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Renewed effort to seize guns working in St. Petersburg, chief says

ST. PETERSBURG — Police Chief Chuck Harmon stood behind a lectern in January and held up a .45-caliber pistol equipped with an extended magazine that was a foot long.

It baffled him. So much so that he cited it as a reason why he was instructing his officers to step up their efforts to get guns off the streets.

On Monday, Harmon again faced a wall of TV cameras and reporters. He gave an update on the program and the department's revived gun bounty program, which he called a success so far.

Then he plucked a large black object from a table nearly covered in guns that have been seized. The high-capacity magazine, designed for a shot gun, could hold 20 rounds.

"I'd never seen one of these before," Harmon said. "Look at what we're getting off the streets. These aren't ordinary handguns that people are using to protect themselves. These are way beyond that. These are out there."

For the past few years, the Police Department typically has seized about one gun a day, spokesman Bill Proffitt said.

But in the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings, law enforcement agencies all across the country have made guns a priority. During a six-week period ending on Feb. 28, St. Petersburg police used grant money to fund a bigger, better, targeted push to get weapons off the streets.

"We got about twice as many as we had the same time last year," Harmon said.

Officers confiscated 120 guns, Harmon said. Of those, 80 were directly related to criminal investigations that resulted in 34 arrests. They included a gun taken from the backpack of a Gibbs High School student and a cache of weapons found in the home of a tattoo shop owner now facing federal weapons charges.

"This is amazing," Mayor Bill Foster said, looking at the spread of weapons, "amazing and mortifying at the same time. It's kind of an eye-opener for me."

St. Petersburg's approach has been a multifaceted, focusing on school safety, education and enforcement.

The biggest impact, Harmon said, came from partnerships with other agencies and a shift in focus. Officers teamed up with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which resulted in the arrest of the tattoo shop owner. They also started going on home checks with probation and parole officers from the Department of Corrections, resulting in seven firearms being taken from felons. The department's own vice and narcotics detectives seized 43 guns while serving just eight search warrants.

Officials also embarked on a massive public relations push to reintroduce residents to the largely dormant gun bounty program that began in 2009 after the death of 8-year-old Paris Whitehead-Hamilton during a drive-by shooting.

Tipsters, through Crime Stoppers, must offer information that leads to the recovery of a gun, an arrest and a weapons charge. In exchange, they get cash — $1,500 for assault weapons and $1,000 for all other firearms.

Harmon conceded that so far, only one or two people have gotten the bounty money. But he said getting the word out has been just as valuable because people are calling police with gun tips even if they don't go through Crime Stoppers.

Police also visited the city's 56 public and private schools and offered to help them study their campuses to increase safety. Harmon said he believes schools are safer because of it.

The $47,000 grant that partly fueled this latest push is gone. But the partnerships and many of the tactics will continue, officials vowed.

"I think it's a small dent, unfortunately," Harmon said. "We're not stopping."

Kameel Stanley can be reached at kstanley@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8643.

Renewed effort to seize guns working in St. Petersburg, chief says 04/08/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 9, 2013 12:24am]
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