Lt. Mark Stanmeyer’s son wanted to know why his dad was going into work on a Sunday. And although the boy is only 9, Stanmeyer, spokesman for the Milwaukee Police Department, decided to tell him.
“A little boy was in his home and someone shot bullets into it and he was killed,” Stanmeyer related of the incident. He found it difficult: “How do you look your child in the face and tell him that?”
Bill Thao, 13 months old, was killed Dec. 27 when his mother took him to visit relatives at a house on Milwaukee’s northwest side. A fusillade of gunfire erupted from the street. He was hit in the lower torso and died at a hospital soon afterward. It was the third death of a child from stray gunfire in Milwaukee last year.
Stanmeyer knew the shooting would make the news and wanted to put it into perspective for his son. He said such things do not happen often and this shooting was not near their own home.
Also, he thought he should be honest with his son: “I want my children to grow up knowing that there are bad people in the world and how to avoid them.”
The need of parents to explain such realities to their children is one facet of the vast impact of gun violence. In Wisconsin last year, 111 people were victims of gun homicides, according to a preliminary tally by Wisconsin Public Radio, part of a yearlong project by reporters Chuck Quirmbach and Gilman Halsted.
A Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism analysis of the homicide tally and other data shows:
- African Americans, who make up 6.5 percent of the state’s population, accounted for about two-thirds of its firearm homicide victims. Blacks in Wisconsin were more than 30 times as likely as non-Hispanic whites to die in gun homicides. From 2008 to 2012, federal statistics show, this ratio was 20 to 1 for Wisconsin and 10 to 1 for the nation.
- Of the 111 victims, 89 were male, which is comparable with past state and national averages. The average age for all victims was 32, which is in line with past national averages.
- Gun homicides occurred in 15 of the state’s 72 counties and were concentrated in urban areas. The city of Milwaukee, with just over 10 percent of the state’s population, had two-thirds of its gun homicides, at 76. Beloit had the second-highest total, with six, followed by Racine, with four.
- While WPR did not track all state homicides, the experience of Milwaukee shows that guns are by far the most common cause. According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s “Homicide Database,” firearms were used to commit 87 percent of that city’s homicides last year. Nationally and in Wisconsin from 2008 to 2012, about two-thirds of homicides were firearm-related.
Consistent with national crime reporting standards, the WPR tally does not include suicides, accidental deaths that did not lead to criminal charges, “justified” shootings by law enforcement and shootings ruled to be in self-defense.
There were seven fatal shootings in Wisconsin last year deemed to be in self-defense. One involved an aborted robbery of an optical store in Bayside, a village near Milwaukee, in August. Joshua Drake, 22, was killed in a shootout with a store employee.
The WPR tally also does not include firearm-caused injuries, which in the city of Milwaukee occurred seven times more often than gun homicides. While statewide numbers regarding firearm-caused injuries are not yet available, data from the Milwaukee Homicide Commission show that overall homicides in that city were down 16 percent from 2013, but non-fatal shootings were up 10 percent to 581, the highest number since 2006.
Importantly, in terms of the overall numbers of gun homicides in Wisconsin, 2014 was a typical year.
“It’s not extraordinary,” said Stanmeyer, a 24-year police veteran who has been involved in releasing information on most of Milwaukee’s gun homicides over the past two years. “That’s a sad thing.”
According to a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tracker, Wisconsin annually averaged 106 gun homicide deaths from 2008 to 2012, the last year for which official numbers are available. The highest number of gun homicides during this time was 132, in 2012. During this same period, an average of 353 people a year used guns to commit suicide.
Wisconsin’s overall gun homicide rate during this five-year span was half the national average, 1.87 compared to 3.84 deaths per 100,000 residents.
But to those affected by gun homicides, such metrics are unlikely to be of much comfort. The intensity of their loss is overwhelming.
“He was loved, hated, praised, cherished, and cursed by relatives and friends alike,” read the obituary of K.C. Christopher Elliott of Wausau, who on Jan. 3, 2014, became Wisconsin’s first gun homicide victim of the year. “He was a beautiful, unique, kind, strong and loving young man.”
