“We Have Criminals Shooting Criminals!”
And bystanders getting shot. Chief Flynn calls on legislators to get tougher on felons with guns.
When Ed Flynn took over as police chief of Milwaukee in 2008 he was surprised by how lax the laws were for gun-toting criminals.
“Most of the states I’ve worked with had strong laws on the books,” he says. “In Boston, they have nowhere near the number of criminals with guns. They’ve got statutes that put you away if you carry a gun. That was the same deal in New Jersey. It’s really remarkable how lenient it is here for criminals with guns.”
Back in 2008, Wisconsin did not have a law allowing concealed carry of guns. Flynn expected it would likely come to this state and he supported such a measure. “People do have a right to protect themselves,” he says. But he also saw it as an opportunity to make distinctions between law abiding people and criminals. “One of the first things I advocated for was a concealed carry law that had teeth and standards.”
Flynn met with members of the Milwaukee legislative delegation to push for such legislation early in his tenure, but these were Democrats who opposed concealed carry. Once Gov. Scott Walker was elected and Republicans took over the legislature, however, concealed carry was legalized. But it was passed without the standards Flynn cautioned were needed to stop criminals from carrying guns.
“We regularly arrest career criminals with concealed carry permits,” he says.
“It’s an old story in Milwaukee, 80 percent of the offenders have a prior criminal history,” Flynn notes. And many have guns. “In just the first five and a half months of the year, we’ve already seized more than 1,000 firearms and 80 percent of those seizures were related to people under arrest.”
“We have criminals shooting criminals and the only time they are likely to face consequences is after they’ve shot someone.” And often those shot are innocent bystanders. “We’ve already 246 people wounded by gunfire in Milwaukee and last year at this time it was 204.”
In the summer of 2013, amid the violence that typically gets worse in hot months — “because more people are outside encountering each other,” — Flynn asked Republican leaders to pass a law that would sentence any habitual criminal carrying a gun to a minimum of three years imprisonment.
Flynn met with state Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills), who agreed to sponsor such a bill. “I’ve had several conversations with Sen Darling,” Flynn says. “She is the only Republican member of the Senate who has put pen to paper. I’ve always felt she’s been sincere in her concern with this issue.”
Flynn also met with other Gov. Scott Walker, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Burlington) and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau). “We’ve done power point presentations one on one for each of them,” Flynn says. “I think we opened some eyes. The discussions have all been civil, constructive and practical.”
Vos said he was open to the idea but would have to see the details. Walker said “I’m more than willing to talk with law enforcement here or anywhere else about creating mandatory minimum sentences for people who illegally possess a firearm. I’m all for that.”
That was nearly a year ago. And as Bill Lueders has written, the bill appears to have died.
Why? One problem may concern the definition of a “habitual criminal.” Flynn proposed applying a definition already in the statutes: anyone convicted of at least one felony or three misdemeanors. “It should be pretty straightforward to apply that definition to concealed carry,” he says.
One reason the statute includes those with three or more misdemeanors is that in the crowded courts of Milwaukee County, many criminals charged with felonies take a guilty plea with a misdemeanor charge. “We have lots of bad guys locked up for committing felonies but only charged with misdemeanors,” Flynn notes. “These are capacity issues. The courts are overcrowded.”
But the idea of applying the three-year minimum sentence to someone with three misdemeanors can be a sticking point for concealed carry advocates. What about someone charged with “teasing a bear,” Flynn was once asked.
“We’ve offered to work with legislators on the definition of misdemeanors,” he says. “We can — without any effort — come up with a list of misdemeanors that would disqualify you for a gun permit.” And they wouldn’t include teasing furry animals.
But Walker faces a November reelection campaign where every vote counts. Republicans need to get out their base and that includes the more fanatic advocates of unlimited conceal and carry. When he met with Republicans last year, Flynn says, “I sensed they felt constrained.They were not unaware of the political risks.”
The strange thing is that a majority of Wisconsin voters opposed concealed carry, as measured in past polls. But among the minority who favor it is a minority of a minority so devoted to gun rights that they would even oppose laws against criminals taking vicious advantage of the currently lax standards.
“We’re talking about criminals with guns,” Flynn says. “They’re bad for everyone.” And they have every incentive to carry a gun, to protect themselves from other criminals carrying guns. “Right now if makes more sense for criminals to carry a gun than not carry a gun,” Flynn says.
He points to New York, which passed a tough law against criminals carrying guns. “Over time you saw a decline in arrests for this. More rational criminals would lower their exposure to a three-year mandatory sentence.”
But in Milwaukee, there is no such deterrent. And so innocent bystanders, often children, are often shot and sometimes killed by criminals shooting at each other. There were four such gunshot victims in a period of just two weeks.
Which leaves Flynn all but pleading for help. “Some people see this as a Milwaukee problem, not a state problem,” he laments. “Sometimes I feel like I have to remind people that Milwaukee is in Wisconsin and these children who have been shot are in Wisconsin. They have the right to hope that their governor and their representatives will take prudent steps to protect them.”