• U.S.

CRIME: Have We Gone Mad?

6 minute read
Jon D. Hull/Milwaukee

Most anybody in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, can tell the story of how 10-year-old Monique Schweiger’s childhood ended. The hard part is explaining why. It was just before 7 p.m. a month ago in the parking lot of Popeye’s Famous Fried Chicken & Biscuits on the north side of town. That’s where her mother Christine was ordered to her knees by two teenagers, 15 and 16 years old, who demanded her money. When Christine, an accountant and mother of three, said she didn’t have any, the 16-year-old apparently took offense. As Monique watched, the youth allegedly let loose at point-blank range with a 12-gauge sawed-off shotgun, blasting away most of Christine’s head. Police say he later explained that “I’m the big man. I got the gun. Why does she have this attitude?”

Guns and attitudes; like so many American cities, Milwaukee is aching from the frequent and often fatal combination of the two. “It used to be your money or your life,” says Sheriff Richard Artison. “Now they’ll shoot you anyway.” Since 1980 the city’s homicide rate has doubled and now stands at more than 150 so far this year, spurred by a deadly convergence of gangs, drugs and ever more sophisticated weaponry. Countywide, juvenile arrests for homicides climbed from six in 1983 to 82 last year. Admissions at Children’s Hospital for gunshot wounds rose from 50 in 1989 to 160 so far this year. At Froedtert Memorial Lutheran Hospital, 30% of spinal-cord injuries are caused by gunshots. Milwaukee (pop. 630,000) has responded like most cities: with more fear, bigger dead bolts and more angry debate about gun control and the breakdown of families. “We’re a small enough town so that every death still really hurts,” says Jeffrey Jentzen, the county medical examiner, who has watched the carnage rise over the years. Sometime in the late 1980s, about the time that crack hit town, Milwaukee joined the long list of U.S. cities where residents think twice before honking at strangers. “I don’t give people the finger from my car, and I haven’t for a while,” confesses Mike Malmstadt, presiding judge of the county juvenile division.

The city has tried one security measure after another. A new $106 million, 1,200-prisoner-capacity county jail, opened late last year, is already overflowing. Metal detectors were installed in the sheriff’s department in October, and the Milwaukee public-school system, with 100,000 students, started random weapons searches this fall at the middle and high schools. “I have in front of me a list of all my kids who have died between 12/92 and 12/ 93,” says superintendent Howard Fuller. “On that list are 15 kids under the age of 17.”

He recalls meeting with elementary school students to talk about education. “The very first question was about what to do when someone starts shooting! We spent the whole time talking about how to hit the floor and hide under a desk. Have we gone mad?” Teachers are also afraid: two weeks ago, at the suburban Wauwatosa West High School, a former student named Leonard McDowell, 21, allegedly shot associate principal Dale Breitlow, 46, three times in a second-floor hallway with a .44-cal. Taurus revolver, killing him.

The day after Christine Schweiger’s murder, more than a dozen local groups held a previously scheduled press conference to launch a petition drive to ban almost all handguns in the city. “Up until the past couple of months we’ve been doing what the N.R.A. wanted, and look where it’s got us,” says Dan Ullrich, spokesman for the Campaign for a Better Milwaukee. “Halfway measures haven’t worked in other cities.” The group hopes to collect the necessary . 20,300 signatures by mid-January, forcing the city council either to pass the ban or place it on the ballot in either April or November.

Passage by the council seems unlikely; success at the polls will require a fierce battle with opponents. A similar measure was defeated in more liberal Madison, Wisconsin, last spring, 51% to 49%, after an advertising blitz by the N.R.A. “Everyone is looking for a magic solution,” says James Fendry, head of the Wisconsin Pro-Gun Movement. “We see the ban as broadcasting to gang bangers and druggies that their victims are less likely to be armed.” Noting that Wisconsin has nearly 1 million licensed hunters, Fendry doesn’t give the petition a chance. Nor does alderman Fredrick Gordon, who represents some of the most dangerous streets in the city. “We’re not being victimized by people from the N.R.A. who use weapons to shoot deer. We’re being victimized by criminals.”

Yet even in deer-hunting country — the Milwaukee Yellow Pages lists more than 30 taxidermists — attitudes are shifting. Wisconsin passed a mandatory criminal background check on handgun buyers in 1991, and Attorney General James Doyle boasts that more than 560 convicted felons have already been foiled from legally purchasing a weapon. In 1991, after a bitter debate, Milwaukee approved a seven-day waiting period to purchase handguns, and last month the city council set aside $50,000 for a gun buyback program proposed by Police Chief Philip Arreola, whose officers visit schools to hand out gun- safety comic books featuring Molly Magnum and Shorty Shotgun.

In a Milwaukee Journal poll last April, 65% of city residents favored a ban on handguns and assault weapons. “In this climate it’s actually possible that a handgun ban might pass in Milwaukee,” says Mayor John Norquist, a Democrat. “I’ll vote for it, even though it won’t do much.” Norquist prefers strict liability laws for manufacturers, more gun controls and tougher sentences for gun violations. “The Brady bill is an important first step,” he says. “I’m encouraged because guns are becoming unfashionable, even creepy.”

Certainly they are losing some of their luster in Milwaukee. Since October local activists have held prayer vigils at the sites of recent homicides. Last Thursday more than 500 residents gathered for a two-day seminar on youth violence, some sporting red anti-handgun buttons. “We have to take steps to stop these guns from pouring into our communities,” said Attorney General – Doyle, addressing the crowd. Banners listed the names of youths killed in the past four years — kids like Kendra Miles, 15, shot in the chest in October, allegedly by a 14-year-old boy while standing on her front porch; Monte Fuller, 12, shot in the mouth this fall in a drive-by; Charles Brenson, 15, shot dead last month after refusing to surrender his ski jacket and shoes. Three days after Brenson’s death, on Thanksgiving, Torey Dyson, 18, was shot in the chest. He collapsed on the sidewalk in front of a large peace mural featuring doves, a rainbow and a plea for peace in Milwaukee.

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