Public support doesn’t move state lawmakers on gun background checks
Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism
On a Sunday afternoon nearly four years ago, Elvin Daniel was in his garden when he got a call from police: His sister, Zina Haughton, had been shot at work.
Zina’s estranged husband, Radcliffe Haughton, used a semiautomatic handgun he bought from a man in the parking lot of a fast food restaurant in Germantown the day before the shooting. He killed Zina Haughton, Maelyn Lind and Cary Robuck, and wounded four others, at the Azana Salon & Spa in the Milwaukee suburb of Brookfield, Wis. He then used the weapon to kill himself.
Zina Daniel Haughton, 42, left behind two daughters, ages 20 and 13.
Daniel, who owns a gun, said he was shocked that his late brother-in-law was able to buy a firearm despite a judge’s order prohibiting Radcliffe Haughton from possessing a gun.
"As naive as I was back then, I thought because I go through a background check, everybody did," said Daniel, who lives in Illinois, where all gun buyers must pass a background check.
Since his sister’s death, Daniel has pushed lawmakers to expand criminal background checks beyond licensed dealers to private sellers, such as those who advertise on Armslist where Haughton found the seller of the gun he used in the mass shooting.
"I mean, the day before that (shooting), I was one of those that says, ‘You know what, leave me and my guns alone,’" Daniel said. "I still feel that, but I believe that everybody should go through a background check when they buy a gun to keep guns out of (the hands of) people that shouldn’t have them."
Zina Haughton’s daughter, Yasmeen Daniel, who was at the salon and witnessed her mother’s murder, is suing Armslist, charging the website facilitated the illegal sale of the gun used in the shooting. Armslist has asked a Milwaukee County Circuit judge to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing it cannot be held liable for the actions of its advertisers.
Eighteen states plus the District of Columbia have expanded background checks beyond federal law to include at least some private sales. Two more states — Nevada and Maine — have expanded background checks on the ballot this fall.
Expanding background checks popular
A Marquette Law School Poll this year found 85 percent of registered voters in Wisconsin, including 84 percent who have guns in their homes, support closing the private-sale loophole. A CNN poll in June showed 92 percent of respondents nationwide favored expanded background checks.
Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn said such a law would not cure the city’s violence, but it "would add another layer of oversight that may help keep guns out of the hands of those prohibited from possessing guns."
But Republicans who run Wisconsin state government have blocked attempts to require background checks on purchases from private sellers. That position is shared by the National Rifle Association, which gave $3.6 million to Republican and conservative candidates in Wisconsin between 2008 and 2014.
Roughly one-third of gun purchases today occur outside of licensed gun stores, according to soon-to-be-released research from Harvard University and Northeastern University.
Expanding background checks to private sales is the "most promising" strategy to prevent gun violence, said Ted Alcorn, research director for Everytown for Gun Safety, the nation’s largest gun violence prevention advocacy organization. Alcorn said exempting private sales allows prohibited buyers — including convicted felons and domestic abusers — to buy firearms "no questions asked."
Dr. Garen Wintemute, director of the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California-Davis, has studied gun policies for more than 30 years and agrees universal background checks are among the most effective at preventing gun violence.
Researchers including Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, found that Connecticut saw a 40 percent drop in the firearm homicide rate after universal background checks were enacted. In contrast, when Missouri repealed such a law in 2007, firearm homicide rates rose 23 percent, Webster has found.
But a University of Pittsburgh study this year discovered most criminals find ways around such laws. It found 79 percent of perpetrators of gun crimes in Pittsburgh in 2008 were not the legal owners of the firearms. Pennsylvania requires background checks for all handgun purchases.
NRA spokeswoman Catherine Mortensen said these types of laws cost "law-abiding gun owners time, money and freedom."
Mortensen cited work by economist John Lott Jr., who runs the Crime Prevention Research Center, a Colorado nonprofit that studies gun policy. In his 2016 book, "The War on Guns, Arming Yourself Against Gun Control Lies," Lott writes that from 1977 to 2005, murders were 49 percent higher and robberies 75 percent higher in states with expanded background checks.
Lott’s influential studies have been disputed by some academics for faulty statistical analysis and allegedly fabricated research. And he has acknowledged posing as "Mary Rosh," a former student, in posts praising his own teaching and research. Lott has likewise criticized Webster’s research, accusing him of cherry-picking in the study of Missouri’s repealed law.
Republicans block checks
In emotional testimony before a U.S. Senate committee in 2014, Elvin Daniel described himself as a Republican, avid hunter, NRA member and a "strong supporter of the Second Amendment." He urged Congress to strengthen "our weak gun laws (that) continue to allow dangerous abusers to buy guns without a background check."