Elliott, 27, was shot in the stomach outside a bar in what police said was an argument over money. John Lewis, 30, was charged with first-degree intentional homicide. That case is pending.
“His passion was music. He would write his own lyrics and make his own beats,” read an obituary for Jeff Hardnett, 25, of Beloit, killed in a shootout with another man in May. “(He) loved shopping, bright color clothes were his favorite. He also loved to eat and was always trying different foods and restaurants.”
Why did this happen?
Many of the homicides generated too little media attention to be clearly characterized. Of those that can be, many involve drug deals or altercations. At least a dozen people were killed during what police said were armed robberies.
Twenty of the year’s gun homicides fall into the category of “domestic,” most involving spouses or domestic partners. In four cases, the killer then committed suicide. The suicides were not counted in the tally.
The details of the shooting deaths are often repugnant.
Dulonden Ratliff, 21, of Kenosha, was shot to death in March in an argument on a Racine street that allegedly began over a request for a cigarette. Tommy Canady, a 15-year-old charged with killing Semar McClain, 19, in Racine, reportedly posted a rap video in which he bragged about it.
Stanmeyer says the questions he most often grapples with when dealing with gun homicides are: Why did this have to happen? Why did somebody reach for a gun and begin firing, with no regard for human life? How did they become so apathetic about their own futures?
In all, there were five deaths involving people hit with stray bullets, including the three children in Milwaukee: Bill Thao, 13 months, Sierra Guyton, 10, and Laylah Petersen, 5. Sierra was shot in the head in May while playing in a playground across the street from her home; she died nearly two months later. Laylah was killed in November while sitting indoors on her grandfather’s lap.
An additional 12 children age 13 and under were wounded by gunfire in 2014 but survived, the Milwaukee Homicide Commission reported. The same number of children have been killed by stray gunfire in Milwaukee since 1995.
On Dec. 30, Milwaukee church leaders and community groups held a candlelight vigil for the city’s gun victims. The Rev. Leondis Fuller, who has lost three sons to gun violence, addressed the gathering. He spoke in particular about the fatal shootings of children.
“The younger these babies get, the more angry the community is getting,” said Fuller, according to a WPR report. “We’re getting fed up and I think that us coming together like this and doing it more often, we can see some changes.”
Jeri Bonavia, executive director of the advocacy group Wisconsin Anti-Violence Effort, or WAVE, laments what she sees as a societal failure to address what are essentially preventable deaths.
“If any other problem were related to this many deaths of our young people, we as a nation would stand up and demand solutions,” she said. “But because it’s guns, we say this is an acceptable price to pay for somebody’s notion of freedom.”
WAVE supports mandatory background checks on all gun sales, including those that occur at gun shows and between individuals.
Nik Clark, the chairman and president of Wisconsin Carry Inc., a group that advocates for less restrictive state gun laws, said the underlying problem is one of violence, not guns. In fact, he sees guns as part of the solution.
“If we put a gun in the hands of law-abiding citizens, we’d have fewer victims of crimes,” Clark said. He also thinks the justice system is too lenient on people who commit “gateway crimes” like auto theft and armed robbery. “There is no deterrent until you actually do something like shoot a 13-month old.”
Gov. Scott Walker, in an interview with the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, was dismissive of calls to require universal background checks, saying many guns find their way into the hands of criminals through “straw buyers” who can pass these checks.
But he did tout the state’s support of Milwaukee’s ShotSpotter program, which allows police to pinpoint through sound the locations in which firearms have been discharged. He hopes this technology will help police crack down on people who discharge weapons on city streets.
Walker added that what amazed him, as much as the technology itself, was the finding that only 14 percent of the shooting incidents it identified had been called in to police. Most of the time, he said, the people who hear these shots are afraid of retaliation or else “were just so immune to it” that they did not bother to act.
“In either case,” Walker said, “that’s a really damning scenario about just how horrific it is for many people to live in those neighborhoods.”