On a June day in 2009, two Milwaukee, Wisconsin, police officers were shot in the head during a routine traffic stop. The shooter, Julius Burton, used a handgun he’d obtained a month earlier. Burton was 18 at the time, too young to legally purchase the gun himself, so he’d asked a 21-year-old friend to do it for him. It was a classic straw purchase: The young men had gone together to Badger Guns, a shop on the western edge of town, where the friend filled out the paperwork, paid for the gun, and afterward gave it to Burton for $60.
“This place is a cancerous lesion on Milwaukee,” said Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn a few months after the shooting.“ It is attached to us even though it is not in our city, and the poison it creates is seeping onto our streets and causing havoc.”
On Tuesday, after a years-long legal battle, a jury ordered Badger Guns to pay the two wounded police officers a nearly $6 million settlement. The officers alleged that the gun shop was negligent when it sold the handgun used in the shooting: they should have spotted the straw purchase. But that gun was just one of thousands of firearms sold at Badger Guns that have been used in crimes. Over the years, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) has cited the shop hundreds of times for violating federal gun regulations, and in 2011 finally revoked its license. Each time it seems on the brink of extinction, Badger Guns applies for a fresh license under a new name. It’s currently operating under the name Brew City Shooters Supply.
With the store under scrutiny, would-be Badger buyers may be turning to a neighboring shop instead. Three miles down the road sits The Shooters Shop, a squat brick building in Milwaukee’s West Allis suburb. The Shooters Shop has a cleaner record than Badger. As of 2009, it accounted for 3 percent of the crime guns recovered by Milwaukee police in the four previous years, whereas Badger Guns accounted for about one-third of the crime guns during the same period.
Gavin Robinson, 52, has been the manager of The Shooters Shop for the past six years, but since Badger’s legal troubles began he’s had to fend off an influx of “undesirable customers.” The Trace spoke with Robinson about how the Badger Guns trial has impacted his business, and how he and his employees spot straw purchasers.
What would I find at your shop that I wouldn’t find at Badger?
I don’t sell cheap handguns. I sell quality firearms. My business is more assault and high-end handgun. Probably $550 and up on quality brand name handguns, whereas I’m thinking Badger is probably $100, $200, $300 guns.
How has the Badger trial affected your business?
I’m getting more undesirable customers coming in. Crime just travels. It goes from one spot to the next. We’ve gotten more selective in who we sell to.
What red flags do you look for to make sure you’re not selling to the wrong people?
Girlfriends buying for boyfriends, or wives buying for husbands who can’t own firearms. They will come in, and they will make like they’re trying to buy the firearm, when they know nothing about firearms. They’ll ask the wrong questions. They don’t want to hold the gun and feel it.
I have signs posted everywhere in the store that say if you fail the background check you will forfeit $250 of your gun purchase. That should be a helluva deterrent right there.
A true buyer wants to hold the gun; he’s gonna ask questions about it, whereas a straw purchaser doesn’t care. [They’ll] just come, see the price, and say, “Ooh I like this one. I’ll take it.” That sends up a red flag right away. It happens if not once a week, maybe every other week. It’s common.
What’s an example of a bad question?
“What’s your cheapest gun?”
But just because someone can’t afford your guns, that doesn’t mean they’re a criminal.
If you’re a young male or female between 20 and 50, I assume you have money, you should be working. Now if you’re an older lady, a retired teacher, maybe 70, 80 years old, then I’ll do all I can to get her a handgun that she can afford.
And then what happens when you suspect a customer shouldn’t be buying guns?
Without being rude, I’ll say, “Maybe this isn’t the gun for you,” or, “You might have to spend more money.” I’ll say, “Is it for self-defense or practice?” And when I don’t get the answer I’m looking for, I’m ready. I’ve got my guard up. And then I try to make it as miserable as possible to buy a firearm because I know it’s not for the person. You just make ’em uncomfortable so they just wanna leave.
If I’m not comfortable selling the firearm, I will just say, “We’re not interested in selling you a firearm.”
Do you ever get pushback?
Oh yeah, people get angry. But you gotta remember, you’re in a gun store. Most of us are armed. That’s how it is, there’s no rule-bending. There’s no wishy-washy.
How often do people fail background checks in your store?
I’d say we get denials on about one to three people a month. That’s about remained the same [over time].
What have you learned during your time working at the shop?
I’ve wised up. When I first started, I was naive — I didn’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings when they couldn’t buy a firearm. I got kinda pushed around a little bit, and that doesn’t happen anymore. Now I don’t take it so personally. That’s the law. I got rules to follow.
[Photo: Google Maps]