Two top law enforcement officials in McLean County say they’re disturbed by an uptick in juveniles getting into trouble with illegal guns.
With the national conversation about guns still focused on the mass shooting in Las Vegas, local officials say another challenging problem to solve is what to do with minors who are arrested in gun cases.
Bloomington Police Chief Brendan Heffner said prosecutors and judges must strike the right balance when imposing penalties. If a juvenile is arrested in a gun case but is returned to the streets too quickly, their life may be in danger from those seeking retribution, Heffner said. But the police chief said he also doesn’t want to “see a juvenile (jailed) and have the key thrown away on them.”
“It’s not an easy problem to solve,” he said. “It’s probably something that needs to be addressed better.”
In a separate interview, McLean County State’s Attorney Jason Chambers echoed those concerns.
“For me, the concern I have is not the increase in amount (of gun crimes in Bloomington-Normal). It’s the lowering of the age of people I see with guns committing crimes,” Chambers said. “When you’re talking about 15- or 16-year-olds running around with stolen handguns, that’s a problem.”
Illegal guns are an ongoing concern for local law enforcement. In Bloomington, police took 59 reports involving deadly weapons in 2016, up from just 25 in 2013, police data show. In Normal, deadly weapons reports jumped from 25 in 2014 to 42 last year, police data show.
Heffner said his department is more focused on five-year averages. The number of seized illegal weapons this year is right around the 30 to 40 annual average, Heffner said. On Aug. 26, his department posted a photo on Facebook showing 10 illegal guns seized in 30 days.
While most of the violent crime in Bloomington is committed with fists, Heffner said, it’s the firearms that make headlines. Earlier this month, a 14-year-old boy was shot in the face in Bloomington. The 18-year-old alleged shooter reportedly told police it was an accident.
Ever since a spike in seized guns in 2002-2003, Bloomington Police have been more diligent in working with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), Heffner said. Seized guns are tracked and entered into databases to help figure out where they originated, he said.
Years ago, most seized guns came from McLean County, he said. Now Heffner said they’re coming from all over—from Chicago, from Indiana, and especially “straw purchases,” where someone is paid to buy a gun for a felon who can’t legally buy one themselves.
Bloomington Police regularly shares major arrests and police activity on its Facebook page. Recently, more and more of the posts have dealt with guns. On Sept. 29, a drug investigation led to an arrest and the discovery of four handguns. On Sept. 22, another man was arrested with a stolen handgun.
Because guns are sometimes stolen during residential burglaries, “it’s important (to share that information on Facebook) because the community needs to know they’re out there,” Heffner said.
He added, “The majority of law-abiding handgun owners use safety. They secure their handguns. They put them in safes where burglars can’t find them. It is a problem. We want to advise people to always be careful.”
Prosecuting gun cases can also be challenging. Chambers cited the recent arrest, conviction and sentence of Darvell Williams as one example of how cases involving gun violence can be difficult to prosecute. Williams opened fire in November 2016 on a rival on Bloomington’s east side—a shooting that put several nearby vehicles and a store in the crossfire.
Williams was convicted, but the trial was complicated because of resistance by some witnesses to testify, Chambers said. Williams was eventually sentenced to 40 years in prison—a stiff term that included a 20-year sentence plus a 20-year enhancement because the crime involved a firearm.
It’s important to pursue stiff penalties for gun crimes because potential witnesses may shy away from testifying if the suspect could, say, be back on the streets in just a couple of years, Chamber said.
“There’s a lot of things (we) have to bend on. There’s a lot of things where we have to triage. But gun violence we take pretty seriously here in McLean County,” Chambers said.
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