Spring 2016 stands out for me for several distinct reasons. I landscaped my front yard, a greatly overdue project that had been put off for some time. It was when the company I had been working for in a part-time capacity promoted me to a full-time position, which likely enabled the aforementioned project. It was also the spring that six people died in approximately a month’s period, in and around my community, from gunshot wounds.
I am not naïve. I know guns exist. And contrary to what you may be thinking, I’m not a Pollyanna who believes it “can’t happen in my neighborhood.” In fact, there was a shooting around the corner from my own home about a year or so earlier. Fortunately, no one was killed. The event left bullets in my neighbor’s fence, though, and I suppose for me there was a loss of innocence in recognizing that my neighborhood would not be immune to such an event.
From January 1 through June 1, there were, in fact, 45 weapons incidents in the City of Madison. If you were to overlay a map of shots fired on the city boundaries, you may be surprised. The trajectories of the bullets that pierced Madison’s veil of idealism and tolerance tore a new flesh, so-to-speak. Execution-style shootings in Verona, bullets exchanged between moving vehicles on Madison’s west side, and the tragic and unexplainable shooting of a mother while driving on the interstate have caught the attention of many Dane County residents. They certainly caught mine.
Let me be transparent. I’m a social worker. I run left of center socially with a strong proclivity for fiscal responsibility. Madison suits me. I like the intellectual curiosity of our community. I have spent my entire adult life working in human services and health care. I work with both the people traumatized by the bullets and the people who shot the bullets. Everyone has a story, and they are all worthy of being heard. And if there is one thing I have learned over these many years, nothing happens in isolation. If you want to understand why the shooter shot or how to help the victim, you have to look at the whole darn thing as a system. So when Madison Essentials approached me in June 2016 about writing an article, I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to write about the guns. I wanted to look at how the guns were part of a much larger system that led to the loss of six lives in about 34 days in my community.
Disclaimer: there is no way to discuss the guns without discussing the absolute carnage left in their path. I don’t care what your politics are; a mother of two, a father of two, a father of four daughters…they are all gone. We can’t get them back. Focusing on the guns is not meant to trivialize that loss.
More transparency: I am not a journalist, I am a citizen. When I decided to trace the journey of the guns, I did what any citizen might do—I contacted the Madison Police Department (MPD) and hit the internet. Step one: get the make, model, and serial number of each gun. Step two: trace said guns to the manufacturers as the point of origin and move forward through the journey to present day in the evidence room of the respective law enforcement agencies.
Problem number one: this information is a little harder to come by than I thought. Police reports are released at the end of the investigation. Given the nature of these events, the investigations are still ongoing. That makes sleuthing a bit more cumbersome and tedious. When I spoke with Joel DeSpain from MPD, he indicated it may get even more complicated than that. Many guns—and likely the ones involved in these incidents—are not all that traceable. After the point at which a responsible, law-abiding gun seller sells the gun in accordance with the law to the time the gun is confiscated in a crime, there is relatively no tracking.
Guns are often stolen during burglaries, something Joel says is occurring more in our area. “Smash-and-grab” car break-ins have become common, and guns are frequently being taken. In addition, many guns are sold from private party to private party with no requirement for transfer of ownership documentation or background check on the new owner. And sometimes the guns aren’t even sold, but rather shared among a group of friends or associates. As long as one person in the group is felony free and can produce the money and pass the background check, there is unlimited access to legal gun purchases and sharing.
When I spoke with a friend of mine who works with the FBI, he confirmed this. While the ATF (Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms) is the identified authority on all things weapons related, they too are at a disadvantage. Most of what they do is track weapons after they have already been identified as the weapon used in a crime. This tracking is shoddy at best when you consider that in addition to the multiple times a gun may have changed ownership after the legal sale, many of these weapons have long ago had the only real tracking method removed from them: the serial number.
Let’s stop for a minute to take stock. We don’t know what guns were used. We don’t know where they came from. We don’t know how they came to be in the possession of those who used them. While I wait patiently for the copies of the police reports to arrive, still with high hopes that I will find a coveted serial number or even a make and model for at least one of the guns involved in these incidents, I find this whole scenario a little absurd. I can track a property history, including ownership and sale price through a public website. Without much effort, law enforcement can identify a car’s color, make, and model with just a partial plate. I will soon be unable to get on an airplane without a “real” ID. But there is no mandatory registry system for guns?
A gun has an almost singular purpose. Yes, I have heard of skeet shooting and target practice. I know about the Olympic Biathalon, where athletes ski across great distances as fast as possible with a gun across their back and then drop to the ground exhausted to try to hit a target. My family grew up hunting and I have aimed a muzzle at a thing or two in my life as well. But what is the actual purpose of a gun? Injury and/or death. Whether it’s an animal or a person, war or personal protection, law enforcement or crime, the purpose is to use the gun to hurt or kill the target. This isn’t an issue of civil liberties in my opinion—not yet—this is an issue of personal responsibility. If a person chooses to own something that has that power, there should be responsibility attached to it. And we should help people be responsible by giving them the tools to protect their guns, themselves, and others. We don’t give people options about buckling up, registering their cars, and having flood insurance. Heck, we don’t even give people options about insuring themselves anymore (but that’s another article). Why are we so cavalier about how we treat gun safety?
As I mentioned, when I was young my family owned guns. We shot at bottles and cans on our family property. Some members of my family hunted. It was the only time I saw those guns. I never really paid much attention to it, but later in life I learned that after we returned home my father would retreat to the basement and return the guns to their hiding place in a wall in our basement. He screwed them inside a wall . We never even knew where they were.
There are gun locks and gun safes; there are things we can do. In the event that a responsible person is the victim of a crime, though, we need to do more. Radio tags? Mandatory reporting of stolen guns? User/owner identity match for firing? How about a remote lock feature in the event the gun is stolen, or GPS? My iPhone can do it, can’t Smith and Wesson?
Hopefully I am only at the beginning of this journey. As new information arises I may change some of my thoughts. I am okay with that. I don’t think clinging to a position in the face of new evidence makes much sense. So I will bide my time waiting for police reports and interviews. More to come.