Dollars, Worries & Lives
By Amy Elliott + Photos by Richard Galling
The Smith and Wesson Model 10 double-action revolver has been in continuous production for more than 100 years, and has been the weapon of choice for police departments everywhere for almost as long. An elegant piece with black grips and a carbon-steel barrel, it evokes suits, cocktails and spies. List price is $632; used models start at $350.
The Glock .22 is a little less sexy than the revolver, but is the weapon of choice for graduates of the FBI training academy, U.S. Marshals and agents of the DEA. This heavy semi-automatic pistol, made from dense polymer and steel, will put you back at least $480.
Nothing communicates quite as clearly as a well-placed Kalashnikov. Otherwise known as the AK-47, it is the world’s most widely used assault rifle, comprises a large chunk of the illicit small arms trade and is relatively cheap to acquire, starting in the $300 range for older models. If you’re the DIY type, you could consider purchasing a conversion kit to turn your semi-automatic pistol into a submachine gun. It wouldn’t run you more than $250.
Of course, knock-off brands of any of these models are substantially cheaper, starting well under $200. And a 50-count box of .38 specials could cost you less than a quarter per bullet. Less than a gumball.
Almost every gun on the illegal market starts out in the legal market. Somehow, through dealer negligence, criminal cunning or outright theft, these guns enter an ambiguous realm. They may stay in gray space forever, changing hands, stashed under beds. Then again, they may resurface. And they may do some damage.
Some people call Riverwest the West Bank of Milwaukee. At least one man calls it the Gaza Strip – a narrow buffer zone between the city’s racial and economic zones.
Don Krause has lived in the neighborhood for 17 years. He owns Art Bar on East Burleigh, a sunny, spacious corner where local artists and tipplers come to relax in the glow of collective creative energy. Drinks are cheap and the art on the walls is priced to move.
In the summer of 2005, Krause was shot in the stomach by a teenager who was trying to rob a customer. For months, Krause was the poster child of gun violence in the neighborhood, and his colorful watering hole became the rallying banner of concerned citizens and community activists.
“You couldn’t go anywhere without hearing ‘Art Bar’ and ‘shooting’ in the same sentence,” he says. But not all publicity is good publicity.
The perception that an area is dangerous may determine its viability. A 2000 study by the National Institute of Justice found that fear of crime had a direct effect on a neighborhood’s social ecology – most commonly in the form of “spatial avoidance.” It makes sense – why spend time in a bad part of town? But it also makes it harder for businesses, and the communities they serve, to thrive. Krause’s assailant left without robbing anyone, but the bad publicity generated by the incident cost the business its financial stability.
“Sales dropped so dramatically, we couldn’t even pay our help,” he says. It would take a year to fully recover. Even now, people turn to Don Krause as the unlucky, unofficial spokesman for gun crimes in Riverwest. He is resigned to the position.
“It’s a permanent part of the history of this place,” he says.
The youthful quirkiness and low rents of Riverwest attract cadres of artists and musicians, but volatile situations have raised doubts about the neighborhood’s prospects. Kaler Houzenga, a recent college graduate from Savanna, Illinois, moved to Riverwest with art and economy in mind. This past fall, the tenant in the lower level of his duplex was robbed at gunpoint.
“The cops told us to move,” he says. “When every police officer that we’ve interacted with has told us we’re going to move within a year, that’s not too promising.” He considered moving out after the robbery, but eventually dismissed the idea.
Don Krause never had any plans to leave Riverwest, even after the attack. But he doesn’t see the situation getting any better.
“I don’t see any kind of plan. There are no solutions coming forward,” he says. “Maybe we’ve just adjusted ourselves to tolerating [this much] crime.”
Krause’s assailant was never caught. “The police never got back to me about my case, and I never really pursued it. They said, ‘Well, probably he’ll end up shot himself someday, and that’ll be it.’”
Violent crime is an ecosystem; it regulates itself, drawing things in, letting things die and sustaining itself despite the best efforts of the external community to smother it out.
On September 24, 2003, Jaki Marion followed three men out of a bar on Port Washington Avenue and shot them each in the head as they were getting into their car. Marion’s motives are unclear to this day. Some say there had been a fight over a woman; others say Marion killed in cold blood. The victims – Kirk Bickham Jr., Deshawn Winbush and Carl Hall – were all under the age of 25. Kirk and Deshawn were recent college graduates with good jobs. Carl was finishing his last year at MATC. They were three of the 88 victims of firearm violence in Milwaukee in 2003.
Kirk was Debra Lee Fifer’s oldest child and only son. His murder came as a brutal shock.
Jaki Marion was already a convicted felon when he bought his gun from a dealer at a gun show. Had the dealer conducted a background check, it would have been impossible for Marion to purchase the gun that was later used in the triple homicide.
