Big Bang Theories

When mass shootings happen, the explosive gun debate reloads across America. In Wisconsin, where nearly half of all households possess firearms and “God, guns and the Green Bay Packers” are worshipped as Trinity, we are as conflicted as ever. Some feel frustration, sadness and helplessness over a senseless death toll. Others say if there is indeed a “toll,” it’s about people, not their weapons. Is there room for middle ground? And is anyone actually seeking it?

PHOTO BY NOAH WILLMAN

TRIGGERING THE DEBATE: Target shooting at Deerfield Pistol and Archery Center, where ammunition sales boomed when President Obama went on the defensive after Sandy Hook.

The tiny, imprinted teeth on the gun’s grip cut neatly into my damp palm as I slide the first bullet into the chamber. The Glock 9mm is heavier than I expected. Range manager and instructor Brett Fankhauser seems like a chill guy, even-keeled, but firm. He reminds me to push forward with my right hand and pull back with the left fist that cradles it to create that stabilizing, push-pull grip, just like we’d practiced on the plastic dummy gun upstairs. 

“Knees bent, seat back, lean forward,” he coaches as I squint through the sites at my silhouetted target downrange. I slowly, slowly release the breath from my lungs, let my right pointer finger creep toward the trigger. Upstairs he told me that I’m never to point the barrel at anything I’m not willing to kill or destroy, and in the suspended split second that my paper opponent’s head snaps crisply into focus, I think, Could I really do this? If this were a living, breathing human being, could I?

The first shot surprises me, kicks my shoulders back and sends my aim inches higher than I’d expected—but after that, I’m surprisingly accurate. We’re down in the dark, fluorescent-lit basement of the Deerfield Pistol and Archery Center. Housed inside a quaint, red-awninged, 1893 Cream City brick building right on Main Street, DPAC is a popular destination for hobbyists and law enforcement officers far and wide. Fankhauser has helped me load the magazines of two semiautomatic handguns with twelve bullets apiece. He watched, like a patient uncle, as I struggled, each bullet harder to press in place than the last with my unpracticed thumb. For the next twenty minutes or so I take my time between shots, running methodically through the steps: resetting my squat, squaring my shoulders, locking my push-pull grip, steadying my breath.

In the end, I’ve got an impressive-looking target, imaginary head and heart riddled with clean, neat bullet holes. I’ve also got a headache and a shoulder ache. My hands feel a little numb and I’m unexpectedly, honestly exhausted—and not just physically.

“You’re a natural,” Fankhauser smiles.

It’s not like this is my first time shooting—I did grow up in rural Wisconsin, after all—but it’s never really been my thing. It is, however, the thing for a lot of people I know and love, and those people aren’t necessarily who you’d expect them to be. That’s always been one of my most cherished ideas about Wisconsin, a state founded on progressive, independent-minded values: I get to think what I think, you get to think what you think, and as long as we’re respectful of each other, it’s not really anybody’s business.

But guns present their own sort of push-pull in America. Any discussion on gun control—or “anti-violence efforts,” depending on who’s talking—elicits passionate responses. Since the fresh horror of Columbine shocked an entire nation fifteen years ago, school shootings have become chillingly commonplace. Even in the short year-and-a-half since the Sandy Hook massacre alone, there have been more than forty gun incidents on school grounds nationwide, according to the Washington Post. Through it all, very little seems to have changed in terms of legislative policy, a telltale sign of how powerful, polarizing and complicated the issue has become.

“We live in a civil society that tolerates 31,000 gun deaths every year,” says Jeri Bonavia of Wisconsin Anti-Violence Effort, or WAVE. “There is no other industrialized, high-income country in the world that has rates of gun violence anywhere close to ours. We seem to tolerate it as part of everyday life, when in fact it doesn’t need to be.”

“Tolerate” is an interesting choice of words. Do Americans want policy changes to our gun laws? Do Wisconsinites? It’s estimated that about forty-six percent of Wisconsin households own a gun. Since November 2011, when Wisconsin became the forty-ninth state to legalize concealed carry, Wisconsin’s Department of Justice has issued 220,000 permits, representing less than four percent of the state’s population. Gun rights proponents boast we’ve got one of the “strongest” concealed carry laws in the nation, one that gun control advocates bemoan for requiring essentially no training.

“There is a great deal of tolerance,” says Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources hunting and shooting sports coordinator Keith Warnke, who has no idea Bonavia used the same word. She was talking about gun violence; I’ve asked him to tell me about Wisconsin’s gun culture.

