BILLINGS - The first two months of 2023 have seen three gun-related deaths in Billings and in 2022 the state saw a record number of firearm arrests.
A group of county and federal law-enforcement officials said on Wednesday that they're working to reduce those numbers.
A news conference was held at the U.S. Attorney's Office Wednesday addressing gun violence in the community.
During a news conference, U.S. Attorney Jesse Laslovich said in 2012 the number of firearm-related crimes was 63 and the community has seen an almost "300% increase in 10 years."
“The total number of defendants this office indicted for a firearm-related crime was 167 people (in 2022). Which is the highest in the last decade,” he said.
Billings Police Chief Rich St. John said 13-to-22-year-olds were the age group most often involved in gun crimes.
“We know that... youngsters are quick to accelerate to violence and of late they’re using firearms to settle their disputes,” St. John said. “We know that juveniles can’t buy firearms. So, they’re stolen, they’re loaned, they’re given. Sometimes access in the home.”
Officials said gun violence is driven by drug trafficking and armed robbers trying to get money to buy drugs.
In a press release, the agency noted firearms are often stolen from vehicles or bought illegally, and most shooters have prior convictions or are known to law enforcement.
Project Safe Neighborhoods is a federal program to reduce violent crime through a multi-jurisdictional law enforcement effort that was first introduced to the Billings area in 2018.
The program has identified methamphetamine as the lead cause of violent crimes in Yellowstone County.
“Many of the firearms you see here today were a part of firearms seized during Project Safe Neighborhoods,” said Kirk Howard, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives acting special agent in charge.
The National Integrated Ballistic Information Network (NIBIN), is another tool Billings will be using moving forward. NIBIN helps locate firearms from found shell casings.
“We’re pleased to report the Billings department has recently submitted its first batch of shell casings for comparison to the ATF lab,” Howard said. "NIBIN enables local law enforcement to identify patterns and develop leads that may not have otherwise been discovered."
Laslovich also said this isn't a gun-control issue and that they're "not coming for those who use guns recreationally, or to hunt wild game, or just want to possess a gun because they can do so lawfully."