Second, the data does not reflect court convictions. Just because police list a gun charge here does not mean an individual is necessarily prosecuted for that offense, nor does it mean they were found guilty. Rather, this data is based on internal police documents.
Third, the data is only as accurate as police reports. Early versions of the database contained a number of flaws, including firearms that were clearly miscategorized and duplicate guns that were removed after numerous inquiries. The bureau responded to PublicSource’s questions, corrected duplicates and explained inconsistencies. However, that process only corrected errors in how the data was pulled from reports and would not correct any mistakes made by officers in initial reports.