PHOTO BY NOAH WILLMAN

Wisconsin DNR hunting and shooting sports coordinator Keith Warnke 

“We have a super-strong hunting tradition, and the understanding that, yeah, a lot of people own guns and they’re very, very responsible with them,” says Warnke. “And this strong acceptance and understanding is from basically all ends of the political spectrum.”

For example, one of the more popular new programs Warnke heads is called Hunting for Sustainability, where “generally very liberal, very progressive” Madisonians take a five-week hunting and training class so they can learn to harvest their own food. Warnke says you should see the rural locals’ faces when all those Obama-stickered Priuses and Subarus pull up to the range and their drivers pull out rifles and shotguns.

But where this tolerance “frays,” Warnke says, is in the aftermath of tragedies like Sandy Hook—or, closer to home, the 2012 Azana Salon & Spa shooting in Brookfield that killed four, including gunman Radcliffe Haughton, and injured four others. Haughton, who’d just had a domestic violence restraining order issued against him, bought his gun online without a background check. A whopping eighty to ninety percent of polled Americans say they support background checks on all gun sales—the existing federal law applies only to licensed gun dealers and not to private sellers at gun shows and online—but just this spring session a Wisconsin bill to close this so-called loophole never made it out of committee.

“When you start seeing poll results in the eighties and nineties of the public supporting a particular policy,” says Tony Gibart, public policy coordinator for End Domestic Abuse Wisconsin (formerly the Wisconsin Coalition Against Domestic Violence), “it’s a pretty clear indication that if democracy ruled the day, we would have universal background checks.”

But it’s not that simple, say gun rights advocates, and they brace against the reaction that follows in the wake of each high-profile tragedy, one they say is based more on emotion than education. While some renew their cry for stronger gun control, others become convinced the government is coming for the guns of law-abiding citizens.

“That’s why they say Obama was our best gun salesman, you know?” says Fankhauser, back at the range. After the president went on TV to talk about guns and Sandy Hook, DPAC had its best three months ever in guns and ammunition sales. So did a lot of places across America, and in fact ammunition is still hard to come by; that’s why DPAC started making its own.

PHOTO BY NOAH WILLMAN

Brett Fankhauser manages operations at the Deerfield Pistol and Archery Center, where gun control and gun safety are widely debated topics.

Fankhauser came to the Deerfield range as a hobbyist and ended up an employee; he’s been here about ten years. He’s a concealed carry permit holder but says he’s “not a strict Second Amendmentist.” He agrees with a lot of what both camps have to say and he gets where everybody is coming from.

“I just don’t know that the two sides will ever come together,” he says, describing himself as “in the middle.” When I reply that a lot of people think of themselves as “in the middle” like he is, he laughs, “People, yes. But people don’t run our country.”

A month or so from this day at the range, when I’m about halfway through the process of speaking on and off the record to more than a dozen pastors and politicians, scientists and doctors, policy advocates and gun shop owners, my editor will email to ask how the “gun story” she assigned is coming along.

“Well, I’m thoroughly convinced that guns are incredibly dangerous and destructive and we should do away with all of them today,” I’ll write back. “And I’m also thoroughly convinced that my right to bear arms is constitutionally protected and there is no way you can legislate that away from me and you really have no business even trying.”

“Good,” she’ll reply.

***

According to a ninety-one-page January 2013 Wisconsin Department of Health Services report, of the 48,101 deaths in Wisconsin in 2011, 440 directly involved a firearm. It’s a little less than one percent. By comparison that same year, 1,026 Wisconsinites died in accidental falls. (And, by further comparison, 441 people died from gun violence in Chicago alone in 2012.)

Yet 440 hovers around the same number killed in motor vehicle crashes on Wisconsin roads each year, a number we as a state have deemed unacceptable, as evidenced by the Department of Transportation’s Zero in Wisconsin campaign. According to the DOT these are “preventable deaths,” and their comprehensive website details dozens of data-driven initiatives I can take to help reduce that number, from downloading an app to educating myself with statistics on types of crashes, crashes by county and more. And it’s working. Motor vehicle deaths are down significantly since the mid-’60s despite the fact that there are far more cars on the road today.

I can’t find anything close to this on guns. Nor should I, according to those who say the NRA-influenced legislators stripped the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s injury center of $2.6 million per year earmarked for research into the causes of injuries and deaths involving firearms back in the mid-’90s. The Medical College of Wisconsin’s Professor and Chair of Emergency Medicine, Stephen Hargarten, a pioneer in this field, will only say that he had to seek alternative funding to continue his work. But news reports from then to now paint a more damning picture of the persistent, politically calculated pressure on the CDC to stay away from firearms violence research.

