Wilmington police, district attorney lay down law on juvenile gun violence

In the last 30 days, there were 91 firearms related to 38 cases confiscated. At a Monday press conference, the Wilmington Police Department displayed 52 of the weapons. (Port City Daily/Courtesy of Wilmington Police Department)

WILMINGTON – After consecutive shootings in late February involving juveniles, District Attorney Ben David stressed in a press conference Monday he will try youth as adults for their roles in violent crimes. He called on the community to lock up their weapons, talk to the youth and help end gun violence, the frequency of which he said is currently unlike anything he’s ever seen.

Homicides and shootings have been on the uptick since the start of the pandemic. In 2020 the Wilmington Police Department reported 780 violent offenses, 34 more than the year prior. Murders almost doubled, from 12 in 2019 to 22.

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WPD Chief Donny Williams and New Hanover County Sheriff Ed McMahon joined the conference. Williams said it is now a nightly occurrence for on-duty officers to come in contact with an armed person. He displayed weapons confiscated in the last 30 days; there were 52 of 91 firearms related to 38 cases presented.

The district attorney attributed the rise in youth-involved crime to the loss of school over the past year. He said teenagers who lack structure in their homes or education systems often turn to street gangs. David urged parents, grandparents, teachers and coaches to speak with their children on the issues.

“It’s too late to have a conversation about choices and consequences after they’ve been given the right to remain silent,” David said. “Everyone wants to talk about someone’s future after they’ve thrown it away. We need to be talking to our kids right now.”

The pleas from law enforcement and the criminal justice official come after two back-to-back incidents involving juveniles firing shots in Wilmington.

On Thursday, Feb. 25, an officer’s unmarked vehicle was struck by gunfire. At the time the officer was in plain clothes and was working the 900 block of Hanover Street. The officer did not return fire, and instead sped away and called for backup, Williams said. A house and one other vehicle were damaged by shots, but no one was injured.

Once backup arrived, officers and deputies identified several possible suspects at a home on North 10th Street. With a search warrant, two stolen firearms and marijuana were uncovered.

David said an attempted shooting at police occupies “the highest priority in this district.”

“When I heard about it, I immediately reached out to the chief and to the state crime lab, and said to the agents there that every case in my district should stand down while we were doing necessary testing to see if we could make an arrest in that case,” the district attorney said.

Two 17-year-old males are now in the custody of the Office of Juvenile Justice.

One is charged with attempted murder, possession of a stolen firearm, possession of a firearm by a minor, discharging a firearm into an occupied vehicle, discharging a firearm into an occupied dwelling, damage to personal property and damage to real property.

The second male is charged with possession of a stolen firearm, possession of a firearm by a minor and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon.

On Friday, Feb. 26, the day after the officer-targeted shooting, a juvenile was injured in a shootout at Ten Pin Alley on South College Road. The child has since been released from the hospital and four suspects were charged, including two juvenile males.

Olajuwon Moore, 20, is charged with carrying a concealed weapon and contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Isiah Lewis, 18, is charged with discharging a firearm within the city limits, carrying a concealed weapon and discharging a firearm within an enclosure.

“This is what we’re faced with,” Williams said. “These are our young people out there stealing and carrying guns, and law enforcement alone cannot do this. I’ve said that before. We need parents, peers and community members to step in and talk to these kids so that they get the point.”

Enforcement, prevention and intervention

Wilmington Police has a three-prong gun-violence reduction plan, which includes prevention, intervention, and enforcement tactics. The department announced the plan five months into 2020. By then the department had already counted 140 victims of gun-related violence, including seven fatal shootings. But Williams stressed that law enforcement needs to focus on enforcement.

“Prevention and intervention have to be community efforts, especially as we continue to battle this pandemic,” Williams said. “It’s up to the adults who see these kids and teens daily to have a positive influence on them.”

In a way of demonstrating he is a proponent of second chances, David noted just two weeks ago on Feb. 22, he was cutting the ribbon to the rebuilt Division of Juvenile Justice building on North Fourth Street in downtown Wilmington. He also reminded reporters and viewers that three years ago, he and New Hanover County Chief District Court Judge Jay Corpening advocated before the legislature for the Raise the Age law, which now prevents 16- and 17-year olds from automatically being tried as adults in court. North Carolina was the last state in the nation to implement the change.

“We can handle a lot of cases at the schoolhouse without bringing them to the courthouse, without tagging these young adults with a scarlet letter of ‘M’ for misdemeanor or ‘F’ for a felony,” David said.

Still, the district attorney said he will not show mercy for juveniles who commit violent acts. He said he will charge children as adults if they carry guns in the community and fire at officers.

“There should be absolutely no ambiguity about that, and no one should be forgiving or making excuses for that kind of behavior,” David said. “This is not the work of children. These are adult crimes that are being committed.”

At a press conference Monday, District Attorney Ben David shared some of the ways guns are winding up in the wrong hands. (Port City Daily/Courtesy of Wilmington Police Department)

Unlawful, oversupply of guns

It’s not possible for guns to legally wind up in the hands of felons or people under the age of 18, David stressed. He indicated the district is cracking down on people who provide guns to prohibited possessors and is seeking legislation to better do so.

The district’s four federal prosecutors will “stop at nothing,” David said, to go after “straw purchasers.” These are adults with clean records who purchase guns and supply them to those who cannot legally buy the weapons themselves.

Young people and criminals are also obtaining guns through people who are abusing drugs, particularly heroin, and are willing to trade weapons to feed their addictions. He called on the legislature to stiffen penalties for bartering guns for narcotics.

Often these guns are looted from family members. Most of the guns young people possess are stolen, he said.

“If you wonder where they’re stolen from, it’s the people watching right now; it’s the people reading the paper . . . in other words, law-abiding citizens who have a second amendment right to peacefully possess, to have their carry concealed weapon permit. But here’s the problem: They’re leaving these guns in unlocked cars,” David said, motioning to the display of guns in front of him. “They’re leaving these guns in open view in their homes.”

He added that there is a loophole in the law. During traffic stops, young adults sometimes hand their guns off to passengers under 18, knowing that the teens will only face a misdemeanor for possessing the firearm, not prison time.

The district attorney said this hand-off should be considered a serious felony.

“We owe it to our children to make sure that if there are guns out there in the hands of children or convicted felons that we do everything we can to get them out of those hands because it’s creating an unsafe and very dangerous environment,” David said. “This takes all of us.”


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