The weapons are not generally used in 'conventional' crimes such as burglaries and robberies, a police official said.
By JoANNE VIVIANO
VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER
YOUNGSTOWN -- Military-style assault rifles are reappearing as a "status symbol" weapon again on city streets, and city police officials say those carrying them are likely gang members or drug dealers engaged in turf wars.
AK-47-type rifles have been used in the city's past four homicides.
"We weren't seeing them for a while," said Youngstown Weapons Officer Mark Crissman, an 11-year veteran who has also served in the department's narcotics unit. "This is a resurgence for us."
Lt. Robin Lees, Youngstown Police Department public information officer, said evidence of assault rifle use was found at the scenes of the following killings:
U Sean Howard, 25, of Ridley Avenue and James R. Thomas of Pittsburgh were shot and killed Aug. 8 in the 2800 block of Ridley Avenue on the city's East Side. Witnesses told police they heard six gunshots.
U On July 31, South Sider Dorian Burns, 20, of West Warren Avenue was found dead in an East Side home. He had been shot multiple times in the Forestview Avenue kitchen.
UOn July 15, Ashley Keene, 15, of New Castle was shot in the head during a drive-by shooting as she rode in a car on Interstate 680, near the High Street exit on the South Side.
Lees said shell casings found at the scenes of each of the shootings show that the AK-47-type rifles were used.
The rifles fire a military round that has a longer range than a pistol and can penetrate cruisers and standard bullet-proof vests, the officers said. The weapons also have magazines that allow users to fire several shots in a short amount of time. In some cases, officers have found dozens or hundreds of shell casings at a crime scene.
In response to the threat of the weapons, Youngstown officers, who carry .40-caliber semi-automatic pistols, must be more vigilant when responding to shooting reports, Lees said. Some may choose to add a ceramic plate to soft body armor.
Over the past 25 years, the type of weapons used by criminals has escalated, said Lees, who works in the YPD Planning and Training Unit and is on the department's Tactical Response Team.
In the 1970s, officers encountered "Saturday Night Specials" -- low-cost, small-caliber pistols, he said. In the mid- to late 1980s, there was a transition to .380-caliber and 9 mm semi-automatic handguns. The 9 mm was "fashionable" and a status symbol among gang and drug criminals, Lees said.
The assault rifles emerged in the early- to mid-1990s.
Crissman, who is also on the YPD Senior Tactical Team, said the AK-47-type weapons have become the new status symbol among street criminals.
He attributes some of the resurgence to television and movies. Young kids, he said, start to idealize gangsters they see in the movies and want to imitate them.
While the AK-47 is a Russian-desgined military assault rifle, Crissman said "knock-offs" made in China and Romania are more readily available. Once selling for as little as $170, they now cost $400 to $1,000.
Crissman said they are purchased primarily at gun shows but also on the street and in gun shops.
Because the large shoulder weapons are heavy and bulky, they are not used in "conventional crimes," such as burglaries, robberies or rapes, Lees said.
The officers said they are toted in a back seat or trunk of a car to carry out planned, premeditated shootings.
The guns are used as an "equalizer" or in an attempt to have stronger firepower than an opponent on the street, Lees said. Crissman added that they might be used for retribution or to steal from an opposing drug dealer.
"Anyone involved in criminal activity or a criminal enterprise might employ these weapons to protect themselves or their interests," Lees said. " ... It's almost always a personal dispute between groups or individuals or involving an argument over territory regarding a personal enterprise."