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Teens and guns a common combination, prosecutor says

December 15, 1998|By BRYN MICKLE

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - An alarming number of teenagers are carrying handguns in Berkeley County, the county's prosecutor said.

Berkeley County Prosecutor Pamela Games-Neely said police officers in the county have arrested about 30 teenagers armed with handguns this year.

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"A lot of kids are carrying right now and that's not good for anybody," Games-Neely said.

Her comments came in the wake of two separate incidents in Martinsburg last weekend, one in which a teenager was shot, the other in which a teenager was charged with shooting a man.

Jose "Joey" DeLoa, 16, of Martinsburg, died from multiple gunshot wounds after he was shot Friday night on South Rosemont Avenue. A 17-year-old Martinsburg boy was arrested Saturday night on charges he shot a man in the foot at a fast-food restaurant on Foxcroft Avenue.

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West Virginia laws prohibit anyone under 18 from carrying a handgun, but Games-Neely said many teens find ways around those laws by taking weapons from their parents or buying handguns on the black market.

Games-Neely said most of the guns police find on teens are small-caliber models and some have had their serial numbers removed.

"The kids are getting these guns from God knows where," she said.

Games-Neely said Berkeley County officials began seeing a rise in the number of teenagers carrying guns about five years ago when the county began searching the backpacks and cars of teens on school property.

Frank Aliveto, the assistant superintendent for instruction for Berkeley County Schools, said the district has not found any guns on school property this year but said there is still reason for concern.

"You have to constantly be on guard," Aliveto said.

Martinsburg High School Principal Rick Deuell said teens who might feel safe carrying handguns do not realize they have become part of a larger problem. While some teens may see guns as status symbols, Deuell said drugs also play a role.

"We're not naive enough to think we're immune from what's happening in our neighborhoods," Deuell said.

Berkeley County Sheriff's Department Capt. C.E. Keller said he does not believe the county has an overwhelming number of young people walking around armed and said last weekend's crimes involving guns and teens were freak occurrences.

"If there's a big problem we're not aware of it," Keller said.

Games-Neely said 30 incidents of teens with guns in a county of 60,000 people - about 16,000 of whom are juveniles - is not a problem of epidemic proportions but it is one that demands attention.

Games-Neely said reports of teens carrying guns may be commonplace in larger cities such as Washington, D.C., but Berkeley County must take a stand on the issue.

"It's an accident waiting to happen," Games-Neely said.

Games-Neely and Aliveto both said a zero-tolerance approach is one way to keep guns out of the hands of teens.

Aliveto said students who bring guns into Berkeley County schools can be expelled for one year. Games-Neely said criminal penalties can include incarceration in a juvenile detention facility.

Games-Neely said lack of space in juvenile facilities often forces officials to find alternative punishments.

A National Rifle Association spokesman said violent incidents involving teens and guns are a horrible and serious problem but should not open the door for increased restrictions on firearms.

"How much more illegal can it be?" said Bill Powers. "Gun control is not the solution if a teenager steals a gun."

Powers said the solution lies in paying more attention to teens and getting involved in their lives.

"These incidents are a disservice to the youths who are not troubled," Powers said. "Branding all teens with this stigma is horribly inappropriate."

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