At the time, Hargarten and retired Madison injury epidemiologist Trudy Karlson had been conducting research on gun homicides in Milwaukee County. The duo wanted to know who was getting killed by guns, how, why and with what types of guns. Eventually they drew in data—reports from medical examiners, coroners, police and crime labs—from all seventy-two Wisconsin counties. Their work led to a 1997 book they co-authored, Reducing Firearm Injury and Death: A Public Health Sourcebook on Guns. It methodically details page after page of data on firearm death and injury—rates, patterns, cost, technology, safety features, history, you name it. For each point it offers a public health implication along with a variety of suggested solutions.

“I’d spent my whole research career looking at the issue of injuries and death, and guns were the second-leading cause at that time following motor vehicle crashes,” says Karlson. “It was hard to find any literature that was not written by people who were funded by the NRA, and so I set out to write something for other public health researchers who were interested in tackling the problem from a public health perspective.”

Although the public gun debate seems most often framed by either emotional or constitutional arguments, Karlson and Hargarten both believed a public health approach made more sense. Hargarten was an emergency room physician. Karlson studied disease patterns. If they could define this “biosocial disease burden” and identify high-risk groups, then we could develop potential scientific, evidence-based solutions related to gun technology and access.

“The public health approach broadens the discussion,” says Hargarten. “When the media talks about gun deaths and injuries, I’m always perplexed as to why they go to an organization that is basically a group who wants to use guns for comments. We need to frame the discussions around [public health] because it pulls in the other organizations and agencies for that middle ground. Everybody wants fewer guns deaths. Nobody is saying we want more. And so one of the ways in which we pull in everybody is around information. What’s going on with this disease?”

Although Wisconsin’s linked data system for violent death records was the first of its kind in the U.S. and the CDC would fund it and use it and other work conducted by Harvard to create the National Violent Death Reporting System in 2002, gun surveillance and research was not without its challenges along the way. In 1995, NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre was quoted in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution as saying, “The problem I see with what the CDC is doing is that they are not doing medicine, they’re doing politics.” Lawmakers “who agreed,” according to the paper, then tried to shut down the CDC’s injury center entirely unless it dropped the gun studies. The final appropriations bill left the injury center open but eliminated the firearms research funding and added the following language: “None of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control.” Defunded, the research being conducted by Hargarten and others essentially halted. According to an April 2014 ProPublica report, under pressure from Congress and the NRA, “funding for firearms injury prevention activities dropped from more than $2.7 million in 1995 to barely $100,000 by 2012,” and yet today,  “CDC’s current funding for gun violence prevention research remains at $0.”

Although Congress approved Obama’s 2013 request to restore some CDC funding to extend the reach of the National Violent Death Reporting System, his recent push for $23 million to fund systematic data collection across the country was met with fierce, likely insurmountable resistance by Republican lawmakers.

But even people who deal directly with the results of gun accidents and violence don’t seem sure how to handle the gun safety argument. An April 2014 American College of Physicians survey measuring medical attitudes toward guns—the first of its kind since 1998—reveals eighty-five percent of respondents believe gun violence is a public health issue, but the vast majority do not feel equipped to properly address it with patients. Seventy-five percent said there was a need for more physician education, and seventy-six percent believed “stricter gun control legislation” would help reduce the risks for gun-related injuries or deaths.

Hargarten calls Karlson “an icon.” As for him, as emergency medicine chief at the hospital that treated several of the victims of the Sikh Temple shooting near Milwaukee in 2012, he’s still very much in and on the field. He sees the results of gun violence all the time, and he worries that the lawmakers still have little to no public health data to inform their gun policy decision making.

“We need to have these discussions in a thoughtful, respectful way, and these discussions have no forum. It’s fragmented. Everybody’s in their little camps without a common ground platform,” says Hargarten. “And then when significant tragedies occur, there are major policy discussions. And oftentimes, unfortunately, in the absence of good, comprehensive, reliable data.”

The thing is, there are some gun rights proponents who bristle at Hargarten’s very premise and the phrase “everybody wants fewer gun deaths.” It’s not the “fewer deaths” piece they have a problem with. It’s the idea of calling them “gun deaths” at all.

***

"When you get in the gun debate it’s almost all anecdotal talk, feelings and stories,” says Nic Gibson. “I just hear so much inaccuracy.”

