Outside of the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County in Fitchburg, children swing on a playground. Inside the club’s Allied Drive neighborhood location, teenagers dribble basketballs. In the doorway are metal detectors, keeping weapons out of the building. But the danger of firearms still permeates the community.
When asked what exposure they had to guns, a group of children talked about their friend, former Boys and Girls Club member Eric Gutierrez, an 11-year-old accidentally shot to death in Walworth County on July 9, 2014, a few months after his family moved there from Madison.
“His friends were playing with it,” Keara Jones, 11, recalled during an April interview. “I guess they pulled the trigger and then they shot him. And they left him there.”
Police discovered that Eric and a 14-year-old friend were playing with a handgun in the woods behind the friend’s home in Sharon, a village of 1,600, when Gutierrez was shot in the head. He died the next day.
The gun came from the friend’s father, who kept about 20 firearms in the home. According to police, all of the weapons were accessible, including some stored in an unlocked safe in the teenager’s bedroom. The father was sentenced to a year of probation and has agreed to pay $5,000 in restitution to Eric’s family. The teenager got a year of supervision.
“I feel the justice system has completely failed me and my family,” Rebecca Orick, Gutierrez’s mother, told the Janesville Gazette in April. “I feel like basically that’s saying my son’s life is worth a year.”
It is illegal for anyone younger than 18 in Wisconsin to possess a firearm except for target practice, training or hunting, and then in most cases only under adult supervision. Nevertheless, hundreds or perhaps thousands of teenagers each year illegally carry firearms — for protection or to hurt themselves or others.
Guns and teens can be a lethal mix. Immaturity and impulsiveness, combined with weapons that can kill with the squeeze of a trigger, have caused death and devastating injuries to Wisconsin children and adults. For example, more than 250 children were suspects in nonfatal shootings in Milwaukee alone during the past decade.
Public health and gun experts say teens get their hands on guns from people they know, often friends or family — not primarily by stealing or buying them illegally. They say more needs to be done to keep firearms out of the hands of minors.
In Milwaukee, about 6 percent of public high school students surveyed in 2013 said they had carried a gun in the previous month, with roughly a third of those saying they had carried on four or more days. The survey did not specify where students carried the guns.
That would mean of the approximately 21,000 high-school students enrolled in fall 2012, roughly 1,300 were armed during the previous 30 days. The rate is similar to those in other large cities including Chicago, Houston and Seattle, Milwaukee Public Schools spokesman Tony Tagliavia said.
As of Aug. 24, 41 children under the age of 17 had been wounded and seven killed by gunfire in Milwaukee this year, according to the city’s police department. That includes a 14-year-old boy shot to death during Fourth of July weekend, a few days before a 13-year-old was charged in the shooting death of another boy his same age.
On July 19, a 17-year-old Milwaukee girl was shot to death while standing on her front porch; the shooting was the city’s 86th homicide of the year, tying the total for all of 2014.
Children also were suspects in hundreds of homicides and nonfatal shootings in Milwaukee over the previous decade.
Between 2005 and 2014, 109 children in Milwaukee were suspected of homicide, many involving guns. Minors accounted for roughly 10 percent of all shooting suspects in 2014, according to the Milwaukee Homicide Review Commission.
Statewide, 109 children ages 17 and under were killed by firearms between 2003 and 2012. An additional 15 young people died of accidental shootings in the same decade, according to the Department of Health Services’ injury mortality database.
A 2013 survey of public high school students on risky behaviors found that 14 percent reported carrying a weapon, such as a club, knife or firearm in the previous 30 days.
Examples of young people within the past two years using guns to harm others can be found around Wisconsin:
- In early June, an 11-year-old boy was shot in the face when he and his 15-year-old cousin were playing with a .22-caliber rifle in Reid, a town of 1,200 in Marathon County, after a day of target shooting with an adult.
- A 17-year-old from Fitchburg is suspected of a July 15 shooting at a Fleet Farm parking lot in Beaver Dam, 40 miles northeast of Madison. The teen, who was suspected of shoplifting ammunition, allegedly wounded a store manager who was trying to detain him.
