ST. LOUIS (AP) — With St. Louis closing in on 200 homicides for 2017, the mayor and other civic leaders are renewing a push to get guns off the streets.
St. Louis has seen 196 homicides so far this year, continuing an alarming four-year trend. The annual homicide total has risen from 120 in 2013 to 159 in 2014, then 188 in both of the previous two years.
The last time St. Louis recorded more than 200 homicides was 1995, when 204 people were killed.
Mayor Lyda Krewson, speaking Friday at a news conference at City Hall and surrounded by city and federal officials, pastors and activists, said violence "is at a crisis level."
Krewson and others say an abundance of guns, many of them illegal, are a major problem, though they acknowledge a number of factors are at play, including hopelessness among young people in the most impoverished areas of St. Louis, which has about 316,000 residents.
"I think it is apparent to most of us that we are awash in guns," Krewson said. "They're being used to settle differences, defend territory, retaliate, take cars, do holdups."
Krewson announced a gun buyback program that is expected to begin as early as next week. Those who bring in a gun will get a gift certificate to a grocery store chain, and perhaps other gift certificates. The Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis is funding the program.
A similar gun buyback program in 2008 resulted in about 1,000 guns turned in over a single weekend, Krewson said.
Interim Police Chief Lawrence O'Toole said many of the guns used in violent crime are stolen, often from the vehicles of law-abiding residents. He also cited a recent rash of break-ins at gun stores throughout the region.
Krewson said police have confiscated nearly 2,000 guns this year, but "that's not nearly enough."
James Clark of Better Family Life, a nonprofit that sponsors anti-violence programs, said people in some St. Louis neighborhoods are living in "war zones."
"They are being held hostage by a minute number of individuals whose behavior is bringing St. Louis to its knees," Clark said.
Only about one-third of the homicides in St. Louis this year have been solved. That's largely because witnesses and victims of gun crimes are hesitant to come forward, often out of fear of retribution. Officials encouraged anyone with information about a crime to contact police, their church, or community organizations.
U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Jensen said prosecutors are focused on other violent crimes beyond homicides, noting that the mandatory federal sentence for a first conviction for carjacking is seven years in prison, and 25 years for the next conviction.
"So please consider this a warning if you plan on committing a violent crime in the city of St. Louis," Jensen said.