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Felons with guns a worsening problem in Cedar Rapids
Police and prosecutors look to quell gun violence
CEDAR RAPIDS — Gabriel Detrace Taylor told a judge he was an “easily influenced dumb kid” when, at age 17, he was charged with two others in a 2010 fatal robbery.
The judge gave him what amounted to a second chance, sentencing him to 25 years in prison for first-degree robbery but eliminating any requirement for a minimum mandatory term — immediately making Taylor eligible for treatment and parole.
On April 23, Taylor, now 29 and out of custody, ran from a Cedar Rapids traffic stop and was found to be in possession of marijuana and a firearm, according to a criminal complaint of the incident. Among eluding and drug charges, he also faces a charge of being a felon in possession of a firearm — a charge that has become much more common in the past few years in the community.
Several Cedar Rapids recent shootings — including charges in the fatal attack last month at the downtown Taboo Nightclub and Lounge — have highlighted the prevalence of illegal guns in the city.
Cedar Rapids Police Chief Wayne Jerman said the department pursues felon in possession of a firearm charges whenever possible with repeat offenders, because the charge is often picked up by federal prosecutors and the federal courts can impose harsher penalties than state courts.
In Iowa, being a felon in possession of a firearm is a Class D felony, punishable by up to five years in prison. In federal court, however, the charge is punishable by up to 10 years in prison for a first offense.
“It doesn’t matter which side of the fence you are on when it comes to incarceration and whether or not it aids in rehabilitating an offender. My stance as the chief here is that if someone is incarcerated, they are not in my city engaging in gun violence,” Jerman said.
As in Taylor’s case, felon in possession charges often come with a slew of other charges that may or may not be related. Police don’t usually discover that a felon has a gun until they are already investigating a crime, Jerman said.
In 2017, the Cedar Rapids Police Department arrested seven people for possessing a firearm as a felon. By 2021, that number had increased to 25.
Numbers from the Linn County Attorney’s Office show a similar increase. In 2017, 11 people were charged in the county with being a felon in possession of a firearm, four of whom pleaded guilty as charged and seven of whom had their cases dismissed from Linn County. Linn County Attorney Nick Maybanks said when those charges are dismissed in the county, it means they were either picked up by federal prosecutors or they were less serious charges for a particular incident and were dropped as part of a plea deal.
In 2021, 36 people were charged with the crime, 16 of whom pleaded guilty as charged. Two of those charged in 2021 had their cases deferred, seven had them dismissed, and 11 cases are still active. Maybanks said the county is on track in 2022 to match or exceed the numbers from 2021.
Of the 109 people charged in the county since 2017 with being a felon in possession of a firearm, 46 have been dismissed. Maybanks couldn’t say how many of those dismissals were because the individuals faced federal charges. The County Attorney’s Office doesn’t track how many of those charges the federal courts pick up, and neither do the federal prosecutors for the Northern District of Iowa.
Maybanks said, based on his experience reading reports and dealing with law enforcement, he sees multiple factors for the increase in felon in possession of a firearm charges.
More people are using guns to resolve conflicts, Maybanks said, and the weapons are becoming more easily available.
“There is a cycle at work that begins with a conflict where one or more of the sides obtains firearms to resolve their disputes, causing the other side to obtain a firearm to defend themselves and so on and so forth. … The loosening of restrictions to gun access, such as not requiring a permit to carry, or basic education, logically contributes to this phenomenon,” Maybanks said.
Where are felons getting firearms?
Chief Jerman said he doesn’t think the change to permitless carry has been in affect long enough to assess what effect it has had on criminal gun use. Gov. Kim Reynolds signed the “constitutional carry” law into effect as of last July 1. But Jerman said he does believe guns are too prevalent in the community.
“I know they’ve done away with the permitting process, but a number of our offenders would not even qualify for a permit anyway. Having a permit is not stopping the illegal use,” he said.
Jerman said those who can’t possess guns have a number of ways of getting their hands on firearms, including through straw purchases, where someone who is legally allowed to own a gun purchases one under their own name and then gives or sells it to someone who is prohibited.
More often, however, the guns being used in illegal activity are stolen and sold by non-licensed gun dealers, Jerman said.
“My big pet peeve here in the city is the number of firearms that are stolen from cars. It bothers me. I’m not victim shaming or victim blaming, when someone is a victim of a theft from auto, but we need to stop leaving a deadly weapon in a vehicle, unattended, overnight, and in many cases unlocked,” Jerman said. “I believe very strongly in responsible gun ownership.”
Roadblocks faced by law enforcement
Jerman said after shootings occur, the police department sometimes has difficulty identifying culprits because witnesses and victims aren’t willing to talk to investigators.
“If a victim is uncooperative it’s very frustrating, because they generally know who shot them. And by their unwillingness to cooperate we’re not going to be able to pursue the filing of charges,” Jerman said.
There are a number of reasons that people may not want to talk to police, Jerman said, including fear of retaliation, and an adherence to “street code” against snitching.
Jerman said there is a small group of people responsible for most of the gun violence in Cedar Rapids. The department recently had an audit completed by the National Network for Safe Communities that showed that almost half the violence in Cedar Rapids is done by a few groups that make up 0.06 percent of the population.
Jerman said he prefers not to use the word “gang” to describe these groups, because using the word legitimizes the groups.
“Are there gangs in Cedar Rapids? Sure. Absolutely. But they’re not your Bloods, Crips, Gangster Disciples, MS-13s, Latin Kings, your traditional criminal gangs. What you have are hybrid gangs. They are neighborhood groups, or gangs, that lack certain characteristics of these criminal gangs,” Jerman said.
The police department has been working with the Group Violence Intervention Program, established in 2020, to help reduce violence by reaching out to individuals who may be part of these groups and offering them other options.
Jerman also hopes to make clear that anyone with information about a shooting or other crime who is worried about retaliation can submit a tip anonymously through Linn County Crime Stoppers at 1-800-272-7463.
Trish Mehaffey contributed to this report.
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