A Gulfport man who robbed five Harrison County dollar stores at gunpoint in 2014 threatened store workers with a gun while demanding they open their safes.
Joseph Towner, now 32, couldn’t legally buy a gun.
The three-time felon was on parole on drug-dealing convictions and under indictment on an armed robbery charge. He’s now serving eight years on his drug convictions before he serves a 32-year prison term on federal convictions from the store holdups.
The gun he used has not been recovered and how he obtained it remains unclear, court records show. A felony conviction is one of several reasons the FBI uses to deny a gun purchase from a licensed federal firearms dealer.
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If the agencies that arrested Towner on drug charges notified the FBI after his drug sentencings in 2008 and 2011, his application to buy a gun would show up on the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) with this word: “DENY.”
The process of background checks on gun applications is one that’s causing nationwide concern after the Air Force admitted it had not entered Devin P. Kelley’s domestic violence conviction in the NICS.
Kelley is the former airman accused of slaying 26 people at a Sutherland Springs, Texas, church on Nov. 5. The Air Force now says several dozen criminal backgrounds of other former personnel were not sent to the FBI. The Army also has announced it failed to report convictions on its personnel to the FBI.
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has directed the FBI and the ATF to investigate the background-check system and compliance by the Armed Forces and law enforcement agencies.
The FBI compiles criminal backgrounds through the NICS and tracks the number of applications for gun purchases.
FBI statistics show background checks on potential gun buyers in Mississippi have decreased 43 percent in the past five years, from 231,711 in 2013 to 188,136 in 2017.
Statistics show what happened
Different statistics from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives show a broader picture of what happens to many firearms.
The ATF tracks firearm investigations and gun seizures and discoveries of guns from local, state and federal agencies. Its statistics include guns seized during criminal investigations, used in suicides, taken in traffic stops or over welfare concerns.
The ATF also tracks time-to-crime rates for recovered firearms. That means how long from the time of purchase until a gun is used to commit a crime.
Last year, it took three months or less for 156 newly purchased weapons to be used in a crime in Mississippi, an ATF report shows. That’s an average of one crime with a new gun about every three weeks.
A total of 1,378 weapons recovered last year had been bought three or more years earlier before they were used to commit a crime.
ATF statistics show a total of 4,462 firearms were recovered in Mississippi last year. Of those, 2,187 of the firearms remain under investigation.
Of the remaining 1,275, nearly 71 percent, or 608 guns were taken from people who illegally possessed them.
Pistols, such as 9mm handguns, topped last year’s list as the most recovered type of firearm in Mississippi. A total of 2,589 pistols were recovered. Of those, 949 were 9mm-caliber handguns.
Pistols that use 9mm-caliber bullets are easier to conceal than most other types of weapons, said Jason Denham, resident agent in charge of the FBI field office in Gulfport. His office handles ATF operations in South Mississippi.
From killings and assaults
Law enforcement officers around the state seized 97 firearms in homicide investigations last year, and another 96 after shootings.
Robbery investigations netted 80 firearms, while burglary and property-crime investigations turned up 212 stolen guns or rifles.
ATF’s 2016 report also lists 322 firearms as being found. The report doesn’t say it the owners had reported them missing. The serial number from one gun recovered last year had been defaced.
Guns also are sold illegally, but theft is the most common reason guns disappear.
In about 8 out of 10 gun crimes, the perpetrator is not the gun owner but someone unlawfully possessing the gun, according to a Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health study conducted with the Pittsburgh Police Department, according to The Washington Post.
The study traced the origins of 893 guns recovered from crime scenes in Pittsburgh in 2008.
“The main way to avoid being a victim of theft is to consider the security of your firearm, whether it’s locked in a safe or cabinet, or has a locking device.” Denham said.
“Beyond that, know the make, model, serial number and manufacturer. That information increases our chances of recovery.”
How can law enforcement keep illegal guns off the street?
“Speaking for the ATF agents of South Mississippi, we’re going to keep doing our job, aggressively pursuing illegal firearms and people engaged in the unlawful use of firearms.”
ATF statistics on guns recovered in Mississippi
Statistics from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives show 4,462 firearms were recovered in Mississippi in 2017. How some of them were recovered:
- Aggravated assaults: 96.
- Burglaries: 59.
- Carrying concealed weapon: 62.
- Carrying prohibited weapon: 2.
- Dangerous drugs: 268.
- Family offense: 73.
- Health/safety issues: 143.
- Homicides: 97.
- Homicides attempted: 4.
- Possession of a weapon: 608.
- Property crimes: 153.
- Robberies: 80.
- Suicides: 45.
- Suicides attempted: 12.
- Traffic offenses: 50.