A gunman forces his way into a downtown Charleston apartment, where he wounds a visitor before being fatally shot himself.

An argument between teenagers at a West Ashley apartment complex leads to a shooting that leaves two young men dead and another facing charges.

A string of five shootings in North Charleston marks one of the bloodiest stretches for the city in recent memory.

Each incident serves as an example of gun violence that persists in Charleston-area communities despite law enforcement efforts to reduce crime and keep weapons off the streets. Tri-county law enforcement agencies have seized at least 7,500 firearms since 2013, records obtained by The Post and Courier showed. 

In many jurisdictions, the number of seizures is rising:

  • In Charleston, police seized 300 firearms in 2013. That increased to 399 in 2017.
  • The Berkeley County Sheriff's Office roughly doubled gun seizures from 2014 to 2017, going from 227 to 456.
  • The Charleston County Sheriff's Office went from 42 seizures in 2013 to 299 last year.
  • North Charleston police went from 491 in 2014 to 739 in 2017.

While officers are working to disrupt the flow of drugs and guns, and are partnering with residents, gun safety advocacy organizations and other groups, they said the problem can't be solved by policing alone.

"We as a department are making a lot of arrests," Charleston Police Chief Luther Reynolds said. "We're out there doing good police work ... but we can't arrest our way out of the gun problem."

Easy targets

Scott Perala, resident agent in charge for the Charleston office of Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, traces the core issue to illegal narcotics.

"Today, the game has changed in terms of being a small-time drug dealer," Perala said. "That leads to a lot of violence. They know that to make it out there, you have to have a gun."

That translates into a high demand for weapons. 

When conducting undercover operations in the Charleston area, ATF agents purchase large numbers of stolen guns from black-market dealers, he said. Most had been taken from homes or vehicles, with smaller numbers being stolen from gun shops or purchased through straw buyers. 

"You can trade a pistol for anything you need on the street," Perala said. "When you leave a gun in a vehicle, they're more likely to take the gun than a stack of cash." 

In 2017, 6,400 firearms were traced in South Carolina through the ATF's system. The agency, however, does not have 100 percent participation from state and local law enforcement.

Of the guns traced, 3,830 were originally purchased in South Carolina, 564 were recovered in Columbia, 491 in North Charleston and 212 in Charleston.

Someone under 17 years old had possessed 159 of the weapons, and 533 were found on someone between 18 and 21 years old.

Even law enforcement vehicles have been targeted by gun thieves, Perala said.

Gun owners should be keeping their firearms in a secure location and have the make, model and serial number recorded as well, Perala said.

"The public just has to know that you have to secure your firearm," he said.

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About 2,700 confiscated firearms sit in an evidence facility at the Berkeley County Sheriff's Office on Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2018. Wade Spees/Staff

Bountiful supply

Inside an evidence facility at the Berkeley County Sheriff's Office, an array of guns is laid out on a counter.

A boxy machine pistol with an extended magazine — its bare, steel panels joined by thick welds — sits alongside a stout AK-47 with a short barrel and a banana clip and next to a pump-action shotgun with a tactical flashlight taped to its barrel. In a nearby room, handguns are stuffed inside envelopes and stacked in bins.

All told, there are 2,700 guns here, many with no way of getting back to their owners due to a lack of records.

Not all of these guns have been connected to criminal activity, but Sheriff Duane Lewis is certain that unaccounted-for weapons like these are the main source of firepower on the street.

"I need (the community's) help," Lewis said. "I need them to secure their firearms and lock their vehicles. It's an easy solution. Rarely do we see vehicles that are smashed into — like breaking the glass, busting the lock, shimmying or anything."

In 2017, the Sheriff's Office recorded 118 gun thefts from vehicles, statistics showed. Of those, 96 were from unlocked vehicles.

Deputies are confiscating guns in situations ranging from traffic stops to investigations into criminal operations, such as a recent bust in the Carnes Crossroads area in which deputies disrupted a major marijuana-growing and distribution facility.

