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Guns in the Wrong Hands

Felons and juveniles illegally possess guns in Milwaukee

May. 21, 2008
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The vast majority of gun owners purchase and use firearms legally. But a new study of guns seized by the Milwaukee Police Department (MPD) shows that felons and juveniles—who are not allowed to legally possess guns— are getting their hands on them.

According to UW-Milwaukee professor Steven Brandl’s new report, more than 40% of the guns seized by the MPD in 2005 were possessed by these two groups. And since felons and juveniles aren’t able to legally purchase guns from a licensed dealer, they are doing so illegally on the secondary gun market—at a gun show, from an individual or from a “straw buyer,” who purchases the gun legally and then passes it on to someone else.

“Chances are that the person did not go into the store and buy the gun,” said Brandl, who also chairs the city of Milwaukee Homicide Review Commission. “There may have been a series of transactions before it wound up in that person’s hands.”

Who Bought and Possessed Milwaukee’s Crime Guns
Brandl reviewed the MPD’s 2005 firearm reports and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearm’s (ATF) trace data, and compared the names of the original, legal purchaser (say, at a gun shop) and the name and identifying characteristics of the individual who possessed the gun when the MPD seized it. Brandl looked at “arrest guns,” guns that were seized as a result of someone illegally carrying, possessing or using the firearm; “crime guns,” guns that were seized as a result of being used in a criminal act, but no arrest was made; “suicide guns,” seized as a result of a suicide or a suicide attempt; “safekeeping guns,” which were seized by the MPD during a domestic dispute, for example; and other guns, such as those recovered during a gun buy-back program.

Brandl found:

- 30% of “arrest guns” were from previously convicted felons

- 11% of guns confiscated during arrests were from juveniles

- One-quarter of the guns seized were originally sold at Badger Outdoors, a gun dealer in West Milwaukee

- About 90% of those who possessed the gun at the time of the arrest were not the original purchaser of the gun. But buyers and possessors often live in the same neighborhoods, and are most often the same age (18-24 years), male and African American.

Brandl also looked at the “time-to-crime,” or the moment when the gun is legally purchased to when it is seized by the MPD. The faster the time-to-crime, the more likely it was purchased by a straw buyer for another individual.

Brandl found the time-to-crime to be extremely fast in Milwaukee. Almost 20% of guns seized had a time-to-crime of less than one year; another 35% had time-to-crime of less than three years. About 38% of the guns originally sold at Badger Outdoors had a time-to-crime of less than one year. The average time-to-crime for a Badger Outdoors firearm is 1,055 days, the shortest time-to-crime of any dealer represented.

Guns legally purchased by African-American women and young adults also had quick times-to-crime.

What Can Be Done?
Brandl said that understanding the illegal secondary gun market is important to learning about crime in the city, and he hopes that future policies will be based on solid research that makes the secondary market more visible.

Brandl said the good news and the bad news is that Milwaukee’s secondary gun market is local—the seller, purchaser and possessor are likely to be found in or near the city. In other states, Brandl said, the guns often were originally purchased all over the country, which means that competing state laws govern the sales.

“We have the capability to deal with the problem,” Brandl said.

Currently, private sellers, unlike licensed dealers, do not have to run background check on those who purchase guns from them, although selling to a felon or a juvenile is illegal.

Attempts to require background checks on all secondary gun sales have been stymied in the state Legislature. Jeri Bonavia, executive director of the Wisconsin Anti-Violence Effort, said that closing this loophole would provide one more barrier to allowing a felon or juvenile to access guns.

“It is illegal to sell a gun to a felon, but without a background check, you can’t prove that the seller knows that the purchaser is a felon,” Bonavia said. “And we have to hold people accountable.” Bonavia emphasized the importance of keeping guns out of the hands of juveniles and felons.

“There are some subsets of people who we as a society have decided should not possess guns,” she said. “And these are two of them.” What’s your take? Write: editor@shepex.com or comment on this story online at www.expressmilwaukee.com.


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