Gibson, lead pastor at Madison’s nondenominational, evangelical High Point Church, is a self-described theologically conservative pastor. He’s put in fifty to sixty graduate hours in the science of interpretation—things like linguistics and syntax—and has spent hundreds more hours researching both the gun debate and the Constitution. His interest is personal, social and cultural, and he makes it clear his views are his and his alone; he’s not speaking for his church. He does believe Wisconsin’s concealed carry permit requirements are woefully inadequate and should require affordable instruction on things like proper holstering and drawing and defensive uses. But when I ask him what we need in terms of new gun policy and legislation his answer—although clearly arrived at after a complex process—is simple: “Nothing.”

PHOTO BY NOAH WILLMAN

High Point Church lead pastor Nic Gibson puts a fine point on the debate.

Gibson says we already have plenty of laws on the books. Guns are already built so much safer than they used to be. And phrases such as “gun violence” or “gun deaths” are inherently misleading. They also not only fly in the face of the constitutional right to bear arms, they summarily dismiss the preventative effect of “free people bearing” guns. In other words, how many violent crimes were foiled or prevented because someone used a firearm defensively, or even simply showed a gun to a would-be attacker?

“We should be talking about violent crime, not gun crime,” says Gibson, citing a Clinton administration Department of Justice stat claiming there are 1.5 million defensive gun uses in America every year. “The vast, vast, vast majority of times guns are used defensively, no one is killed. If you say ‘gun deaths,’ you’re only talking about the 32,000 to 35,000 or so gun deaths in America every year.” The people killed, not the people saved. 

It’s an argument presented often by gun rights advocates, and it boils down to this: Guns actually make us a safer society. It’s why concealed carry is so important—if a criminal doesn’t know who among us might be armed, he’s less likely to follow through with his attack. When critics counter that guns used in a crime make up only three percent of all gun deaths and therefore the argument to arm ourselves against “bad guys” holds little water, Gibson says this completely dismisses the number of potential crimes averted by guns.

“If there are actually hundreds of thousands of examples of the perpetrator not getting their way but nobody gets killed and the citizen is still safe, the conversation totally changes,” says Gibson. “But I can’t think of any time in the public gun debate, especially on the news, that anybody has ever referenced the number of defensive gun uses in America and put that all in context with itself.”

Gibson says if anything, take the extra money from taxing guns and ammunitions and pour it into safety initiatives, like subsidizing the cost of high-tech gun safes and lowering the cost of bullets. Over the past several years—and particularly since Sandy Hook—the cost of ammunition has gone from $6 or $7 a box to $25. Not only is this cost-prohibitive for low-income people who live in higher-crime neighborhoods, but it keeps pretty much every gun owner from training as much as he or she would like.

That’s why Chuck Lovelace started making his own ammunition, cleaning up old casings and reloading them, at his Essential Shooting Supplies gun shop in Mount Horeb. Business is booming, says Lovelace, who counts customers from all over Madison. Some of them want to support small business owners, and others just have a hard time finding what they want in Madison.

“We have a lot of gun laws in our country already, we don’t need more,” says Lovelace. “We need to properly enforce the gun laws that we have.”

Lovelace is a lifelong gun enthusiast, a martial arts school owner, an eighteen-year veteran of active and reserve military and an Afghanistan war vet. His wife, Jennifer, shares his passion, and their kids have grown up with guns, an education he feels is as critical for students as sex ed or drug and alcohol curriculum. It’s the way he was raised as a hunter in Wisconsin and it’s what he feels is missing in a lot of homes today—a healthy respect for guns and solid training in how to handle them safely. He sees it all the time, eighteen- and nineteen-year-old kids who come into his shop, pick up a firearm for clearly the first time and swing it around, finger on the trigger.

“We as parents have failed our children when they don’t understand how to handle a gun properly. How to check it and how to make sure that it’s safe,” says Lovelace. “And more importantly, if they don’t know, they don’t have the common sense to just leave it alone until they do.”

Lest you get the picture that Lovelace’s baby sons toted machine guns in their high chairs, that isn’t it at all. The Lovelaces didn’t even allow their two sons to have NERF or squirt guns in the home until they were old enough to understand what a real gun was, because “guns are not toys, they’re tools,” says Lovelace. Both went through hunters’ safety courses and also had the NRA’s kid-tailored message drilled into their heads, delivered by Eddie Eagle (“Stop, Don’t Touch, Leave the Area, Tell an Adult”)—and when it played out in real life, it paid off. Lovelace’s youngest was just twelve years old when his older cousin pulled an unloaded gun out of a gun cabinet at someone else’s house. Lovelace’s son immediately ran out of there and told his aunt.