Beyond the drugs, the operation netted 24 firearms, Lewis said. Four were confirmed as stolen.

"People have been careless, and the criminals are taking advantage of that," the sheriff said.

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Berkeley County Sheriff Duane Lewis discusses illegal guns in his Moncks Corner office on Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2018. Wade Spees/Staff

'Should be outraged'

In mid-July, Charleston's West Ashley area was shaken by a shooting that left two teens dead and one behind bars.

Charleston residents Talekuz Williams, 15, Juquel Young, 17, and Zamere Raeguel Brown, 17, were hanging out with other teens near the basketball courts at the Ashley Oaks Apartments when an argument broke out.

Williams shot Young, police said, then Brown chased Williams into the parking lot and shot him. Young and Williams died at the scene. Brown was arrested July 18 on a murder charge in Williams' death.

For Reynolds, cases like this are stark examples of the damage firearms can have in the community when they fall into the wrong hands.

"You've got three lives that were ruined instantly," he said. "It was a senseless shooting that was over a beef. I stood there that night with those young men and their dead bodies. … I've met with mothers who've lost their sons to gun violence. As a community, what are we doing about that?"

Investigators confirmed that one of the guns used in the West Ashley double homicide was stolen from an unlocked vehicle, Reynolds said. It was one of 378 firearms thefts from vehicles from January 2016 to Aug. 1 this year.

At least one part of the problem are lax South Carolina gun laws that result in insufficient penalties for repeat, armed criminals, the chief said. 

"If you're arrested for shoplifting, on the second and third time, there's enhanced penalties," Reynolds said. "If you get charged for a handgun, even if you have a conviction for homicide ... there's not."

From Jan. 1, 2016, to Aug. 2 this year, Charleston officers filed 692 charges and made 523 arrests for unlawful carry and possession of a handgun, the chief said. Officers have taken more than 100 handguns off the streets. Of the suspects arrested, 55 were under 18 years old, like the suspect in the West Ashley shooting.

"We should be outraged when something like that happens," Reynolds said. "We can't ever get used to ... that."

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Two teens were fatally shot in July near a basketball court at the Ashley Oaks Apartments in West Ashley, Charleston police said. File/Brad Nettles/Staff

Taking action 

Some efforts to bolster gun laws are already under way. 

State Sen. Greg Gregory, R-Lancaster, plans to reintroduce a bill he co-sponsored during the last legislative session that would expand background checks for gun purchases.

"I've tried to concentrate the efforts on strengthening existing laws and making them function better," Gregory said. 

While the senator supports the Second Amendment right of Americans to own guns, items such as high-capacity magazines and tactical weapons should be regulated, he said.

"They're engineered to kill people," Gregory said. "It's just outrageous. There's no way anyone can defend anything about that. I just don't think there's a need for military-grade weapons to be possessed by anybody."

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Firearm ammunition is slated for destruction at the Berkeley County Sheriff's Office on Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2018. Wade Spees/Staff

While he recognizes that most proposals to regulate firearms will be a difficult sell in a conservative state, Gregory said he believes that a commonsense approach could be the solution.

Gun safety advocates agree.

Meghan Alexander is founder of Arm in Arm, a South Carolina organization that advocates for responsible gun ownership. Her group is working to unite gun owners with medical professionals, law enforcement and state legislators to develop initiatives designed to decrease violence, Alexander said. 

In August, the Charleston City Council approved a ban on bump stocks, which allow rapid rifle fire, and passed a resolution urging legislators to find other ways of keeping guns out of the wrong hands.

Though critics said the moves amounted to symbolic gestures or political statements, their supporters insist it was a necessary step to start a critical conversation.

"People just want to be heard," Alexander said. "Sometimes, it takes a while, but there's a willingness there."

Reach Gregory Yee at 843-937-5908. Follow him on Twitter @GregoryYYee.

Gregory Yee covers breaking news and public safety. He's a native Angeleno and previously covered crime and courts for the Press-Telegram in Long Beach, CA. He studied journalism and Spanish literature at the University of California, Irvine.