Darrail Smith may have been a public relations nightmare for gun-rights advocates, but he was also a bizarrely loyal friend.
Last August, the state of Wisconsin granted Smith a concealed-carry license. It had to: Wisconsin is a “shall issue” state, meaning that because the 23-year-old had no felony convictions, provided evidence of training, and paid $40, he was entitled to a 5-year license. But starting in October, Smith began showing up at crime scenes at the same time as shootings went down — though he never appeared to be committing them.
In the early hours of a Friday morning, two brothers, Carrington and Marquis Smith — apparently unrelated to Darrail despite the shared last name — left a nightclub where they’d been drinking champagne and chatting up women. Darrail and two other friends, who also had been at the club, followed in another car, and the caravan stopped for late-night takeout. A short time later, a silver minivan pulled alongside Carrington and Marquis’s car at a stoplight. Its passenger door slid open, and someone inside opened fire.
Marquis returned fire and tried to drive away but crashed in front of a public library. He’d been shot in the stomach. Carrington had been hit in the leg, but told police that when he saw the Glock pistol on his wounded brother’s lap, he had to get rid of it. Carrington had been convicted of a second-degree gun felony in 2007. Knowing Darrail was licensed, Carrington grabbed the Glock from Marquis and took it to Darrail, who later told police that Carrington said, “Here’s your gun.”
Police intercepted Darrail again six months later, with Carrington and another man who was arrested for fleeing and trying to throw away a bag of what cops said was heroin and cocaine. This time, Darrail was carrying three loaded guns, including one that had been reported stolen, which police confiscated. Not short on chutzpah, Darrail petitioned a judge to have his guns returned but was denied.
Shortly after, Darrail showed up at Carrington’s apartment as it was being searched. He claimed that the gun police had just found between Carrington’s bedspring and mattress — a .38-caliber pistol with a laser sight — was, in fact, his, though officers denied his request to take it home.
It was around this time that Milwaukee police suspected Smith was abusing his lawful access to firearms by acting as a “human holster” for a felonious friend. But it took prosecutors months to gather enough evidence to support his eventual charge: conspiracy to commit possession of a handgun by a felon. That’s because state law forbids police from sorting their records according to whether the parties present at an incident had concealed-carry licenses.
Studies suggest concealed-carry permit holders are less criminal than than the average American. Researchers from the National Institutes of Health compared criminal convictions of holders with non-holders of concealed-carry licenses, finding the former “much less likely” to be convicted of crimes. This is a major selling point of gun-rights advocates: Concealed handgun license holders must be able to pass a criminal background check, and they tend to be older than 30, while most crimes are committed by people under 30. According to pro-gun researcher John Lott, licensees can also lose their concealed-carry licenses if convicted of several crimes, though few are.
But all of those statistics are based on criminal convictions. Darrail Smith had — and still has — none. Identifying “human holsters” like Smith is only possible if police can connect legal handgun carriers to illegal events in which they might have been tangentially, but still materially, involved. That would require data cops don’t have.
Smith’s case, first reported by Ashley Luthern at the Milwaukee Wisconsin Journal Sentinel, highlights yet another place where gun owners’ privacy rights and the interests of law enforcement collide. Some law enforcement officers, such as Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn, claim the state law prevents data-driven crime prevention and keeps them from figuring out how many Darrail Smiths are out there. But gun-rights advocates say it protects license holders from harassment by law enforcement.
One such advocate is Kevin Michalowski. He’s both the executive editor of Concealed Carry Magazine, a publication of the United States Concealed Carry Association, and a law enforcement officer in central Wisconsin. “Concealed-carry permit information should not be attached to the police database,” Michalowski writes in an email to The Trace, “because police could then use that information to profile and target CCW permit holders for increased scrutiny where no reasonable suspicion for a search or traffic stop would otherwise exist.”
He gives the example of a Florida man, John Filippidis, whose family was detained and car searched by Maryland police in December of 2013 after an officer noticed a concealed-carry permit in his wallet. Maryland, which has some of the strictest gun laws in the country, doesn’t recognize out-of-state gun licenses, so it would have been illegal for Filippidis to be carrying — but he wasn’t.
“Months later, police admitted they acted improperly, but would not even issue an apology,” Michalowski writes.
The assumption that having a handgun license makes someone worthy of heightened scrutiny is exactly why Michalowski and others don’t want cops to integrate CHL data into their records. The good news for them is, it seems none do. While most official organizations — including the National Association of Police Organizations, the United States Concealed Carry Association, and the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence — don’t track police access to permit information comprehensively, individual law enforcement groups told The Trace that license status isn’t part of their internal records — even in Maryland.
“It’s not something that just arbitrarily pops up,” said a representative from the Maryland State Police who gave his name as Sergeant Black. “If police run your driver’s license, the only thing they’re going to come up with is your driver’s license information,” meaning your identity and criminal record. No dashboard computer could know whether you have a gun permit, he said.
That makes it hard to know how many Darrail Smiths are abusing the rights that Second Amendment activists have worked to protect.
Finally, on May 4, Darrail Smith slipped up. Carrington and Darrail were involved in another shootout that day. According to police records, surveillance video shows that the two men were filling up at a gas station when a dark sedan pulled in and opened fire. Carrington returned fire, apparently using his own gun this time, and the pair fled. But in the chaos, they left behind two cell phones (at least one of which had Carrington’s fingerprints on it) and a baseball cap that said “Cheddar Boyz vs. Everybody.”
Helpfully, from a police perspective, someone with the username “cheddarboy_k” posted a photo on social media of Darrail and Carrington in the same car the day before the shooting, wearing the same clothes and hat they wore in the gas station video. The photo was captioned, “GOT MY SHOOTER BEHIND ME IK HE GON RIDE FOR ME.”
The photo — which implies that Darrail was providing firearms to Carrington — was the last piece police needed to build a case. In May, Milwaukee prosecutors finally pinned an unusual charge on Darrail: two counts of conspiracy to commit possession of a firearm by a felon. He has since stopped appearing at crime scenes. A warrant is still out for his arrest.