“I’ve taught my children to the point of boredom,” says Lovelace. But they’re not about to go messing with guns, either.

For gun shop owners like Lovelace, background checks are a no-brainer; it’s the law and they make sense. Every law-abiding gun owner gets one. But he also understands why there’s resistance to the push to legislate universal background checks for gun shows and private sales, because it’s not as logistically simple as it sounds. When Lovelace does a firearms transfer for someone who purchases a handgun outside of his shop, he has to list the gun on his books, run the background check through the Wisconsin Department of Justice at $10 a pop, perform the transfer and take the gun back off his books; the whole process takes him about forty-five minutes, plus the two days it takes the state to get him their results, during which time he stores the gun. Imagine that process for all private gun sales, including transactions at gun shows or online, which some experts estimate account for forty percent of all gun sales nationwide.

“Now as a dealer I have to sit on that gun for two days and it’s taking up space in my store and it’s something that I make zero money on,” says Lovelace. “Now you’re taking a bunch of guys like me that are small dealers and you’re doubling or tripling our workload and reducing our overall ability to be successful businessmen.”

PHOTO BY NOAH WILLMAN

Jennifer and Chuck Lovelace own Essential Shooting Supplies, a Mount Horeb guns and ammunitions shop. 

It’s a whole lot of cumbersome red tape for people who are already following the law, both seller and buyer. Red tape that does nothing to curb the tide of thousands of illegal guns trading hands in cities like, for example, Chicago. When Lovelace was stationed there for two years recently, he’d hear about thirty or forty shootings on any given weekend. It could be a question of privilege—a gun shop owner and hunter now living in a bucolic Dane County community might have the luxury of a more theoretical conversation about gun violence than he did when living in a high-crime urban neighborhood. But for Lovelace, it’s simply a lesson in irony. He says Chicago already has what he calls some of the most restrictive gun laws in the country—and, simultaneously, a disarmed law-abiding citizenry.

“For people to own a handgun in the city of Chicago is next to impossible,” says Lovelace. “But people are killed every day down there with guns.”

It’s the disarmed citizenry and data collection that stick hardest in the craw of gun rights supporters. While it seems like the background check thing could be solved with a ninety-nine-cent app or something so as not to overload dealers, of course you run into all kinds of privacy snags. It’s bad enough that the government wants to collect this information—what will they do with it once they get it?

“We’re for anything that keeps guns out of the hands of criminals, but not at the expense of the rights of law-abiding citizens,” says Nik Clark, president of Wisconsin Carry. They’re the group suing Madison Metro for the right to carry guns on buses—they claim Metro’s ban preempts state law—and they have “tens of thousands” of members statewide. “When they do a poll and say ninety percent of the country supports universal background checks, well, what ninety percent of the country doesn’t know is that the only way to enforce mandatory background checks is a national gun registry.”

Clark says gun control laws disarm and disenfranchise people who are only trying to protect themselves and their families, and that clearly criminals are going to do whatever they want to do anyway.

“There’s a flawed premise that guns in public places will keep us safer,” counters WAVE’s Jeri Bonavia. “If you apply that logic to anything outside the realm of gun violence prevention you would say, we can’t have any laws. I mean, that’s just a silly idea. Because we create laws to set societal norms and we create them with the expectation that people will follow them.”

Besides, Bonavia says, it’s not crime that accounts for the majority of gun violence. Of Wisconsin’s 440 gun deaths in 2011, 350 were categorized as “intentionally self-inflicted”—almost eighty percent. And the premise that an armed citizenry is safer doesn’t play out statistically when it comes to, say, victims of domestic violence.

“A woman’s risk of being killed in a domestic violence homicide increases by five hundred percent if there’s a gun in her home,” says End Domestic Abuse Wisconsin’s Tony Gibart, adding that it doesn’t seem to make much difference whether the gun is hers or his. My mind flashes to the ongoing search for the Pink Lady .38 revolver used in a recent Mazomanie, Wisconsin, domestic violence murder. Assumptions are dangerous in my line of work, but I’d still bet ten to one that gun didn’t belong to the scowling male suspect in the mug shot.

“Each year we find that firearms account for roughly fifty percent of all DV homicides. So it’s something that we care a lot about, and it’s not because we’re anti-gun. It’s because it’s really fundamental to preventing domestic violence homicides.”

Unlike with the background checks bill, the SAFE Act passed the Wisconsin Legislature unanimously and was signed into law in April. Its intent is to do just what gun rights proponents suggest, which is enforce existing law. Seventy percent of Wisconsin counties don’t have active enforcement procedures. The new law requires them to ensure they do. Since 2000, more than fifty people in Wisconsin have been killed in domestic violence homicides by perpetrators who were legally prohibited from possessing a firearm.

“When someone has an order that says you’re to surrender your firearms, it’s important that there is some way to check up and follow up on that,” says Gibart. “Because we’re really leaving abusers to the honor system if we don’t.”

But still, the resistance to our government collecting the personal data of its citizens is real. It’s why gun rights backers oppose policies that seem so obvious and innocuous, like universal background checks, or data tracking that would red flag people with mental health struggles. They’re worried about how you might use that information against them in the future. They’re worried you’ll force them to register their guns so that you can decide they can no longer have them. They’re worried about how you might arbitrarily define “mental health” issues. There are many mental health issues that aren’t violent, they say, so if I go to a psychiatrist one time, do I forever forfeit my hunting privileges? They’re worried that if they let you decide who—beyond criminals—“deserves” access to guns, you might write policy that unfairly—unconstitutionally—disarms them.

But it’s hard to say how many of these fears are founded, and how many are exploited by the gun lobby to keep this country in a legislative stalemate.

***

During the 2012 federal election cycle, the National Rifle Association, with an estimated membership of three to four million, shelled out $27 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Only five percent of that, however, went directly to candidate campaigns. The vast bulk—a full $18.6 million—went to “independent expenditures.” In other words, attack ads.

There’s an April 2013 Mother Jones article by Dave Gilson called “This Collection of NRA Ads Reveals Its Descent Into Crazy.” It offers a visual timeline of the country’s most powerful gun lobby’s increasingly alarmist message. In the beginning, 1920s posters depict serene sportsmen and happy little junior riflemen clubs basking in camaraderie, but around the 1970s they start warning “Hunters Beware!” The 1980s posters, all black and white, all capital letters, ask, “Why can’t a policeman be there when you need him?” “Should you shoot a rapist before he cuts your throat?” “If you’re attacked on your porch, do you want your neighbors to be opposed to gun ownership or members of the NRA?” The 1990s messaging is marked by the need to protect oneself from threats of a police state, and by this decade and the last, presidents Clinton and Obama are literal poster children for “elitist hypocrisy” and this strong, thinly veiled, relentless mantra: The government is coming for your guns.

If you haven’t been a direct target of that messaging—weekly phone calls, emails, glossy full-color direct mailers, alarming TV commercials—for years and years and years, then you might not intuitively understand why a national tragedy like Sandy Hook triggered a run on guns and ammunition rather than the opposite. Your reaction might be more like that of Anneliese Dickman.

On that cold, brutal day that the news of Sandy Hook broke, everything changed for Dickman. It hit her like it hit all of us—unthinkable, horrific—but for her there was something more to it. When the list of victims was released, one name paralyzed her on the spot. It was the same highly unusual first name of her own first-grade daughter—safe and sound in her Milwaukee-area school—with a last name only two letters off from their own. In that moment, the universal tragedy became deeply, uncomfortably, inescapably personal for Dickman.

PHOTO BY CHRISTINE PLAMANN

Within six months of Sandy Hook, mother of two Anneliese Dickman had quit her public policy research analyst career in Milwuakee to volunteer full-time on anti-violence initiatives, most notably the Wisconsin chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. 

“It’s still hard for me to talk about without crying when I think about that day,” she says, her voice breaking. “Because that day really woke me up. And I thought ... I thought that it was ridiculous that [a tragic shooting like] that could be possible.”

Dickman is a mother of two. She’s also a public policy researcher and analyst with seventeen years in the field, fourteen of which were at the nonpartisan Public Policy Forum in Milwaukee. Within six months of Sandy Hook, Dickman had quit her PPF job to volunteer full-time on antiviolence initiatives, most notably the Wisconsin chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, a nationwide grassroots organization with chapters in all fifty states and Washington, D.C. She says it’s not about demonizing guns or gun owners; in fact, several Moms Demand Action members are gun owners or NRA members themselves. Dickman doesn’t want to do away with guns, but she does want to systematically collect data on things like who is denied the ability to purchase a gun and why, because she understands on a professional level that data collection isn’t the stuff of conspiracy theories—it’s essential to effective policy creation.

