On the heels of a tragic fatal shooting of a teen girl by her brother in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, city leaders continue to encourage parents to educate their children about guns and for gun owners to properly store their weapons so they don't end up in the hands of someone who shouldn't have them.

On Thursday, Mayor Erin Mendenhall and police Chief Mike Brown stood with several federal law enforcement partners to give the public an update on the Project Safe Neighborhoods initiative.

Mendenhall said overall crime in Salt Lake City is down 15% year-to-date.

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall speaks during a Project Safe Neighborhoods community update at the Salt Lake City Public Safety Building in Salt Lake City on Thursday.
Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall speaks during a Project Safe Neighborhoods community update at the Salt Lake City Public Safety Building in Salt Lake City on Thursday. | Ryan Sun, Deseret News

Project Safe Neighborhoods is a nationwide initiative started about 20 years ago by the U.S. Department of Justice. The goal is to bring local and federal police and prosecutors together, to get guns and drugs off city streets. Salt Lake City reinvigorated its partnership in January 2021, after experiencing a dramatic 20% jump in violent crime in 2020.

On Thursday, Mendenhall said that since January 2021, nearly 300 violent criminals had been arrested due to the Project Safe Neighborhoods initiative, 343 guns taken off the street and about 10 kilograms of methamphetamine seized.

Brown said his officers seized 12 guns that were illegally in the hands of others just last month. The mayor highlighted a recent bust by the police department's bike squad during which multiple guns were found in a vehicle belonging to a person restricted from having guns.

"These types of weapons have no place in any community," she said.

Despite the recent successes, Wednesday's fatal shooting of a teen girl in Salt Lake City was clearly on the minds of city leaders. Police say a teen boy shot and killed his sister in their home in the 1600 West block of Wright Circle (505 South). The brother was arrested and booked into Salt Lake Juvenile Detention for investigation of murder.

Brown revealed Thursday that the girl was 13.

"I cannot reiterate enough, on the heels of what we saw yesterday — a 13-year-old girl being killed, why it is so important that gun owners ensure their firearms are secure and children cannot access either the firearm or ammunition," he said.

Brown could not confirm whether the brother got ahold of an unsecured firearm, saying that information was part of an ongoing investigation. He said too many guns, not properly secured in the past couple of years, have made their way to the streets.

"That's why, every time I stand at this podium, I tell people: 'Secure your guns.' Make sure they're safe. And the ammunition, as well. Talk to your parents, there has to be an education portion to this. Talk to your kids, educate them about gun safety," the chief said.

Brown recalled an incident, years ago, when his son was in elementary school and came across a gun lying on the ground in their neighborhood. Because the boy had been taught by Brown not to touch an unsecured gun, he left it alone and told his father what he found. Brown admits he was skeptical at first about what his son had found.

"We drove down our street and, he said, 'Right here, Dad.' And he went over and said, 'I put some leaves on top of it to make sure nobody would find it.' Still very skeptical, I brushed the leaves aside and sure enough, right there on the street, in my neighborhood, is a loaded 9mm gun. I couldn't be prouder that he listened to me," Brown said.

Other speakers Thursday included Dustin Gillespie, assistant special agent-in-charge of the Salt Lake office of the Drug Enforcement Administration, who cautioned that "drug trafficking is a frequent and common partner to violent crime."

And Brent Beavers, head of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives office in Denver, which oversees Utah, estimated that, in the past year, his office had seen a 500% increase in conversion devices that turn semi-auto handguns into fully automatic guns.

"They're dangerous not only to the public but they're also dangerous to law enforcement," he said. "They're dangerous all around."

During the bust made by the bicycle squad that the mayor mentioned, one of the weapons seized was a handgun that had been modified to make it fully automatic.

Mendenhall said a large part of the focus of the Project Safe Neighborhoods initiative is finding people who should not have firearms. But the problem will only continue to escalate as long as gun owners don't properly store or lock up their weapons and those guns end up in the hands of people who shouldn't have them, including children.

"This is about families. This is about kids. Kids in America today are more likely to die by shooting than any other cause of death. This is about our kids. Kids killing kids. Violence from kids. This is about families," Mendenhall continued. "This isn't just about the hardened criminals that the DEA and ATF are taking off the street."