The argument failed to sway senators, who have blocked expanded checks largely along party lines. The most recent vote was June 20 — days after a gunman killed 49 people and wounded 53 others at an Orlando, Fla., nightclub.
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 in recent legislative sessions have died without a hearing.
Republican Gov. Scott Walker has said he opposes such legislation. 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 private sales, which require no such scrutiny.
‘Don’t ask, don’t, tell’ for guns
Wintemute said private sales are like "Don't ask, don't tell" for guns. He has watched customers at gun shows, including in Wisconsin, walk away when a licensed dealer pulls out paperwork for a background check and head toward unlicensed sellers.
"Machine Gun" Marty Brunner is a licensed gun manufacturer and dealer. "NRA4 EVER" is tattooed across the knuckles of both his hands. Speaking at the Badger Military Collectible Show at the Waukesha Expo Center on Aug. 5, Brunner said he believes purchasers go to private dealers because "they have something to hide" and that such dealers are more likely to sell "hot guns" previously used in crimes.
Tom Hardell, owner of Tom’s Military Arms & Guns, said he "definitely" supports universal background checks. Hardell said he has turned down a lot of "gang bangers" after running a background check.
"It hurts me as a business, and it hurts Milwaukee because that's where the guns are coming (from)," Hardell said.
Former gang member: Guns easy to get
Rico, a former gang member and admitted criminal from Madison, told a reporter he found it easy to amass numerous high-powered weapons after failing a background check. He asked that his full formal name not to be used because he described crimes that could subject him to prosecution, including armed robbery.
The 27-year-old estimated he has bought more than 20 guns without a background check.
"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 semiautomatic weapons.
It is possible that Rico could qualify to buy a gun after undergoing a background check. His only felony charge in 2009 for marijuana dealing was dropped. He decided to avoid background checks altogether by buying at gun shows and from private sellers, which he said is similar to buying guns "on the street."
Lawsuit targets Armslist
When her husband’s violence escalated in October 2012, Zina Haughton got a four-year restraining order prohibiting him from possessing weapons.
A background check by a licensed dealer would have blocked Radcliffe Haughton from getting a gun and alerted police to his attempt to illegally buy one, according to the lawsuit filed by Zina’s daughter, Yasmeen Daniel, with help from the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
Instead, he visited Armslist.com, which the lawsuit alleges helps "prohibited and otherwise dangerous people" buy firearms.
Armslist attorney Eric Van Schyndle did not respond to several messages seeking comment. A Milwaukee County judge will hear testimony Nov. 1 to decide whether to dismiss the case. Armslist defeated a similar lawsuit in Illinois in 2014.
Background checks stall in Wisconsin
"It seems really obvious to me that if you are a person who knows that you can’t pass a background check, you’re going to buy from one of these private sellers, and that is indeed what’s going on," said state Rep. Terese Berceau, D-Madison, who introduced a bill in the most recent legislative session to close the loophole.
Under the bill, all firearm transactions would have to go through a licensed dealer with buyers required to pass a background check. Exceptions would include guns given as gifts among family.
Co-sponsor Nikiya Harris Dodd, D-Milwaukee, called the legislation a "no-brainer." Milwaukee had 119 gun-related homicides and 633 nonfatal shootings in 2015, according to the Milwaukee Homicide Review Commission — the highest in at least 10 years. Gun violence costs individuals and the state of Wisconsin billions a year in medical bills, law enforcement costs and lost lives, the center has reported.
Of the known suspects in the 2015 gun homicides, 69 percent — or 66 suspects — were legally prohibited from possessing a firearm at the time of the crime, according to the commission.
Milwaukee’s lobbyist, Jennifer Gonda, said universal background checks are a key part of the city’s legislative agenda. But she is skeptical the measure would pass the Legislature.
"We didn’t make much headway with the Democrats and … we’re making less with the Republicans," Gonda said. "In some ways, it feels like we’re spinning our wheels a little bit."
For now, universal background checks remain out of reach. Elvin Daniel is reminded of that every day by the bracelet inscribed "For the love of Zina" on his wrist.
"Had he gone through a background check, he wouldn’t have been able to buy a gun," Daniel said. "Chances are, Zina would still be with us right now."
Dee J. Hall and Coburn Dukehart of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and Wisconsin Public Radio reporter Bridgit Bowden contributed to this report produced in collaboration with Precious Lives. Other partners in the project are 371 Productions, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Milwaukee Public Radio 89.7 WUWM and the Voice 860 AM WNOV. Coverage by the center, www.WisconsinWatch.org, of gun violence prevention issues is supported by the Joyce Foundation. The nonprofit Center collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication.