Gun sale background checks stall on national, state level

Part Two
by Alexandra Arriaga
Wisconsin Center
for Investigative Journalism

On June 20 after a gunman killed 49 people and wounded 53 others at an Orlando, Florida nightclub, a Senate filibuster and vote resulted in a 56-44 largely party-line vote against expanded background checks. Wisconsin’s Republican Sen. Ron Johnson voted no; Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin voted yes.

On June 23, House Democrats staged a sit-in to try to force a vote on a measure to expand background checks and another that would have prohibited people on no-fly lists, including the Orlando shooter, from buying guns. Republican Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin blocked that effort, calling it a “publicity stunt.”

In Wisconsin — where an epidemic of gun violence fueled by illegally obtained firearms is raging in Milwaukee — lawmakers have avoided voting on background checks. Bills introduced by Democrats to expand background checks in recent sessions have died without a hearing.

Republican Gov. Scott Walker has said he opposes expanding background checks. In a written response to questions from the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, Walker spokesman Tom Evenson said Wisconsin already requires background checks; he did not address the issue of private sales, which require no such scrutiny.

Other top Republicans are mum on why the Legislature has declined to consider expanding background checks.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, did not respond to emails seeking comment.

Email and phone messages sent to Rep. Joel Kleefisch, R-Oconomowoc, chairman of the Assembly Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety, also were not returned. He told Wisconsin Public Radio in 2015 that he opposed the Democrats’ bill but gave no explanation.

‘Don’t ask, don’t, tell’ for guns

Wintemute said there are “two systems of gun commerce in the United States”: Sales by licensed retailers that require background checks, paperwork and a permanent record; and transactions between two private individuals requiring no screening or record keeping.

Wintemute has seen the systems in action during his visits to gun shows in Wisconsin and elsewhere. He calls it “Don't ask, don't tell” for guns.

“I've watched people go up and negotiate the purchase of the gun from a vendor at a gun show, not realizing that they're talking to a licensed dealer,” Wintemute said. “And just as the negotiation is concluding, out comes the paperwork. And the buyer says, ‘Wait, you're a dealer?’ And the seller says ‘Yes,’ and the buyer just laughs and walks away and goes and finds a private party to buy from.”

At the Badger Military Collectible Show at the Waukesha Expo Center Aug. 5, some licensed dealers told a reporter that they have witnessed the same thing. At this show, old military uniforms, medals and vintage firearms were sold next to tables with newer handguns and rifles. Licensed dealers were vocal in their thoughts on expanding background checks to private sales, but several unlicensed sellers declined interview requests.

Marty Brunner, who goes by the nickname “Machine Gun” Marty, is a licensed gun manufacturer and dealer. “NRA4 EVER” is tattooed across the knuckles of both his hands.

Brunner believes purchasers go to private dealers because “they have something to hide.”

He also believes private vendors are more likely to sell “hot guns” previously used in crimes.

Said Brunner: “They don’t want the government to know they have a gun.”

Tom Hardell, owner of Tom’s Military Arms & Guns, said he “definitely” supports universal background checks. Hardell, who mostly sells handguns, said he has turned down a lot of buyers after running a background check. Many of them, he said, are “gang bangers.”

“It hurts me as a business, and it hurts Milwaukee because that's where the guns are coming (from),” Hardell said.

Ron Martin, a licensed dealer who travels across Wisconsin selling hunting rifles, said implementing background checks for everyone could “level the playing field” between licensed and unlicensed firearm sellers.

Martin is not sure expanding background checks would help to reduce firearm violence, however.

“You could put all the laws you want, but the last I checked criminals don't abide by laws,” Martin said. “They don't buy guns — they steal them.”

Former gang member: Guns easy to get

But Rico, a former gang member and admitted criminal from Madison, told a reporter that he bought his guns, finding it easy to amass numerous high-powered weapons after he failed a background check by a licensed dealer. While Rico has bought some of his guns “on the street,” he also purchased weapons at gun shows. He asked that his full formal name not to be used because he described committing crimes that could subject him to prosecution.

The 27-year-old estimated that he owns more than 20 guns — all of them bought without passing a background check.

“To be honest, I lost count. I got many. I got assault rifles, I mean, just regular hand pistols, they could be 9-millimeter Berettas, mini-AKs, ARs,” Rico said, listing a variety of semi-automatic weapons. He photographed many of them at the request of a reporter.

He bought several firearms without a background check at a Black River Falls gun show. He used the same terminology as Wintemute to describe private transactions: “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”

It is possible that Rico could qualify to buy a gun after undergoing a background check. He was charged with a felony in 2009 — possession with intent to deliver marijuana — but the case was dropped for lack of evidence. Rico believes he could have fought the background check denial. He chose not to.

“I might as well buy it from a third party where they don’t do background checks, like gun shows, private sales,” Rico said, saying such transactions are similar to “people who’re just selling them … on the street.”

He said universal background checks would not keep criminals from getting guns.

During his years in the gang, Rico said he used guns for intimidation and robbery — even a shootout. Rico acknowledged using firearms to rob people at ATM machines.

“I mean, the more crime you did … the more elite, the more alpha you were,” he explained.

He described one incident in Milwaukee about 10 years ago in which two cars approached his group on the street. Somebody said something in Spanish that provoked his group. At least 15 shots were traded in a matter of moments, he said.

Rico said he has quit the gang life. He went back to school, and now works in an office as a tech specialist. He has turned in his gangster attire for gym gear; he hopes to become a certified trainer.

One remnant of his old lifestyle stayed.

“I kept the firearms,” Rico said.

Lawsuit targets Armslist

For several years before her death, Zina Haughton had been physically abused by her husband. When the violence escalated in October 2012, she got a restraining order and moved out of the couple’s Brown Deer home, testifying that his threats “terrorize my every waking moment.”

The court granted her protection, prohibiting him from approaching Zina Haughton for four years and from possessing firearms, a ban that would have lasted until October 2016.

If Radcliffe Haughton had attempted to buy from a licensed dealer, he would have been blocked by a background check, and police would have been alerted to his attempt to illegally acquire a gun, according to the lawsuit filed by Yasmeen Daniel with help from the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

Instead, he visited

Armslist.com.

The lawsuit argued that Haughton’s “extreme urgency, lack of discernment, and preference for a high-capacity magazine” should have alerted Armslist proprietors.

Without any screening or background check, Radcliffe Haughton purchased a FNP-40 semiautomatic handgun for $500 from a private seller in a McDonald’s parking lot.

The complaint argues Armslist proprietors designed the site to exploit the loophole to allow private sellers to cater to prohibited purchasers. It notes that the website has been traced to several incidents in which prohibited purchasers used firearms in Wisconsin and elsewhere.

Websites including eBay, Amazon and Craigslist have banned private gun sales. The complaint argues that Armslist strategically fills the online void left for private gun sales “to enable the sale of firearms to prohibited and otherwise dangerous people.”

The lawsuit also alleges such transactions circumvent other safeguards, including federal restrictions on interstate transfers of guns, state waiting periods and state-specific assault weapon bans.

Armslist attorney Eric Van Schyndle did not respond to several messages seeking comment. Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Glenn Yamahiro has scheduled a Nov. 1 hearing to decide whether to dismiss the case. In 2014, Armslist defeated a similar lawsuit in Illinois.

Background checks stall in Wisconsin

State Sen. Nikiya Harris Dodd, D-Milwaukee, and state Rep. Terese Berceau, D-Madison, co-sponsored a bill again in the most recent legislative session to implement universal background checks. Berceau called it a “common sense” step to reduce gun violence.

Part Three Tuesday


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