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Palm Coast Friday, Nov. 29, 2019 6 days ago

Felons with firearms: Recent cases show difficulties of enforcement

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'They will always get them if they want them bad enough, and the market will drive that cost,' Sheriff Rick Staly said.
by: Jonathan Simmons News Editor

On Nov. 8, deputies arrested 62-year-old Wyatt Cunningham, a felon, for using a gun he wasn’t legally allowed to have. He used it to shoot up his neighbor’s home in a dispute over $10.

On Nov. 21, deputies arrested 33-year-old Christopher Raymond, a sex offender and a felon, during a traffic stop in which they found drugs and a firearm he was not legally allowed to have.

In June, another traffic stop led to the arrest of 34-year-old Adam Jordan, a felon who was in possession of meth, heroin, and — illegally — a loaded handgun.

Convicted felons are not permitted under federal law to possess firearms or ammunition, but these cases are three of the 19 so far this year in which deputies have arrested a convicted felon with a gun or ammunition, generally because the felon was, once again, doing something else illegal and got caught mid-crime.

“I would suspect that it’s a very small percentage that are actually getting caught,” Flagler County Sheriff Rick Staly said. “With the drug trade, which many of these cases are, there’s always guns around. ... I would suspect that there are many more convicted felons illegally obsessing firearms.”

As the above cases demonstrate, at least some of those felons are committing new  crimes, and getting caught doing so, sometimes with a gun. The overall Florida prison system recidivism rate — defined by the Department of Corrections as a return to prison — was 25% within three years as of 2014, according to a Florida Department of Corrections report.  People who are convicted of federal crimes have about a 50-50 chance of being rearrested within the eight years following their release, according to a 2019 study by the United States Sentencing Commission.

And sometimes the next crime is deadly — as it was when William Carson Merrill, a Flagler County felon with a gun, shot and killed his wife in 2012; when Lonnie Redner, another local felon with a gun, shot and killed two people for drugs in 2009; and when William Gregory, another felon with a gun, shot and killed his ex-girlfriend and her boyfriend.

HOW ARE THEY CAUGHT?

The law doesn’t make it easy to catch convicted felons who own firearms unless they’ve brought the gun along while committing another crime: Once someone’s served their time, they have the same protections against unreasonable search as anyone else.

"Increasing gun control laws will not solve this problem. ... Because there will always be a black market."

— RICK STALY, Flagler County sheriff

Picture this: A person is arrested. Firearms are hidden inside their house, but deputies do not know the guns are in the house and have no probable cause to search it or to seize the weapons. The person is convicted, serves their time, and is returned to the same home — and the same guns.

When the Sheriff’s Office is notified that a state or federal prisoner is being released into the community, Staly said, a deputy pays them a visit, letting them know the FCSO is aware of their presence. But, he added, deputies can’t enter their homes without permission in the absence of a search warrant or special legal stipulations associated with the person’s release.

“You can’t go on a fishing expedition,” he said. “There’s not going to be, under our system, a perfect solution.”

When other people are living in the same home, that can complicate matters further. If deputies get a warrant to search the home of a convicted felon because they believe he’s manufacturing drugs, but during the search also find a firearm, they then face the task of proving that it actually belonged to the felon, and not someone else in the household.

“We’ve seen that, and they say, ‘Oh, those guns aren’t mine,’” Staly said. “We try to develop the evidence. That could be him with a picture holding the gun; it could be witnesses.”

WHERE DO THE GUNS COME FROM?

Last year, there were 310 instances of car break-ins. Often, guns were stolen. Firearms are also a target in home burglaries. Some of those guns make their way into the hands of felons who are later caught with them, their serial numbers telling the tale of their theft.

“I think this goes to prove that increasing gun control laws will not solve this problem, and in fact all it does is take law-abiding citizens and make them criminals, or take weapons away from them that they could use to protect themselves from these felons,” Staly said. “Because there will always be a black market. ... They will always get them if they want them bad enough, and the market will drive that cost.”

There’s also another way for felons to acquire guns: individual sales, in which sellers who aren’t licensed gun dealers aren’t required to conduct a background check of the person they’re selling to.

In such sales, a seller who sells to a person who is a convicted felon can’t be charged with a crime unless law enforcement can prove that the seller knew that the buyer was not legally permitted to have a firearm.

That does sometimes occur, typically in cases in which the person making the sale to the felon was acting as a “straw buyer” to purchase a gun for the felon from someone else. But Staly couldn’t recall any such cases recently in Flagler.

PREVENTION

Staly said the Sheriff’s Office has seen a decrease in car burglaries this year, which means a decrease in the guns let out onto the street as a result of such burglaries: As of November last year, there had been 310 car break-ins, and as of the same time this year, there have been 152.

The agency has also worked with federal agencies to level federal charges against felons who have been found in possession of a firearm, a strategy that tends to lead to lengthier sentences and keeps them out of the community for longer periods of time.

But ultimately, Staly said, “The reality is that laws on the books are only as good as the human element is willing to follow them. ... So if you have a criminal that’s been convicted and they don’t want to turn their life around, there is no solution to that, until they get caught and sent back to prison.”

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