What tethers young people and violent crime in York County?
Law enforcement officials, prosecutors and defense lawyers agree: It’s often the guns teens carry that escalate into shootings, and leave people maimed or dead.
Most recent available statistics from the Carolinas office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Charlotte show that, in South Carolina, the ATF recovered and traced more than 6,400 guns in 2017. Of those guns, 159 were found in the hands of teenagers younger than 17, the statistics show.
It is illegal in South Carolina for anyone under age 18 to have a handgun.
In late February, Sam Robinson of Rock Hill had a plan to kill two men police described as his friends.
He got a handgun and now faces murder charges. He is charged in the shooting deaths of Zuinquarius McCrorey and Malik McCullough, said Rock Hill Police Department Det. Ryan Thomas.
Robinson was 16 years old when he was charged.
Police and prosecutors declined to say where Robinson got the gun because the case is pending.
In January 2018, Devan Johnson of Rock Hill, 17, was carrying a gun given to him by another teen when he ran into two 14-year-old boys riding bicycles on a walking trail. Johnson asked the boys about selling their sneakers. Talk turned to marijuana, court testimony showed.
Johnson demanded that one of the kids give him everything he had or get shot. Johnson shot one of the kids in the stomach. The wounded teen was airlifted from downtown Rock Hill. The helicopter landed next to the downtown post office as hundreds of people watched.
Johnson got the gun from a 17-year-old girl who already had a gun conviction, said prosecutor Matthew Hogge.
Johnson was sentenced to 12 years in prison for attempted murder and weapons charges. The teen girl who gave him the gun, Ahlaysha Locke, 19 at the time of the crime, was sentenced to 54 months in prison.
Locke also had possessed guns on at least two other occasions, Hogge said. At least three of four guns she had were previously reported stolen.
An Indian Land teen, Bryant Gregory Eaves Jr., 18, was recently charged with shooting a man over a seat at Concord Mills mall movie theater in North Carolina.
All the cases show a common theme: guns in the hands of teens ended in violence.
Much of the violent crime committed by teens in York County comes from those with access to weapons who either are unafraid of consequences or already have criminal records, said 16th Circuit Deputy Solicitor Willy Thompson. Thompson prosecutes many of York County’s murders and shootings.
Thompson says South Carolina’s gun sentencing laws are not tough enough.
Possession of a stolen gun by a person of any age carries up to five years prison time, but can be as little as probation for convicted offenders, Thompson said. A more strict mandatory minimum sentence that would require prison time would send a tougher message about gun crimes, Thompson said.
“If we made it clear in our state that someone was going to prison, period, for a period of at least five years for illegal gun possession, people would think twice about what they are doing with guns,” Thompson said. “Five years is better than manslaughter or murder.”
Manslaughter carries up to 30 years in prison. Murder carries 30 years up to life.
Harry Dest and B.J. Barrowclough, the top officials at the 16th Circuit Public Defender’s Office, do not agree tougher sentencing is the answer — especially among teens. Their office defends many of the youth accused of gun and violent crimes.
“The United States already has the highest incarceration rate in the world and where has that gotten us?” Dest said. “It hasn’t made us safer. It hasn’t cut down on the proliferation of guns and drugs. We are the most gun-toting society in the history of the world. Just locking people up is not the answer.”
Where do the guns come from?
Barrowclough and Dest said many of the guns they see used in criminal cases have been stolen from vehicles or homes.
Those thefts often are done by family members who steal guns that are not locked up, Barrowclough said. Many more are guns left in unlocked cars, he said.
“It is just way too easy for any young person to get a gun,” Barrowclough said. “We have too many teens with guns.”
Thompson said legal purchases made by people who then give or sell the guns to felons or juveniles also is a problem. That process is called a “straw buy.”
“We have cases where the guns are legally purchased by relatives or friends and they gave the guns to people who can’t legally possess a weapon,” Thompson said.
In one 2015 Rock Hill shooting case involving teen suspects from Rock Hill and Charlotte, they got many of the guns from straw buyers, Thompson said.
“The guns were not stolen, they were bought legally at first, but they ended up in the hands of people with felony records or were underage, or both,” Thompson said. “Then what happened is what happened too often. People were shot.”
Sgt. Joey Wallace of the York County Sheriff’s Office has years of experience investigating gangs and guns. He was one of the detectives in a 2013 York County biker gang case in federal court where illegal guns and drugs were sold across South Carolina.
“Guns used in crimes are stolen from cars or trucks in break-ins. Guns can be traded on the street for drugs. There is an obvious connection between guns and gangs, and guns and drugs,” Wallace said.
Trent Faris, a sheriff’s office spokesperson who tracks car break-ins, said many of the York County stolen gun crimes involve suspects looking specifically to steal weapons.
“A car or truck glove box is not a gun safe,” Faris said. “A gun kept in a private vehicle is waiting to be stolen.”
Capt. Mark Bollinger of the Rock Hill Police Department, who was a juvenile detective for more than a decade, said teens bent on violence look for guns they can get through street trades or other criminal activity.
“Unfortunately, it is easy to get guns on the street,” Bollinger said.
It is not easy to determine where the gun came from, Bollinger said. Even suspects who confess to violent crimes, or plead guilty, often refuse to say where they got a gun.
Federal agents Corey Ray and Gerod King of the Carolinas office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Charlotte said one other way guns are illegally obtained is by breaking into gun stores. Robberies of guns stores were down in 2018 and so far this year, after record highs -- when hundreds of guns were stolen -- two years ago, the ATF agents said.
“Those guns were stolen then went out on the street,” Ray said.
Even people with military service are not immune to having guns stolen. Veterans are often targeted by thieves because of a perception that they have legal guns, King said.
Weapons stolen from the Lancaster National Guard Armory in 2017 were used in other crimes and at least two of the guns were found in the possession of convicted felons, who are barred by law from possessing weapons, federal prosecutors said.
Barrowclough said safe storage of weapons is a crucial key to avoiding gun violence.
Tougher laws should be directed at gun owners who fail to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and teens through negligence, carelessness and sloth, Barrowclough said.
“It needs to be tougher, harder, for any person to get their hands on these guns,” Barrowclough said. “If a gun is kept safe in the first place, the gun won’t be stolen and used in a crime.”
People who legally own and secure their weapons are not the problem, lawyers, prosecutors and police said.
“There is a public danger for weapons that are stolen from homes or cars that get out on the street to be used in crimes,” Wallace said.
Dest and Barrowclough said there also needs to be a societal change away from the gun culture, which espouses the resolution of conflict with guns instead of words.
“This is a systemic, societal issue,” Dest said.
Ray said education and awareness among gun shops to better protect and store weapons has led to a decrease in the number of stolen guns in the Carolinas. That also has been a crucial step in keeping guns out of the hands of teens and criminals, the agents said.
A decrease in the number of stolen guns on the street means less opportunity for gun-related crime, King said.
He said there is no federal law that cracks down on improper personal gun storage.
However, police, lawyers, prosecutors and federal agents agree on one thing when it comes to guns in the hands of teens: Safe storage is a key to avoiding the problem.
“Secure your firearms,” King said.