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Gun debate coming soon to St. Petersburg City Council

ST. PETERSBURG — There have been 11 murders in the city in the first five months of 2011 — two shy of the total for all of last year.

Eight died from gunfire, including three police officers killed in the line of duty. The latest victim was a security officer gunned down while he was on patrol.

Two City Council members say enough is enough. They want the city to take some kind of action — even if it's just symbolic — to address the intertwined problems of crime and gun violence.

City Council member Steve Kornell said he hopes to get the debate started at the June 2 council meeting. One of his proposals will be for the council to ask for reinstatement of the federal Assault Weapons Ban, which outlawed the sale of guns like AR-15 and AK-47 semi-automatic rifles until it expired in 2004.

"In my opinion we have some major issues that we need to address and action is called for," said Kornell, who is up for re-election soon.

City Council member Karl Nurse is perplexed that Mayor Bill Foster won't join Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a national coalition of more than 500 mayors who say they respect gun ownership rights but want to stop the flow of illegal guns into their cities.

"Why hasn't the city signed off on this?" Nurse said. "I haven't gotten anywhere on it. With each high-profile shooting, it just gets worse. We're obviously going to talk about this at our next council meeting."

Police Chief Chuck Harmon — who has declared that some weapons are too dangerous to be on the streets — supports Mayors Against Illegal Guns. He met with the group when it visited in April.

Formed in 2006 by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the group wants to crack down on the illegal sale of guns and close the gun show loophole that allows firearms to be sold without background checks.

But Foster said he doesn't know enough about the group to address its positions. Nor does he want to use his office as a bully pulpit on firearms issues because he says legislators won't listen to him.

"The Legislature has declared that they are the ultimate authority," Foster said.

Nurse said he briefly met with Foster, a Republican, and gave him materials about Mayors Against Illegal Guns, which bills itself as bipartisan.

"Clearly this is outside his comfort zone," Nurse said. "It's something he's not prepared to spend political capital on."

He said even if the Legislature doesn't listen to Foster or other mayors, they can still affect change.

"Public education campaigns do matter," Nurse said. "Look at smoking or recycling. There's no reason he can't sign on."

But the National Rifle Association has criticized those mayors who have joined the campaign.

"We think they're a group dedicated to gun control," said NRA director of public affairs Andrew Arulanandam. "But they're just trying to deceive people by not using the words gun control in their name."

The mayor said he has a different concern about firearms: "What I worry about is law-abiding citizens losing their guns to theft," Foster said.

Indeed, the police chief said his intelligence unit believes that most of the city's gun crime can be blamed on weapons stolen from legitimate owners.

Police officials also pointed to a recent Wall Street Journal report that says most illegally obtained guns come from low-level crimes like burglary, not gun trafficking.

Police believe the weapons used to kill police Officer David S. Crawford on Feb. 21 and private security officer Mathew F. Little on May 16 were likely obtained illegally. They don't know for sure, because they're still looking for the guns. But both suspects said they got them "off the streets."

The problem, St. Petersburg police say, is that too many gun owners aren't securing their guns from theft, aren't recording serial numbers and aren't reporting them stolen. They just go out and buy new guns.

Police offered this as evidence of that trend: after 8-year-old Paris Whitehead-Hamilton was killed in her house during a 2009 gang feud, police recovered a weapons cache when they arrested the first suspect. But none of those weapons — a .22-caliber revolver, a .308-caliber hunting rifle, two 12-gauge shotguns and two AR-15 rifles — was ever reported stolen, according to police.

"If a homeowner doesn't record the serial number," said police spokesman Mike Puetz, "it may be a stolen gun but we'll never know it."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Jamal Thalji can be reached at thalji@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8472.

This story has been changed to reflect the following correction: The St. Petersburg City Council is set to discuss membership in the group Mayors Against Illegal Guns and reinstatement of the federal Assault Weapons Ban on Thursday. An incorrect date for the discussion was listed in a May 25 story.

Gun debate coming soon to St. Petersburg City Council 05/24/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 31, 2011 5:44pm]
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