The Hidden Life of Guns: A Washington Post Investigation

Nov 22, 2010

Washington Post investigative reporter Cheryl W. Thompson will be online Monday, Nov. 22, at Noon ET to discuss The Post's year-long investigation into how killers get guns.

Hers is the first comprehensive examination into the shooting deaths of 511 police officers nationwide since early 2000. The series has uncovered key patterns in how the shootings took place, who the killers were and how they obtained their weapons.

Hello everyone. Thanks for reading the series. I'm Cheryl W. Thompson and I'm excited to take your questions. Let's get started!

So does this series also include folks who used a firearm legally in their home to defend themselves? Or innocent civilians that were killed by criminals using handguns because the response time was too long? These same inidivduals may have survived if they could easily and legally obtain a firearm. You know folks who live in D.C., Chicago, NYC, Boston, etc., where legally owning a firearm for the average joe is almost impossible. Come on, you need to tell both sides, just not the side the fits your perconceived biases!

Thanks for your question. No, this portion of the series examined police officers killed by guns.

Law enforcement officers know and are taught that domestic disturbances and traffic stops are high-risk calls for personal assault. From the total domestic disturbance calls since 2000, what is the percentage of calls ending with officers being killed nationwide?

Thanks for writing.

The Post didn't gather the total domestic disturbance calls police around the country received. We gathered from various sources the names of all the officers killed by firearms during that period and examined  how they were killed. We then looked for patterns and found that traffic stops and domestics outweighed other things such as making an arrest, coming to someone's aid, etc.

In almost all the examples you highlighted the person who engaged in the illegal purchase or gun theft wasn't prosecuted. There is no reason to even consider more restrictions if the ATF and prosecuters don't charge people who are violating numerous felonies under current law.

Thanks for your question.

It's unclear why federal authorities don't go after some of the straw purchasers--people who buy guns on behalf of someone else and falsely claims to be the intended owner.

What is the percentage of annual firearm sales that are sold to the people that actually misuse the firearm? Would appreciate answer to this so it can be determined if this percentage of the annual gun sales can be influenced by any additional legislation. If, before is was misused, a large percentage of the misused firearms changed hands (via private sales) after the initial dealer sale, additional laws at the dealer level would have little affect.

Thanks for writing in. We didn't examine those numbers in this part of the gun series.

Even I'm familiar with Realco's reputation for selling crime guns. Are there any indications that legitimate buyers avoid that store for that reason?

That's a question you may want to pose to my colleague, David Fallis, who wrote about Realco in the first part of our gun series.

It looks like New York might have the right idea with strict gun laws. In your opinion, what should state governments or the federal government do to prevent more cop killings?

Hi. That's a question better answered by lawmakers or  police officials. The ones I spoke with and quoted in the story gave varying answers, including changing the gun laws. 

Did you ultimately conclude that the proliferation and easy access to (particularly) handguns in the US prevents crime or encourages more crime? I'm researching an article for The Times of London and have been interviewing young mothers in states such as Virginia who carry guns to 'protect themselves and their children' because they are fearful of being attacked. They cite examples of crimes which could have been prevented if the victim had had a gun, and say that gun control only keeps guns out of the hands of the law-abiding. This goes against my instincts, but you can also sympathize with an anxious mother. What do you think? Also, in the debate about whether, crudely, more guns cause or prevent more crime, what are your best recommendations for neutral experts on the subject? There is a lot of twisting of statistics and legal language by both the gun rights and gun control lobby and it must be easy to be duped by a biased source posing as a neutral expert!!? What about the John Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research? Well done on a fantastic investigation. Thank goodness some media outlets still provide the resources for this kind of work. I would love to brainstorm briefly if you would like to get in touch later: I'm in New York City. Joanna

Thanks for writing. I know I'm sounding like a broken record, but the series focused on police officers killed by guns and how the people who killed them got their weapons. The idea was to look closely at the guns used and determine where they came from, how people got them, etc.

Good luck with your reserach!

I lived in Cleveland when Police Officer Wayne Leon was shot and killed, and to this day I found the behavior grotesque. There will always be those that will be able to find guns and these tragedies will continue, unfortunately. I just wonder what is the limit to the NRA continuing to fight any sort of gun limitations

Thanks for your thoughts.

I have a question was either officer's tactics and conduct investigated to provide training for other officers in their department. Now I am getting the info second hand from a journalist but in both cases its seems the officers tactics contributed to their unneccessary deaths!

That's a great question for the agencies--the Philadelphia Police Department and the Indiana State Police.

Hello Cheryl, The investigation into police murders due to weapons is very interesting. I wonder, though, why police suicide, especially service guns during off duty, was not covered on the list of police deaths since 2000. I think that this would also be an important tool into the use of guns in an officer's life. If there is such a statistic, would you mind providing? Thank you!

Have you contacted the Officer Down Memorial Page? They may keep those numbers.


What was the motivation for this investigation? It seems to reveal that most of the shooters should have been in prison. Will the reasons why the police shooters were not in prison be investigated?

Thanks for your question. Building a database of officers killed by guns, tracing the guns, etc., was something The Post felt hadn't been done. I found it to be an eye opener because when I started this investigation a year ago, I had no idea what I was going to find.  

I would like to know why there was an entire article giving the murderer of Scott Patrick a voice? He isn't sorry. He is sorry he got caught and I saw no remorse in the interview.

Thanks for writing. Darryl Jeter, the man convicted of murdering Indiana State Trooper Scott Patrick three days before Christmas in 2003 was part of the story.  It's also not often that a cop killer agrees to talk about his crime.

Given the complexity of our gun laws, it often is difficult to determine if a firearm was "legally" or "illegally" obtained. How did you make this determination for the guns you investigated? Did you have a team of lawyers advising you?

Hellp. As I reported, I interviewed more than 350 police officials, federal, state and local prosecutors, defense attorneys and others to get the information used to compile the two-day series.

It seems that an overwhelming number of the 341 reported on guns "more than 200" were used by people who should have been incarcerated based on the previous article and in today's article amazingly the "2 guns killed police officers" . Why are the investigations focused on the gun and not why these 200 plus criminals were not in prison?

When I  started, I didn't know how many of the suspects were felons. It wasn't until I had examined all 511 cases that I learned how many were felons.

Thanks, all, for taking the time to chat. And thanks for reading the gun series!

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Cheryl W. Thompson
Cheryl W. Thompson is an investigative reporter for The Washington Post.
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