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City Limits

‘You Know How Long It Takes to Get an Illegal Gun on the North Side of Milwaukee? Minutes.’

Accounts from the front lines of urban gun violence. This week: A Midwestern city battles an all-American problem.

Wisconsin’s largest city set a grisly record this summer: In July, Milwaukee had already experienced more fatal shootings than it did in all of 2014. Of the 96 Milwaukeeans murdered so far this year, 79 were shot. All but eight people shot fatally were male; all but nine were African-American.

Gun violence happens all over this city of 600,000, but much of it is centered on the north side of town. Milwaukee was settled along racial lines — with African-Americans in the north and whites in the south — and little has changed. The zip code 53206 in the Near North Side neighborhood is the city’s poorest, filled with empty storefronts, hyper-segregated schools, and abandoned homes that can sell for as little as $13,000. According to the latest U.S. Census data, the Near North Side experiences a 36 percent employment rate among working-age males, and two-thirds of children live in poverty.

As part of a weekly series, The Trace shares the stories of Americans living in the midst of the nation’s urban gun violence epidemic.

The documentarian asking why more people don’t care

Brad Lichtenstein, 46, is the executive producer of Precious Lives, a two-year, 100-part radio and podcast series about kids and gun violence set in Milwaukee.

I’m a parent — I have a 13-year-old and a 10-year-old — and when Newtown happened, I was listening to the parents of all these first graders and imagining what it would be like if my kids were shot and killed. And I just kept feeling that the media is so good at covering these tragedies when they’re mass shootings, but not so good at covering our cities, where essentially the equivalent of mass shootings is happening every single day. We have too many people who are being shot and killed, and guns are such a regular part of American life.

In Milwaukee it’s maybe a bit more severe because we are among the most segregated cities in the country, where fear and mistrust animate the relationship between black and white people. Concentrated areas of violence here are mostly black, and they’re not getting the same kind of attention as mass shooting victims, who are mostly suburban and white. They’re not being humanized in the same way. And you can’t do that with one story — you have to that with 100 stories.

Shortly after Newtown, I was listening to “In Harm’s Way,” a radio series about kids killed in New York City gun violence, and I heard the story of 17-year-old Xavier Granville, who was shot and killed leaving a party in Far Rockaway, Queens. His parents were sent to the wrong hospital and didn’t get to hear his last words. His mother talked about how he loved the water, and would fall asleep in the shower while gazing out the window at the ducks outside his housing complex. When she asked him why he took such long showers, he told her he wanted to be a marine biologist.

Those details really highlighted the difference in the coverage of black and white shootings. There’s a dehumanizing element to the way crime is usually covered in black neighborhoods, where we see the flashing lights and hear from the startled neighbor. Maybe if we can humanize these tragedies, we can get the city to do something about gun violence. Or just care about it. Which is no small task.

Last summer, a good friend of mine, Claudiare, who’s black, was visiting Milwaukee for his 25th high school reunion. He used to live here, but he and his wife left town to raise their black children, particularly their son, away from Milwaukee. Claudiare was checking his email in his car when two cars penned him in, and a 15-year-old boy named Nathan King opened fire, sending a bullet into Claudiare’s jaw. If it had gone in any higher, it would have hit his jugular. He nearly died twice that night. The blood was coagulating in his throat and couldn’t breathe. It’s a miracle that he figured out how to stay conscious long enough to drive himself to the hospital. On top of that, he woke up in the morning shackled to the bed because police assumed he was a gang member.

The next day, Nathan King and his group of so-called friends — they were on a crime spree — jumped a woman. She had a concealed-carry pistol and she shot him, and now he’s paralyzed from the waist down. Now, I have never owned a gun, don’t need a gun, and am not interested in guns. The presence of a gun is more likely to get people shot. But this woman probably would have been dead if she didn’t have a gun. She had two guys overpowering her, and one of them said, “Go get the cannon,” which is slang for gun. It’s hard to give a blanket pronouncement that having a gun for self-defense is always a bad idea.

In the end, Claudiare asked the court for leniency for Nathan King. He wanted to demonstrate that you don’t get away with crimes like this — he was 15 at one time, too, but he didn’t go gangbanging. But he also didn’t want to consign another black boy to 12 years in prison. Which is what King got.

The prosecutor who wants to save the kids

Kent Lovern, 44, has been the chief deputy district attorney for Milwaukee County for eight years.

Any violent crime takes its toll on a community. But the cases that resonate most deeply with people involve children: gunfights between two like-minded individuals intent on doing harm to one another that strike kids in between.

I’ve been a prosecutor for 18 years. Violent crime happens where you have the highest rates of poverty, the highest rates of kids struggling in school, lower rates of homeownership, and the poorest health.

When you think about urban gun violence, it’s important to understand the mental framework young people are operating within. The District Attorney, John Chisholm, went to the juvenile detention center one day and talked to the boys about guns. The kids were quick to identify firearms by their make and model, and said they could get one fairly quickly. The most troubling response he got from them, though, was when they were asked how many homicides they thought took place every year in Milwaukee. Their answers were in the thousands. Now, we have a lot of homicides for our population, but there aren’t thousands. I think this misunderstanding informs the notion that obtaining a gun is a necessity to get through life.

We now have a prosecutor at every police district who helps identify emerging crime issues. These could be things like boarded-up houses, vacant properties — things that give rise to making a neighborhood unsafe. We want to identify problems before they become homicides. That’s a tall order in some places, but there’s still a strong core of people who want the same things everyone wants for their families. So it’s about tapping into that.

I think there’s a lot more discussion in this community around the need to better combine our resources than ever before, and it reaches across political and geographical lines. I think people realize that we have a lot of assets in Milwaukee. The city has a great deal of potential, and we have serious challenges. They’re challenges that, if not attended to, will have an adverse impact on our kids.

The reformed criminal wondering how many communities will be torn apart

Shawn Moore, 48, a former hustler and ex-convict, is a “safe zone ambassador” at the city-funded Helping Others Obtain Direction outreach program in Milwaukee.

The first time I held a gun, I was 11. My grandmother’s purse got snatched. The strap got stuck on her arm, and he was dragging her across the street. I tried to jump on his back but he threw me off. I had seen the gun in my grandmother’s closet, I knew it was there, so I went and got it. It was a little .22 revolver with a wooden handle, but to me, it felt like a boulder. That was the first time I picked up a gun with the intention of using it.

If you aren’t related to somebody who’s dealing with gun violence, you know somebody who’s dealing with gun violence. It’s all around us. Some people buy guns for recreational reasons. African-Americans buy guns for survival. I’ve been in shootouts.

There’s times when I didn’t leave home without two pistols: one, a .45, had a beam on it, and the other was a revolver. I wasn’t raised like this. But I didn’t want to die, either. I knew that we were playing a game that, shit, you may lose your life, you know what I’m saying? I didn’t want my mama to go through that. So I had my pistols.

You know how long it takes to get an illegal gun on the North Side of Milwaukee? Minutes. And thanks to our wonderful governor, anybody can go buy a gun over the counter right now because there’s no waiting period. There’s people out here getting guns who have no business getting guns, but they’re getting them legally. They say that criminals don’t heed gun laws anyway. I say, fewer laws makes getting a gun a lot easier. It definitely doesn’t make it harder.

They say I should have a gun so I can make sure that if someone’s trying to kill me, I can kill them? I say, why don’t we go one better and take the gun from him, so I don’t have to worry about him killing me and me killing him?

[Photo: Google Maps]