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Closing a Violent Loophole

By Emily DeLeo and Nik Kovac

In a community where gun violence has become so prevalent, how can you be safe?

How can you ensure responsible gun ownership?

One strategy might be to keep handguns away from minors, criminals, and the mentally ill. Right now in Wisconsin such buyers are prevented – via background checks – from buying new handguns through licensed dealers. But once a weapon is bought, it can be transferred on the unlicensed secondary market without any paperwork.

State Senator Spencer Coggs, chairman of the Urban Affairs committee, is trying to “close that loophole” by introducing the Responsible Gun Ownership Bill, which would require background checks on all handgun transfers in the state of Wisconsin.

The Wisconsin Anti-Violence Effort (WAVE) reports that approximately 40% of guns sold nationwide were without any criminal background checks on the secondary market. Within Milwaukee, nearly 85% of guns recovered from crimes changed hands at least one time since the first purchase.

For Debra Fifer, Marna Winbush, and Beverly Anderson, such transfers are more than just a statistic. The sons of all three women were murdered while standing outside a Port Washington Road bar. The shooter was a convicted teenage felon, with a handgun acquired on the secondary market. “He got life in prison,” said Anderson, “but our sons are still gone. We can’t get them back.”

Since that tragedy, the three women have founded MAGV (Mothers Against Gun Violence), and together they led off the testimony at a public hearing about Coggs’ bill held last month inside the DNR building on King Drive and North Avenue. “We’re not trying to take your Second Amendment rights away from you,” Windbush argued towards the upstate hunters and NRA lobbyists from Washington, D.C. who had come to Milwaukee for the hearing. “We are just trying to get this loophole closed. No one here wants their loved ones killed this way.”

Mayor Tom Barrett acknowledged the difference of perspective between Milwaukeeans and many out of towners toward gun safety. “In Milwaukee,” he said, “if you yell ‘Duck!’ people run for cover.” In many upstate communities, however, the Mayor explained, “If you say the same thing people run for their guns and go looking for the duck.”

For the rural hunters and NRA advocates in attendance, the paperwork required by this legislation is a bureaucratic headache they would rather not deal with. Fifer spoke to them directly. “I see the NRA is here,” she testified. “We’re not trying to take your guns away. We’re looking for responsible gun ownership. Don’t put profits before people.”

Criminal background checks by all vendors, licensed or not, are only one of many possible state laws that could make guns harder for criminals to access. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence has analyzed gun legislation for all the states and issued grades for each. Wisconsin comes up with a C+ but is actually ahead of 32 other states receiving Ds or Fs. Possible legislation includes limits on the number of handguns purchased, locking devices, license to buy and mandatory safety training.

Arthur Chavarria, Resident Agent in Charge of the Milwaukee Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms office, feels more legislation would help keep the streets safer. He agrees that post-market trafficking of firearms is significant, but feels criminal background checks for all sales are advisable. He also points out that the Responsible Gun Ownership bill “would not limit citizens’ rights to obtain a gun.”

From a public health standpoint, the data on gun violence is staggering, especially for teens and young adults. Homicide was the second leading cause of death for young people ages 15-24 in 2006, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most of these victims were killed with firearms.

Dr. Stephen Hargarten has a long history of advocacy to reduce gun violence. As the Director of the Firearm Injury Center of the Medical College of Wisconsin he firmly believes better gun control legislation is key. At the hearing, he described gun violence as a “biosocial disease,” and pointed out that with other such mechanical “vectors” of harm – automobiles – society has no problem with extensive government regulation. “We regulate driver behavior and car design,” he said.

In a later interview, Dr. Hargarten further argued that gun violence is a multi-faceted problem which needs attention from all parts of the community.

The Mayor strongly supports Coggs’ bill, but also agrees with Hargeten’s assessment. “There is no panacea here,” cautioned Barrett, before listing better health care, early childhood education, and more employment opportunities as necessary components to any complete solution to urban violence.

Riverwest Currents online edition – July, 2007