TAMPA — Hillsborough deputies noticed an increase in black-market guns on the streets, so they went undercover.
Their mission: to buy the firearms from the felons then arrest them.
In six months, deputies recovered 84 guns — 69 from convicted felons — including a machine gun and sawed-off shotguns.
They made 15 arrests in Operation Seize-Fire and have 18 outstanding warrants, Sheriff David Gee announced Friday. The youngest offender is 14.
At a news conference Friday, Gee held one of the weapons.
"Short-barreled shotguns are made for one reason: as an anti-personnel weapon," Gee said. "That's the only reason a weapon like this exists."
Both Gee and Virginia O'Brien, the special agent in charge of Tampa's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said they've noticed an increase in the number of illegal guns in circulation.
"At one time, guns were difficult to buy on the street," Gee said. "Now you can buy guns like you could by crack cocaine a few years ago."
O'Brien said a cumulative effect is partly to blame. Old firearms remain on the streets — one gun that an undercover deputy bought was reported stolen in 1982, for instance. And new guns continue to be rapidly manufactured, O'Brien said.
Gee is especially troubled that most of the officers recently killed in Florida were suspected to have been shot by felons, who cannot legally possess guns.
For him, that was motivation enough to launch the operation.
The youngest offender, a Tampa 14-year-old, already had convictions for burglary, grand theft and battery on a school employee, Gee said.
Though the boy arranged the sale to an undercover officer, he sent a friend to carry it out because he was confined by house arrest, Gee said.
The operation, though successful in taking dozens of illegal guns off the street, doesn't solve the problem, Gee said.
The Sheriff's Office is working with state legislators to increase prison time for felons caught in possession of firearms.
Gee wants to make it a first-degree felony instead of a second-degree felony, which could double offenders' prison time.
Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at (813) 226-3433 or firstname.lastname@example.org.