Eighty-six percent of guns traced to crimes have passed hands at least once – between friends or family members, in “straw purchases” (when a legal buyer purchases a gun for someone else), from unlicensed dealers at gun shows or out of lots bought in bulk and sold off the street.
Debra’s life took a drastic shift in course after her son’s death. Her fledgling real estate business – which Kirk had been a part of – fell apart as she channeled her energy into one gun violence advocacy project after another. After shutting down the bar where her son was shot, she started the Milwaukee chapter of the Million Mom March and brought a group of moms to Washington D.C. in 2003. She founded Mothers Against Gun Violence to reach out to the parents of gun violence victims and to support gun control legislation in the state and country. Honored last fall by the Congressional Black Caucus with an Unsung Hero Award, she is currently working to pass a Responsible Gun Ownership Bill in the state of Wisconsin. Sponsored by State Senator Spencer Coggs and State Representative Leon Young, the bill would subject private gun sales and transfers to the same background check run by licensed dealers. Those who transfer their guns without a background check would face the same penalties registered dealers face: nine months in prison or up to $10,000 in fines.
“Criminals only have access to what they steal, or what we allow them to have access to,” she says. “This bill would limit that access.”
In her activism across the state, she has been frustrated with the perception that crime in Milwaukee County is limited to black-on-black crime in poor neighborhoods that lack the will to change.
“It’s crazy,” she says. “This is how elected officials are staying in office – by dividing us as a people, by saying we don’t care about our communities.”
“People talk about how racist Milwaukee is, how racist Wisconsin is, but here we are, pushing a bill that happened because three black boys got murdered. [And] Milwaukee County has done nothing but show me love.”
“We do care,” she says. “We all bleed the same.”
If the bill passes this year, Debra plans to rest from several frenzied years of activism – to sleep, to grieve and to rebuild her life.
“I still have to deal with why I’m doing this,” she says. “You stay so busy. You work until you drop so you don’t have to deal with the pain.”
But she will not quit. She functions on passion and momentum, pure and simple.
“All I have to do,” she says, “is look at that obituary.”
The Firearm Injury Center at the Medical College of Wisconsin operates under the principle that violence must be recognized and treated as a sickness.
Dr. Stephen Hargarten, Director of the Center, wants us to understand that we are fighting a “biosocial disease” – biological in the damage it causes to vital organs and the stress it places on the health care system, social in its determinants and the population of young, low-income African-American males disproportionately affected by gun violence. He wants community members and decision makers to recognize the burden of this expensive, devastating disease and to align our resources to ease that weight.
“What we’re left with is an epidemic,” says Dr. Hargarten.
Every other year, the Firearm Injury Center releases a comprehensive statistical report on gun violence. According to Dr. Hargarten, collecting better data is the first step toward informing public policy and properly focusing gun control programs.
An FIC study of Milwaukee gun buyback programs between 1994 and 1996 compared the guns purchased by the city to those most often linked to homicide in the state. What they found was a huge discrepancy – the guns that came off the street tended to be old models and revolvers, while the guns killing people were usually newer, larger-caliber semi-automatic pistols.
The FIC informed the buyback program’s directors in an effort to help them target high-risk weapons. It’s a modest example of the synergy required to effectively combat an intricate, systemic problem.
“This is a process that deserves everyone’s attention,” says Dr. Hargarten. “It is critical to recognize how much work it will take to change it.”
“Up to now, methods have been more traditional,” he says. “But criminal justice has its limits.” At this point, “every strategy needs to be on the table.”
In 2004, in the biggest gun industry settlement ever, a manufacturer and the dealer it supplied paid $2.5 million dollars to families of the victims of the 2002 D.C. sniper shootings. The guns used in the shootings, civilian versions of the M-16, were apparently two of the guns missing from the dealer’s inventory – two of over two hundred. The courts held the supplier responsible for distributing to a negligent dealer.
A year earlier, 11 California municipalities legally compelled area gun dealers to agree to a range of impressive distribution reforms, including enhancement of inventory management systems to prevent loss and theft of guns as well as annual training for dealership employees in the prevention of straw purchasing.
It is impossible to say precisely what causes violent crime – social and racial inequity, rage and revenge, convictions of hopelessness, fanaticism, or any combination of those. It is also impossible to pinpoint the wellspring of gun lust. Where did it come from? The Founding Fathers? Hollywood? The Wild West?
Now that it is here, it is intent on reproduction, on survival. And by some standards, it is a long way from getting better.
“If there’s only one murder next year – to that family, that was one too many,” says Debra Fifer. “There’s no answer as long as it’s happening. Because it’s a living nightmare.” VS