- In February, Dean Sutcliffe, 17, allegedly killed his ex-girlfriend’s sister and her mother’s boyfriend. Sutcliffe lived in Mazomanie, a village of about 1,700 roughly 25 miles west of Madison. He used his father’s revolver, which he had obtained after finding a key to the gun’s safe.
- Ashlee Martinson, 17, allegedly killed her stepfather with a rifle and her mother with a knife in March. They lived in Piehl, a town with fewer than 100 residents, located about 20 miles east of Rhinelander.
- In September, a 17-year-old was charged in Superior with felony murder after he shot and killed a man in a robbery. He pleaded guilty in early June to the crime.
- Last summer in Racine, a 15-year-old reportedly shot and killed a 19-year-old, who was also armed, later bragging about the murder in a rap video.
- In late December, a 14-year-old was shot and sent to the hospital after he and others were playing with a .22 caliber revolver in Madison. Police said Elliot Johnson, 18, accidentally shot his cousin in the chest. Johnson was sentenced to four years of probation Aug. 21 after pleading guilty to charges including first-degree reckless injury.
Many children also have used guns to harm themselves.
Between 2003 and 2012, the most recent years with available data, 108 Wisconsinites ages 17 and younger died from self-inflicted gunshot wounds. Shooting was the second most common means of committing suicide among young people in Wisconsin.
Among them was a 15-year-old high school student who fatally shot himself in 2010 at Marinette High School after holding his teacher and classmates hostage.
Dr. Stephen Hargarten, director of the Injury Research Center at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, said restricting access to guns for young people would be an important step in curbing youth gun violence.
Hargarten acknowledges there is a lot of political disagreement over gun control but said, “This is, I think, an area of common ground. Nobody wants unauthorized access of these products to youth.”
Background checks for all gun purchases would cut access to firearms by young people, he and other experts say.
Democratic lawmakers have proposed requiring that all gun purchases, except to family members, occur through federally licensed firearms dealers who are required to conduct background checks. Currently, unlicensed dealers can sell online, in private transactions or at gun shows without background checks. Gun advocates say such regulation burdens law-abiding citizens who have a constitutional right to own weapons.
A similar effort in the past legislative session died. Despite a March 2013 Marquette Law School poll that found 81 percent of Wisconsinites said they support such a policy, top GOP lawmakers who control the Legislature remain opposed.
In June, Republican Gov. Scott Walker signed into a law a bill repealing the state’s 48-hour waiting period to purchase a handgun. Bill author Rep. Romaine Quinn, R-Rice Lake, called the waiting period “an unnecessary burden.”
Professor Daniel Webster, director of the Center for Gun Policy and Research at Johns Hopkins University, proposes an additional safeguard: having police issue a permit to buy any handgun.
Enactment of such a law led to a 40 percent drop in gun homicides in Connecticut, according to a study published in June authored by Webster. But such laws are strongly opposed by gun-rights groups, and there are no current proposals to require permits before Wisconsin’s Legislature.
Jeff Nass, executive director of Wisconsin Firearm Owners, Ranges, Clubs and Educators Inc., said background checks and permits also penalize lawful gun owners.
“The whole problem with the permission thing is that the law-abiding citizen has to get permission to exercise their rights,” said Nass, whose group is the state’s National Rifle Association-chartered organization. “We should put this onus onto the people who lost their rights (such as felons), not the people who have them.”
Broader efforts needed
But changing laws and policies must be coupled with educating young people “to see firearms as a bad way to resolve conflict,” said John Rakowski, program coordinator for the medical college’s Violence Prevention Initiative, which ended this summer. He called for a focused community-wide effort to “engage people in conversation about the lethal nature of firearms and find a way to deter them from wanting to pick them up.”
Rakowski also backs stiffer penalties for those caught carrying firearms illegally. A bipartisan bill imposing mandatory minimum sentences on violent felons possessing a weapon and using a firearm in a crime is making its way through the Legislature.
Locking up guns when not in use — which is not required in Wisconsin — would be another good way to keep them out of the hands of children, Hargarten and others say. Some also call for beefing up gun safety courses to include training on how to recognize and prevent suicide.