“I’ve always had a very healthy respect for guns,” says Dickman, who moved to Wisconsin in 1997 but grew up in Colorado, a state she says has a similar gun sporting culture. “But what’s changed for me is being able to draw lines between that sportsman aspect, the personal safety realm—you know, people who want to be able to protect their families in their own homes—and then the public safety realm. And I think when we let those three spheres collide, that’s where the conversation gets really muddled. But if we can focus on public safety and how to ensure that guns aren’t accessible to people who want to use them to do harm to themselves or others, I think everyone can agree on that. No one wants to see anyone get hurt.”

Those people to whom we want to deny access include criminals and suicidal people, but especially kids. A recent ABC News 20/20 special reported that 1.7 million children live in households with a loaded, unsecured firearm and that ninety-eight children under the age of eighteen died in accidental shootings in 2010. Using the NRA’s own Eddie Eagle gun safety program, experts spent the day teaching kids not to touch guns. Then, with hidden cameras rolling, parents watched, horrified, as those same kids picked up guns anyway, some even pointing them at each other or looking straight down the barrel. Conservative media pundits immediately cried foul, calling the special “ridiculous propaganda” and “hysterical.” But the special seems to echo the findings of a 2001 experiment published in the medical journal Pediatrics that found sixty-three percent of eight-to-twelve-year-old boys—most of whom had received gun safety training—touched a found gun anyway, and thirty-three percent pulled the trigger. Either way, that’s just one study, and Dickman says reliable research is hard to come by.

“There is no government entity that’s collecting data on children who are injured by guns in a systematic way. So they’re piecing together reports from hospital emergency rooms, from the newspaper, a bunch of different data sets to measure this and look at it. It just makes the researcher’s job that much more difficult, and it makes it hard to write policy when you don’t have data that’s easily accessible or reliable,” says Dickman. “There are a lot of federal prohibitions against collecting and using this data, and those are all prohibitions that were advocated for by the NRA, so there’s very little systematic data.”

Not only that, she says, but kids’ brains just don’t work the way these educational programs presume. They can’t comprehend mortality, nor can they fully understand the consequences of their own actions. They’re wired to learn by trial and error, to take risks and make mistakes. “But you can’t try and fail with a gun and learn a lesson,” she says. “It’s too late.”

So Dickman’s on a personal mission to educate gun owners on how to safely store guns so kids don’t have access to them, handing out Gun Safe Mom stickers in her neighborhood, among other things. But as long as the gun lobby holds its stance on data collection with a powerful, fear-based “this information will be used against you” message, gun rights proponents will continue to react to tragedies by arming themselves even further, especially in the name of constitutionally protected rights.

“We all go through metal detectors at the airport. We all register our cars. The only reason why guns feel like they should be different is because they’re mentioned in the Bill of Rights,” says Dickman. “I think there’s a pretty strong legal argument that that’s not enough to prevent us from making these kinds of changes.”

***

Before First Congregational UCC reverend Jerry Hancock was ordained, he had a thirty-five-year career in criminal law, including several years running the Wisconsin State Crime Laboratories. Back then his work intersected with Trudy Karlson’s and Stephen Hargarten’s, particularly when he shared his findings that a specific type of firearm was involved in a very high percentage of homicides in Milwaukee—an overrepresentation they thought was worth looking at epidemiologically. But it was Hancock’s work after founding the Prison Ministry Project that led to an “epiphany” about gun violence.

“In that time we’ve gone to prison probably fifteen hundred times and met with victims and offenders and listened to lots of stories,” says Hancock. “And gun violence is so prevalent in the stories we hear, both from victims and defenders, that we thought we really had to make gun violence part of our ministry.”

The pervasive argument that gun control laws serve only to disarm and penalize law-abiding citizens is one Hancock runs into regularly. One that makes him shake his head.

“I think that argument is incredibly superficial. It simply says that because some people will not obey the law, we should not have laws,” says Hancock. “I think a more sophisticated version of that argument is that it won’t work. That these laws will not protect people, that there will still be the same level of gun violence. And my response to that is, that has not been the experience with other kinds of public health initiatives.”

The most obvious comparison, again, is motor vehicle safety, and the nationwide paradigm shift from style and horsepower in the 1960s and ’70s to one of safety today. We’ve implemented laws like mandatory seat belts. Car manufacturers have responded to public pressure and demand with technological advancements like airbags. Similarly, we can require gun manufacturers to utilize existing technology like Smart Guns that can be fired only by the authorized user. We can focus intervention on high-risk populations such as suicidal people, identifying them, restricting their access to guns and getting them the help they need. Least effective, they say, is trying to effect change in individuals—you’ve got to view the population as a whole as “the patient.” Much like with seat belts, airbags, drunk driving and secondhand smoke, it’s like this: We need to be saved from ourselves.

