ST. PETERSBURG — Mayor Rick Kriseman and Police Chief Tony Holloway on Friday announced a new effort to stem gun violence by urging gun owners to store their weapons more securely, especially in their cars.
"As a legal gun owner, it is important that you do your part to ensure that guns are stored safely, and kept out of the hands of children and criminals," Kriseman and Holloway said in a letter addressed: "Dear Legal Gun Owner."
Holloway cited statistics showing that, of the 293 guns stolen in the city last year, 155 were taken from cars. He said that in some instances people were taking stolen guns and trading them for drugs.
From Dec. 27 through Feb. 21, Holloway said, between 35 and 40 St. Petersburg police officers worked on a new neighborhood team that focused on illegal guns and stolen cars. The group recovered 36 stolen cars and 11 stolen guns, he said. They made 188 arrests, leading to 193 felony charges and 152 misdemeanors.
Holloway said a multi-agency auto theft task force, which was implemented across the area last year and included the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office and the Tampa Police Department, will soon ramp up again to combat the rash of stolen vehicles.
The chief stressed that car and gun owners must act responsibly, a common refrain in news conferences about crime for much of the last year.
"If people just slow down for half a second, they could help us reduce crime in our community," Holloway said.
As of Friday morning, Holloway said, 99 guns had been reported stolen in St. Petersburg this year. Seventy-six of those were taken in one case when a landscaper, Gregory Allen Phillips, 26, raided the home of a sick client, police said. Officers have recovered nine of those 76 guns, and 12 overall in 2016, according to Holloway.
The letter to gun owners will go to stores that sell guns, gun shows and gun ranges. Kriseman said there would be no direct mail effort, noting that the state Legislature has blocked access to gun owner lists.
If a gun owner fails to lock and secure his or her weapon safely, and that gun is stolen and used in a crime, Kriseman said the owner should face some kind of punishment like a fine. But he said a state "preemption" law prohibits him from implementing an ordinance like that locally.
"There's a huge sense of frustration," the mayor said.
As an incentive to owners, the city said it will offer free gun locks and advice on how to safely store guns and ammunition. To acquire a lock, gun owners should call the police department's Crime Prevention Unit at (727) 893-7128. Police are also offering free steering wheel locks for drivers.
The gun locks cost $1.85 each, Holloway said, and the first 200 were donated by a police uniform and equipment supply company.
Also Friday, city officials formally introduced Kenny Irby as St. Petersburg's new Community Intervention Director.
Earlier this year, Kriseman pledged $1 million to help young black menescape violence and poverty following a bloody end to 2015 that saw eight people killed in as many weeks.
Irby is a pastor and formerly worked at the Poynter Institute, which owns the Tampa Bay Times. He has contributed for decades to youth and community outreach efforts.
Times staff writer Charlie Frago contributed to this report. Contact Zachary T. Sampson at [email protected] or (727) 893-8804. Follow @ZackSampson.