NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — The number of kids caught with handguns on the streets of Nashville continues to skyrocket, leaving police increasingly frustrated with the juvenile justice system.
An exclusive NewsChannel 5 investigation even discovered juveniles previously implicated in homicides still out on the streets, repeatedly getting arrested on gun charges.
"Kids out here in the community have no hesitation to steal a gun out of a car [and] carry that gun with them," said Metro police Lt. Blaine Whited, who heads the department's juvenile crime task force.
"They take them to schools, they take them to community events, they are taking them to other youths households with parents that don't even an idea that youth brought that gun into the home. There's no hesitation whatsoever amongst a lot of the youth to pick these guns up."
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For the task force, the search for kids with guns can take them into Nashville's most violent neighborhoods, where danger is just around the corner.
One night, in the J.C. Napier housing projects, off Lafayette, NewsChannel 5 Investigates was there as one round of gunshots was followed by another and then another.
The suspects this time were not juveniles.
But a visit to the police department's evidence room provides a glimpse into the scope of the problem.
Laid out side by side, the number of handguns seized from juveniles on the streets of Nashville in a two-month period totals 40.
Over the past five years, there's been a dramatic increase in the number of juvenile charges for handgun possession.
"We had eight firearms that we recovered from one incident -- that's a lot of guns to be in the hands of youth," Whited said.
"Like we said, that's a recipe for disaster."
Whited recalled that "there was one house where they had guns stuffed in a teddy bear."
"We've got guns out of backs of toilets, in refrigerators, in cereal boxes. You name it, and we've probably found a gun there."
Our NewsChannel 5 investigation -- putting names and faces to anonymous juvenile crime data -- discovered that, of the kids charged with homicide since 2016, at least a third had previous charges for handgun possession.
Among them 16-year-old Myeisha Brown.
Brown was arrested Sept. 18, 2017 for handgun possession.
A week later, that charge was retired and she was released on intensive gang probation.
Just six weeks later, police say she shot and killed Ruxin Wang.
"With a youth being arrested for firearms, we know that there needs to be a consequence to that," Whited said.
The task force lieutenant suggested juveniles should face at least 30 days in detention if caught with a gun.
"If they know they are going to be arrested and there's a consequence, they are not going to be free for 30 days, no matter what. Every time that you are caught with a firearm, they know, 30 days I'm going to be in juvenile detention," Whited said.
Juvenile Court Judge Sheila Calloway said that doesn't account for how the teen brain works.
"Youth aren't making good decisions because their brains are not fully developed," Calloway said.
"They are getting their hands on deadly weapons -- and they are not putting it together what they can do with that."
"We've got to get them into services to make sure that they understand the seriousness of what it means for them to possess guns."
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "Why not put out the word if you get caught with a gun, you will do 30 days detention?"
"First and foremost, we do not do detention as a sentence - and that's part of the state law," she answered.
In fact, when kids are caught with guns, Judge Calloway said, prosecutors usually do ask that they be held in detention until trial.
"If they get held before their trial, their trial usually is about 30 days away. So, in effect, they are spending a lot of time in detention on gun charges, if that's something they got detained on," she explained.
"But I definitely believe each child has to be reviewed individually."
Part of the problem, critics say, is that state law does not treat handgun possession by juveniles as a serious offense.
"They are not treated as violent offenders. They are treated as misdemeanors," said former juvenile prosecutor Jim Todd.
And Todd said transferring a repeat offender to adult court doesn't work.
"If a juvenile court wanted to transfer a kid for possession of a handgun, they couldn't. It's a misdemeanor. You are going to transfer a kid from the juvenile system to the adult court where he gets 11 months, 29 days probation. That doesn't make any sense."
Even if the judge wants to send a repeat offender to the state Department of Children's Services, "that child definitely could use a lot of intensive services but because it is a misdemeanor, if that child is in the Department of Children's Services, the options are fewer for them," Calloway explained.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "Does that suggest that the system doesn't treat handgun possession as seriously as it should?"
"In some ways," she acknowledged, "I do think the system doesn't treat handgun possession as seriously as it should for juveniles."
One example, Devion Jordan was first charged with handgun possession when he was 15.
He spent almost a month in detention.
After trial, he was released on probation.
Less than a year later, he was arrested for carrying a gun to Pearl Cohn High School.
He spent another month in detention.
At trial, he was put on intensive gang probation.
Two months later, at age 16, he received another handgun possession charge. This time, he was sent to the state Department of Children Services.
At 17, he was charged with murder.
And get this: In at least two cases, our investigation discovered children who were implicated in homicides that, after going through the state juvenile system, returned to the streets and continued to get arrested for handgun possession.
Fourteen-year-old Mario Woodard was arrested in May 2017 for his role in a homicide inside Nashville's Cayce Homes housing project.
He pleaded guilty to a lesser crime and was sent to DCS.
He returned home in October 2018.
Then, in January, the data shows the 16 year old was busted again for handgun possession and sent back to DCS.
Two months later, he was back out on the streets and arrested again, this time for auto theft and handgun possession.
Perhaps most tragic was the 2015 accidental shooting of 15-year-old Devontae Ziegler by a young friend who had found a handgun.
The shooter, Avunt Kejuan Oldham, was just 11 years old.
Because of his age, homicide charges were dropped and he was placed in DCS custody.
At age 12, he was arrested again for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.
Those charges were also dropped.
At 13, he was arrested for auto theft and unlawful possession of a weapon - charges that were again retired.
At 14, he was charged with aggravated robbery and handgun possession.
He was committed to the state Department of Children's Services.
So far this year, he's been arrested twice for auto theft and once for handgun possession.
At last count, he was in a residential treatment program.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Judge Calloway, "Whenever you've a child who's been involved in taking another life and comes through the system and starts picking up handgun charge after handgun charge, whatever we're doing is not working."
"We've got to do something better," she admitted. "We've got to figure out what it is before we lose that child for good."
And Tennessee's pro-gun legislature, the judge said, isn't helping.
Officials have seen an uptick in kids stealing guns since lawmakers made it legal in 2014 for Tennesseans to keep loaded handguns in their cars, making them easy targets for teens who go from house to house looking for unlocked cars.
"What they're really doing is not necessarily breaking in, where they are banging out windows and stuff," Calloway said. "They're going to open parking lots, trying handles. And, if your door is open, they are looking in, and if you have a gun in that, that's a juvenile with a gun."
This past session, legislation was filed to make it illegal to leave a handgun in an unsecured vehicle.
But pro-gun lawmakers balked at making it a crime, punishable by a fine only.
"When they debate this, I want them to see the devastation of the victims of gun crimes in the hands of children," Calloway said. "I want them to hear from some of these families who were unfortunate to have a child that picked up a gun and shot someone.
"I want them to hear the stories not even about the children who are using the guns for violent offenses, but the ones that are shooting people accidentally. I want them to hear about what happens when it is so easy to get access to a gun.
"If they heard these stories, if they heard about the victims and the family members that had to bury children because they played with a gun, then maybe they would make a different assessment on how they should vote for that bill."