Hancock has studied the Constitution too, and says the second amendment has never been recognized as absolute. Yes, certainly Americans have a right to own guns—but they don’t have a right to own just any kind.

“If you start from that perspective, then you can talk about how some kinds of guns are much more dangerous than others. And if we can start to define what makes a gun particularly dangerous in civil society, then we can talk about ways to, in public health language, eliminate exposure to those kinds of dangerous instrumentalities. And one way of thinking about it is that if a gun is essentially made for military purposes, we probably don’t want it in civil society.”

***

Jennifer Lovelace is standing at the workbench reloading ammunition, a process that allows a cartridge to be “recycled” ten to twelve times. Her husband, Chuck, tells me about how they went to the gun range on their first date, about how lucky he feels to work with family doing what he loves. Jen pops her head into the break room where we’re sitting, asks Chuck a technical question that flies straight over my head, and the two converse a moment in what sounds to me like a different language. I ask him where he learned so much about guns and he tells me how important knowledge is to responsible firearm ownership. And that his logo contains three key, carefully chosen words—sales, repair and education.

It occurs to me that this isn’t the first time I’ve had this sort of embarrassing thought, that the gun control debate is far more complex—and intelligent—than I’d given it credit for. I’m admittedly still unnerved, though, by the machine-gun-looking thing in Lovelace’s window. I don’t know what it is. I imagine it used Rambo-style, with a random, endless spray of bullets. I think about what Hancock said, about guns like that having no place in civil society.

“That’s a hard question,” Lovelace admits. “Do I think that everyone needs to own a M240 Bravo machine gun that fires at a cyclic rate of almost six thousand rounds a minute? No. No. But do I believe if somebody has the area to shoot it and they enjoy shooting it and for them, it’s their passion? If they’re willing to go through the appropriate background checks and have their lives looked into at that depth and they choose to spend the $24,000 to $34,000 to own one? I don’t feel that they shouldn’t be allowed to.”

Anyway, the gun in the window is not what I—probably in my ignorance and fear—imagined it to be. It’s an AR-15 pistol, perfectly legal. The AR stands not for “assault rifle” or “automatic rifle” as I’d assumed, but rather for Armalite Rifle, for the company that originally manufactured the gun. Fully automatic weapons are illegal, and they don’t always look like you’d think, and there aren’t any in this store anyway. But many, many non-gun owners make the mistake I just did.

“A gun is not evil,” Lovelace says. “A gun is an inanimate object that can only express the intent of the person holding it.”

And so we’re back to that—a military-style assault weapon in a responsible owner’s hands is nothing more than a very expensive paperweight. A shotgun in the hands of a domestic violence perpetrator is the deadliest weapon imaginable. Only one of those people is, theoretically, following the law. Doesn’t matter how many laws you make. As for comparing it to automobile safety, well...

“There are a lot of cars stolen in this country every year. There are a lot of cars that are stolen and then used in the act of a crime, too,” Lovelace says. “But it’s not illegal to own them.”

There are so many minefields in this conversation and all the others like it. So many opportunities to step in it, to misunderstand, to react. Lovelace tears up, unexpectedly, when we talk about children and accidental deaths. He gets choked up again when we touch on suicide and domestic abuse. We can all agree these things are unthinkably tragic. We just can’t seem to find our way through the conversation, to find a common language, despite the fact that everybody I speak with for this story believes these two things: One, guns are the most powerful tool we’ve got for doing the most amount of damage. Two, we all want to protect ourselves. After that, there’s nothing but discord, conflict and confliction.

One last source agrees to talk to me about this. He’s a Wisconsin gun owner and user both personally and professionally, someone very familiar with the public health perspective. Close enough that his job could become at the very least uncomfortable if his comments were attributed, so we go off the record.

“I think in Wisconsin as a whole we’re still very individualistic in our decision making,” he says. “But when it comes to the gun issue, it is such an emotional hot button. There’s no disagreement whatsoever about the tragedies that occur. And my own personal views aside, I can say that if we wanted to apply science, we could answer all of these questions.”

“But I will tell you for anonymous comment that neither side wants the answer,” he says. “And if you think about it, it’s because there’s so much political and monetary capital in having the argument.” 

Maggie Ginsberg-Schutz is a frequent contributor to Madison Magazine.

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