Undercover operation in Hillsborough nets 66 guns in three months, some stolen – Tampabay.com (blog)

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TAMPA — About three months ago, undercover sheriff’s detectives making drug buys in Hillsborough County started asking the sellers for help: I’m a convicted felon, they’d say. Do you know where I can get a gun?

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“No problem,” was often the response, Hillsborough Sheriff David Gee said.

“They were bringing loaded guns, and it was really easy to buy them,” Gee told reporters at a news conference Friday as he stood at a lectern flanked by two tables full of firearms.

In the last 14 weeks, detectives arrested 51 people and seized 66 guns — 42 handguns, 15 rifles and nine shotguns. The effort netted about four pounds of drugs, mostly marijuana, methamphetamine and crack and powder cocaine. And it resulted in 188 drug and gun-related charges, according to the Sheriff’s Office. Six of those arrested were already convicted felons

The agency does this type of operation about once a year to estimate the numbers of guns on the street. The results this time were troubling, Gee said.

“We were shocked by some of the numbers,” he said.

Gee noted that a reliable way to predict violent crime trends is to gauge the number of firearms on the street and the number of aggravated assaults. The number of aggravated assaults in Hillsborough jumped by about 11 percent last year.

“When you start seeing those two things coupled together, you can expect that if you do not get on this problem, your murders, your robberies will trend in that direction,” he said.

The operation spanned all four of the agency’s districts. Some of the guns had been stolen and others were purchased by straw buyers. In some cases, investigators don’t know where the guns came from, in part because many gun owners don’t make a note of their firearm’s serial number. One had been reported stolen in 1998.

None of the guns came from the rash of gun store burglaries in the Tampa Bay area, Gee said. Many came from unlocked cars, prompting a plea from authorities for gunowners to be more careful.

“We’re making it too easy for the criminals to obtain guns,” sheriff’s Major Frank Losat said.

Once the drug sellers knew their buyers wanted guns, they were contacting detectives at all hours of the night to try to make a sale, Losat said. Some of the suspects sold guns to feed their own drug habit, he said.

The Sheriff’s Office worked in collaboration with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Hillsborough State Attorney’s Office and the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

“This is what success looks like,” State Attorney Andrew Warren said. “Today, Hillsborough is safer.”

But it’s also just the beginning of more work to do, Gee said.

“Now that we’ve taken this snapshot and know how much is out there, we’re going to be putting a lot of resources into it,” he said. “We’ll be back out there tonight.”

Contact Tony Marrero at tmarrero@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3374.