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Tracing The Path Of A Gun

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to return now to one of this country's most polarizing and emotional issues, which is access to guns. Gun control supporters insist that this country's ongoing epidemic of gun-related deaths requires more restrictions. Gun rights advocates maintain that enough restrictions already exist and the real problem is enforcement or mental health or human nature. And both sides often point to Washington, D.C., which has some of the toughest gun laws in the country yet continues to experience spasms of gun violence.

In an effort to explain how guns get into the hands of people who aren't supposed to have them, The Washington Post traced the trajectory of one gun in one three-month period starting in 2014. And that one Glock 17 was involved in a dozen criminal acts, including several shootings, crossed state lines and got stashed everywhere from glove compartments to a flower pot. Ann Marimow is one of the reporters on this piece, and she's with us now from our studios in Washington, D.C. Ann, thanks so much for speaking with us.

ANN MARIMOW: Thanks for your interest.

MARTIN: So, first of all, just give us a sense of the scale of the problem with gun violence in D.C., involving guns that are illegally bought or sold.

MARIMOW: Yeah, this story came about because of a spike in gun violence in 2015. My colleague Peter Hermann, who covers the police day-to-day, was at a press conference with then-police chief Cathy Lanier. And on the table were a whole pile of guns - illegal guns - that police had seized. And Peter thought, wouldn't it be amazing to follow one of those guns and tell the story of where it came from and where it's been? I cover the federal courts in D.C., and I know that it's impossible to buy a gun legally in D.C. other than at the police department from a dealer there. So I know that it's hard to do it legally, so the guns that are coming in are here illegally.

MARTIN: So tell us a little bit more about the story of the gun that your team followed.

MARIMOW: So the gun was bought in August of 2014 at a strip mall in Virginia, then quickly changed hands and was sold illegally. And then it was used six days later at a barbecue near Nationals Park in sort of a gun battle. It was fired but didn't hit anybody at that point. And then a few days after that, it was brought to a nightclub and stashed in the glove compartment in downtown D.C.

And that evening when the shooter, Romeo Hayes, was leaving, he fired on one off-duty police officer, Shaquinta Gaines who'd just been out with her girlfriends dancing at the same club as it happened as she was driving home. And then literally two miles from there was again fired by Romeo Hayes at a different off-duty police officer who was going the opposite direction, coming into work to testify at a murder trial. He was coming in super early to read up on a new case - Thurman Stallings, who came very close to being killed.

MARTIN: So what were some of the things that stood out, you know, for you? I mean, one of the things that stood out for me was just how resourceful people were in hiding it. And it's like a secondary market.

MARIMOW: That's right. It's like an underground market. That was what was so astonishing to us. Some of these guns were advertised on Instagram. People knew where to find them. And then you had to get rid of them when they didn't need them anymore. So it changed hands between the two men who originally bought it, the man who bought it from, the Hayes brothers. And then after it had been used in these shootings, they quickly knew where to get rid of it - with this underground gun trader, Poppa, who lived near Woodland Terrace.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, Ann, obviously, people look at the same set of facts and draw vastly different conclusions. We see this all the time - particularly, as the whole question of gun violence has become very, very present in people's minds, owing to any number of recent incidents. But is there something that you feel that this reporting adds to this debate that perhaps people have not been considering?

MARIMOW: I just think it shows the destruction that can come from just one gun illegally sold. This was only 1 of 12 that were bought by this team, buying them to sell them illegally. And so far, law enforcement have only found six of those 12 guns. I also think we learned how hard it is for law enforcement to track these guns, even when they know what they're looking for. Because there is no national database with gun data, they have to rely on the manufacturers and the individual gun dealers to give them this information.

MARTIN: Ann Marimow is a reporter with The Washington Post. She was part of a team that traced the trajectory of just one gun in a three-month period. You can read her story online now, as she was kind enough to join us in our studios in Washington, D.C. Ann Marimow, thank you so much for speaking with us.

MARIMOW: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.