June 3, 2014

Gun bills fail, shots fly

If Wisconsin had tougher penalties for habitual criminals caught with firearms, might Sierra Guyton, age 10, not have been shot?

The most honest answer: We’ll never know. The most intriguing: Possibly.

Sierra, a third-grader who liked singing, the Disney Channel and school, was shot in the head on a playground near her home in Milwaukee on May 21. She was left gravely injured with brain damage.

Two men drew guns and shots were fired; Sierra was caught in the crossfire. It was no anomaly: Nine children have been killed by errant gunfire in Milwaukee since 1995, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported. A week before Sierra was shot, an 11-year-old girl was wounded by gunfire about two miles away.

Speaking to reporters, Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn was unabashedly angry.

“Why can’t the people of this neighborhood enjoy a beautiful spring day without worrying about their children getting shot?” he asked. “I’m damned sick and tired of it.”

Flynn implored the community to stop tolerating young men carrying guns. And he called on the governor and Legislature “to pass a law that makes these little monsters afraid to get locked up for possessing a gun.”

It riles Flynn that people with multiple misdemeanor convictions don’t face felony charges for illegal gun possession. In fact, under current law, these individuals can obtain a state license to carry a concealed weapon.

The city of Milwaukee is lobbying for a three-pronged approach: exclude offenders with three or more misdemeanor convictions within a five-year period from getting a concealed carry license; make illegal gun possession a felony; and set a mandatory three-year minimum sentence for felonious firearm possession.

Currently, felons busted with guns face potentially harsh penalties but no mandatory minimum.

Last year, for a brief while, the call for tougher gun laws seemed to gain critical Republican support. State Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, announced she was drafting a bill to impose a three-year mandatory sentence for illegally carrying guns, and Gov. Scott Walker said he was open to the idea.

Joel Plant, Flynn’s chief of staff, says he believes that Darling circulated a bill draft seeking cosponsors. But the legislation was never introduced. The police department and city are still trying to build support for changes in the law.

In March, state Rep. Evan Goyke, D-Milwaukee, introduced a bill to ban persons with multiple misdemeanor convictions from possessing guns. Goyke says he waited until late in the session, hoping Republicans “would take the idea and run with it.” In the end, his bill had no GOP cosponsors and went nowhere.

Goyke suspects Darling’s bill stalled because “there was an interest group that didn’t want to see it pass.” Rep. Terese Berceau, D-Madison, has a similar take: “I wouldn’t be surprised if somebody pulled her back.” And Democratic candidate for governor Mary Burke cracked that state Republicans seem to “take voter suppression more seriously than … violence suppression.”

Darling’s office declined comment, after repeated requests. A spokeswoman for Walker said the governor is willing to work with law enforcement and others “to keep illegal guns out of the hands of criminals” — but not whether he backs a mandatory minimum.

Charged in connection with Sierra’s shooting are Sylvester Lewis, 18, and Jamey Jackson, 28. Lewis had more than a dozen prior arrests, going back to age 12. Jackson served time for fatally shooting a teenager in 2003, about a block from where Sierra was gunned down.

As convicted felons, both men were barred from possessing guns and would face a mandatory minimum, if one existed. Would that risk have been enough to counter the perceived incentive of “being a big man,” as Flynn puts it?

Possibly. And Lewis might have benefited from the bill’s impact on others. Police say Lewis was in a car that was shot at in February and, a week before the playground shooting, was himself wounded by gunfire.