ST. PETERSBURG — They were made for the battlefield, not the neighborhood. But more and more, authorities say, that is where they're turning up — and in exactly the wrong hands.
The kind of hands that police say aimed two AR-15 semi-automatic rifles at a home where an 8-year-old girl slept in the early morning dark on Sunday.
Paris Whitehead-Hamilton was killed by three of the more than 50 bullets that pierced her Bartlett Park home, police say, losing her life to an escalating cycle of gang retaliation.
Days later, St. Petersburg police Chief Chuck Harmon made his disgust well known:
"Assault weapons are good for one purpose only," he said, "and that's to kill other human beings.
"They don't belong on any city street in America."
The problem, many in law enforcement say, is that is exactly where they are.
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Hours after the murder, detectives arrested their first suspect and seized a cache of weapons at his apartment complex.
Police recovered a bulletproof vest, two pistol grip 12-gauge shotguns, a .308-caliber hunting rifle with a scope, a .22-caliber revolver — and two semi-automatic AR-15 rifles.
They recovered a clip and ammunition for the rifles. They also found two loaded clips for an AK-47 assault rifle, but not the weapon itself.
The AR-15s are now in a Florida Department of Law Enforcement laboratory for testing.
Experts will determine if the shell casings found outside the victim's home at 771 Preston Ave. S came from the seized rifles. They'll also search for any DNA or fingerprints left behind that could identify the shooters. And they'll see if the weapons can be linked to any other crimes.
The guns also are being traced by the Tampa division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to determine who purchased them and how many times they've changed hands.
And in Florida, guns change hands quite often. In 2007, the state ranked second in the nation behind Georgia in the number of guns (2,328) bought here that ended up being used to commit a crime in another state, according to an ATF report.
Of course, that's just a fraction of the guns in the U.S. It is estimated that there are upward of 200 million guns in America. That's about one per adult — more per capita than in any other country in the world.
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In the days since Paris was killed, St. Petersburg residents have theorized about the weapons used to kill her — and how they could have ended up in such young hands.
Two 18-year-olds and a 19-year-old have been arrested in connection with the murder, and police are probing the role another 19-year-old might have played.
There are no easy answers. "The possibilities, you could say, are endless on how they could illegally obtain these firearms," said ATF special agent Bill Filides.
Guns get into the hands of criminals in a variety of ways:
• They could be supplied by or bought from such entrenched gangs as the Bloods, the Crips and MS-13, or other criminal organizations.
• They can be stolen from businesses, such as pawn shops and gun stores or private homes.
• They could be obtained legally through gun shows and flea markets, or private sales, where purchasers don't have to undergo background checks.
One source Tampa Police Department Corp. Jared Douds doesn't blame is legitimate gun dealers.
"Any gun dealer selling stuff out the back will get caught quickly," the firearms instructor said. "There's so much oversight of gun dealers."
Drug dealers often have their own suppliers: addicts who will steal anything to feed their habits.
Dealers sometimes even provide addicts with a shopping list, said retired Pasco sheriff's vice commander Robert Sullivan.
It doesn't take much to saw through the bars of a pawn or gun shop, he said, or to make off with a handful of weapons before the alarm brings police.
Then they trade them for drugs. That is why it's so easy for dealers to arm themselves, he said: "Why would they risk breaking into a place when they have plenty of addicts willing to do it for them?"
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Drug dealers acquire these weapons for two reasons, authorities say:
Protection from other, rival dealers. And status.
After years of busting into drug houses, Sullivan said he always found more than just drugs, guns and cash:
Scarface posters. Pit bullterriers. Nextel walkie-talkie cell phones. Surveillance cameras.
Drug dealers, it seems, are as susceptible to the latest fad as any teenager.
The AR-15 seems to be an increasingly deadly trend on the streets right now.
"It almost seems like a status thing," Sullivan said. "If you're a big, bad drug dealer, you have to have an automatic weapon in your house."
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Since Paris' death, Chief Harmon has heard from outraged residents who think more should be done to get dangerous guns off the streets.
He's also heard from angry gun owners, who accuse him of questioning their right to bear arms. His response:
"You don't need a 50-round clip to go hunting," Harmon said. "I'm not against responsible gun ownership at all. I defend the people's right to defend themselves, but nobody needs an assault weapon to protect themselves."
Gun enthusiasts, collectors and legal owners would disagree. People like Bill Bunting, an influential Pasco County Republican and certified NRA instructor. He pointed out that the suspects arrested in Sunday's murder all have criminal records — and they're barely adults.
"Unfortunately passions are running high and I can understand where the chief is coming from," Bunting said. "But people need to take heed … and find out why these kids weren't sitting in a juvenile facility.
"It's not the gun, it's the person."