Technology also may be an answer, said Stephen Teret, a Johns Hopkins professor of health policy. Some guns have mechanisms making them usable only to their owners, which Teret called the “best bet” to reduce teenage suicides, violence and accidental shootings.
‘Guns don’t drop from the sky’
Webster, the gun-policy researcher from Johns Hopkins, has analyzed data from a federal nationwide survey of inmates younger than 20 years of age. He said 36 percent of the young offenders who used guns in crimes got them from friends and family.
An additional 47 percent of inmates said they had gotten their guns from “the street.” Webster said his research has shown that those young people often got guns from people who are not strangers.
“Guns don’t drop from the sky, they don’t sprout from the ground,” he said. “They come and they start in legal commerce.”
Rakowski, of the medical college, said researchers do not fully know where teens get guns.
“We are not really well-informed about where they’re getting access to guns or why they’re getting access,” he said. “Therefore it’s really hard to make effective strategies and solutions when we don’t really understand the problem.”
Guns common in suicide
According to a 2005 study by Hargarten, 323 people in Wisconsin younger than 25 between the year 2000 and 2002 used firearms to kill themselves. In cases where the young person used someone else’s firearm, about half of the time it came from a family member or guardian.
A Harvard study of four states, including Wisconsin, as well as two counties out of state found 82 percent of teens used a gun belonging to a family member to take their own lives.
Catherine Barber, a Harvard researcher and director of the Means Matters campaign, said one study found that among people who survived a suicide attempt, just under half said the thought of killing themselves came to them within 10 minutes of their attempt — making easy access to a firearm even more dangerous. Barber added that shooting is the most deadly type of suicide attempt.
“A lot of people’s suicidal intent peaks at a crisis and then ebbs,” Barber said. “When you’re in just a frenzy of despair over a relationship break up on Saturday, by Monday you might still be unhappy but not in the same fever pitch frenzy.”
Locking up firearms
Research shows that having a gun in the home is associated with an overall higher risk of suicide. Dr. David Grossman, a pediatrician and researcher at Group Health Cooperative in Washington, said storing a gun reduces the overall risk of teenage suicide and accidental gun injuries.
“Our study showed you can achieve rather substantial benefit from just locking the gun in a safe or lockbox without necessarily having to unload it,” said Grossman, an expert in gun storage techniques research.
According to the Harvard study, about two-thirds of the guns used by minors who took their own lives were stored unlocked. When a gun was locked away, the young person found the key, learned the combination or broke in, the study found.
Cable gun locks, which work by running a cable through the gun to prevent it from being fired, have been offered through Prevent Suicide Kenosha County, a partnership between the Medical College of Wisconsin, the county and others. The locks have been offered in 22 counties since 2006, said Debbie Rueber, chairwoman of the partnership.
Nass also has provided cable gun locks for some of the courses he teaches in gun safety. He said such mechanisms can reduce theft. He also credited the state’s concealed carry law, which requires gun safety classes, with helping improve safety around firearms.
Nass added that children, who are naturally curious, must be taught not to touch guns.
“The best safety of the firearm is the operator,” Nass said. “Education is the key, no question.”
Smart guns, safe guns
Johns Hopkins professor Teret said outreach on gun safety and storage techniques should be coupled with design changes in guns. Teret sees smart guns or childproof guns, which can only be operated by authorized users, as the future.
Currently, just one smart gun is on the market in the United States with others in development, Teret said. The Armatix iP1 operates with the use of a wristwatch that sends radio signals to the firearm.
Hargarten said such technology is initially relatively expensive, but would likely become cheaper in the future when market conditions change.
“This is a significant public health problem, and elements of attacking this are behavioral, regulatory and technological in nature,” Hargarten said. “And it’s important that people come together and talk about it in that way.”
The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism WisconsinWatch.org collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates. This report was produced in collaboration with Precious Lives, a two-year project investigating the problem of gun violence among young people, its causes and potential solutions in the Milwaukee area and statewide. The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism’s coverage is supported by The Joyce Foundation.