It’s illegal for children to purchase a handgun or even possess one, unless they’re involved in a supervised activity. Yet in Milwaukee, as in other cities, some young people have easy access to guns and actually carry and use them. In this installment of Project Milwaukee: Youth Violence, WUWM's Marge Pitrof explores how young people get their hands on firearms and why some children want them.
No one knows how many children in Milwaukee have access to handguns or carry them. But Associate Professor of Criminal Justice at UWM, Steve Brandl, guesses the number is alarming. He tallied the police department’s gun seizures from 2005 in which an arrest were made.
“About ten percent of those guns came from juveniles,” Brandl says.
That’s what’s known. Brandl says while a person has to be 18 to possess a long gun such as a rifle, people have to be 21 to purchase or possess a handgun. So sales to minors are illegal and therefore secretive. But he was able to trace information about the guns police did confiscate from children.
“They tend to be older guns. They tend to be smaller guns in terms of caliber. Juveniles, more likely than other offenders, tend not to have bullets with their guns which is indirect evidence that juveniles may have a more difficult time acquiring the most desirable sorts of guns, a new, high-power weapon", Brandl says.
Brandl also learned that quite a few of the guns police seized from African American children in the central city were originally purchased by white males. He says that might explain why those weapons are often older models because they’ve been circulating in the illicit gun market for years.
“How does that whole industry or cycle work? That is the million-dollar question. Currently, the way gun laws are set up, the only time that records need to be kept regarding the sale of weapons, is the original purchase. After that, guns can legally trade hands without any record-keeping being made", Brandl says.
So police have to ask young people where they got their guns But many don’t talk according to Rob Wollner of the group, Running Rebels. He works with children who are on probation for possessing a deadly weapon; a crime that can net them nearly a year of incarceration.
“If you talk to a lot of the kids, a lot of people involved, you would think that guns are laying around and falling from trees. You don’t get a lot of straight answers. I think the guns, they circulate. They get sold from person to person to person. And a lot of the young people say, if they want to get a gun, they can”, Wollner says.
And some do.
“For some kids, it’s a pure safety factor. They don’t feel safe in their neighborhoods and they have them. For some kids, neighborhoods are pretty much ran by cliques that are involved in other criminal activity and part of the nature of that atmosphere is that they have guns”, Wollner says.
And all-too-often conflicts are addressed by shooting someone. When Wollner works with children who’ve been arrested for possessing a handgun, he teaches them alternatives for handling problems.
“Can you walk away from a situation? I think that’s one of the best ways to intervene with that younger generation. The choice doesn’t have to be you get picked on, on your block by a couple guys, the next alternative shouldn’t be to go home and get the gun you know is in the house or go someone to buy a gun from”, Wollner says.
Wollner insists the bigger solution is employment: giving young people a productive activity and legitimate way to earn money. Jeri Bonavia agrees that young people who rely on handguns for safety or validation or obtaining money, need to learn a different way of living. She’s executive director of the Wisconsin Anti-Violence Effort. It recently organized a public display of confiscated guns that had been painted to look like toys. Bonavia wants the state to change its law regarding gun sales so that all would have to be completed by licensed dealer.
“To cut off this easy access of guns to kids when they’re getting them from outside their home, when they’re getting them from friends on the street or acquaintances. And right now, there is this enormous loophole. We need to require a background check, require that people show identification to prove their age", Bonavia says.
Bonavia says Milwaukee will see a change in its children as soon as the adult community makes clear by word and example that guns don’t solve problems and can come with an enormous cost: the loss of a young life.