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Inside gun trafficking: NC a top supplier of illegal guns in the nation

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North Carolina is one of the top five suppliers of illegal guns in the nation, and law enforcement officials say gun trafficking is a growing problem. North Carolina is one of the top five suppliers of illegal guns in the nation, and law enforcement officials say gun trafficking is a growing problem.
RALEIGH, N.C. -

It's a top ranking the state can't be proud of -- when an illegal gun is used in a crime, there's a good chance it came from North Carolina.  

North Carolina is one of the top five suppliers of illegal guns in the nation, and law enforcement officials say gun trafficking is a growing problem.

In August, the New York Police Department announced the largest gun bust in the city's history. Two hundred fifty guns were recovered in the investigation, and many of the guns came from North and South Carolina.

"They take them up to these states where gun laws are very strict, the demand is very high, and the make an extreme amount of profit on them," explained Earl Woodham, supervisory special agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The agency is often called the federal gun police.

"We're fourth or fifth in the nation," said Woodham. "People are dying because of illegal firearms trafficking, and we want to stop it."

The ATF uses many tactics to try and combat illegal firearms trafficking. Woodham said they often trace weapons using serial numbers, and use informants and undercover buyers.

"We can interject live undercover agents into the scheme itself, be a part of it, and destroy it from within," he explained.

Guns seized by the ATF are locked away in a special vault in Raleigh. Inside, there are hundreds of guns that may have been used for anything from armed robbery to a murder. After the criminal case that the gun was involved in is cleared, the guns are destroyed.

Unfortunately, investigators say most crime guns don't stay local. Instead, "gun runners" are taking them from state to state, supplying criminals with tools of their trade.

So why North Carolina?

"If your product somewhere else in the country is restricted, but the demand is very high, naturally people are going to want it and going to get, and do so on the black market," explained Woodham.

North Carolina is what the ATF calls a "source state." People have easy, legal access to guns and criminals in other states are willing to pay a high price to get their hands on a weapon.

Because of that, the profit margin for gun trafficking can be huge.

For example, a small gun that would for sell for $75 to $100 at a licensed gun dealer in North Carolina could sell upward of $500 to $1,000 on the streets of New York.

Often, gun runners will simply use the interstate system to drive guns up to northern states, which law enforcement call the "Iron Pipeline."

One of the people arrested during the major bust in New York was 29-year-old Walter Walker from Sanford. Police said he would make weekly trips on buses that would drive straight into New York's China Town, hiding guns in luggage.

New York mayor Michael Bloomberg has repeatedly called out North Carolina, saying the state's weak gun laws keep traffickers in business.

"Year after year, guns flow into our city from states that don't have common sense gun laws that keep guns out of the hands of criminals," Bloomberg said.

In particular, he said the state has "slap on the wrist" punishments for the illegal possession of guns. Also, if a gun is lost or stolen in North Carolina, the gun owner doesn't have to report it to police. Bloomberg said that's another example of what he calls weak laws.

But Woodham said tightening the gun law belt isn't necessarily a solution.

"Even if you change the North Carolina state law and made it much more restrictive for a lawful citizen to go buy a gun, you're not going to deter the burglar from taking advantage of the market created by restrictive state law," Woodham said.

"We're not going to criticize any states, we're simply going to do our job try to identify these firearms traffickers and prosecute them and put them away for the rest of their life if at all possible."

But, he admits it's not an easy task. He says many sellers don't get caught, but the ATF is working to tip the scales.

Woodham says there a simple things gun owners can do to help protect themselves:

  1. Know where your weapons are at all times.
  2. Keep your gun well documented including: make, model, serial number, finish, caliber, where you got it, and keep all receipts.

You can find more information about the ATF here.

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Jonathan Rodriguez

Jonathan Rodriguez is an investigative reporter and member of the WNCN Investigates team. His storytelling specialty is connecting the dots to get to the truth, with a goal of delivering results for our community. If you have something you’d like WNCN to investigate, contact Jonathan.

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