Source: Madison Police Department
Not long after he fell asleep in the early morning hours of Feb. 2, Duane Dahl was jolted awake by what sounded like an explosion. Through the darkness, Dahl, 41, crept down the stairs of his west Madison townhouse, fearing an intruder had entered his residence.
No one had broken in, but what Dahl discovered instead was no less terrifying: a large hole in the window above the couch he sits on while watching television, and a living room covered with shattered glass. An hour earlier, Dahl had been resting on the couch.
"I'd never been so scared," says Dahl, noting the dozens of buckshot pellets still embedded in his walls. "I didn't know if they wanted to kill me or just scare me. It kind of messes with your head to think someone might've tried killing you."
Dahl suspects the intended target of the shotgun blast was a friend of his who'd angered a woman's boyfriend earlier that night. The only witness, a neighbor across the street, saw three individuals flee in a car before police arrived. The shooters were never caught.
Firearm offenses and gun violence are on the rise in Madison, as part of what Madison Police Det. George Chavez sees as an overall trend toward more serious violence, much of it gang-related.
"We're really seeing a lot of gang activity all over the city," says Chavez, the MPD's gang expert. "It's not just kids painting or breaking windows; it's kids brutally beating one another. We have weapons being brought to school, people being shot at, people being stabbed. These are serious, violent crimes."
Still, the level of gun offenses in Madison remains low compared to other major urban areas. (In Chicago, for instance, 36 people were shot, nine fatally, in a single weekend in April.)
"Fortunately, we haven't had anything real major," says Chavez. "But we have had shootings where multiple people were injured." He adds that the city has been lucky in other ways: "It's amazing how many rounds can be fired and somebody's not been hit."
In 2002, police here documented 91 firearm violations, ranging from disorderly conduct to murder. By 2005, that number had climbed to 178, and to 183 in 2006. Firearm offenses dropped slightly in 2007 to 153, but already this year police have logged at least 40 gun-related incidents, including seven shootings.
More robberies are being committed with firearms. Police are responding to more calls regarding shots fired, people brandishing or being threatened with a weapon. More guns are being seized in search warrants, drug busts and traffic stops. Gun seizures have risen over the last three years, to 116 in 2007.
In response, Madison police have ramped up gun-reduction efforts and are turning more often to federal attorneys to prosecute gun crimes.
But for some, such efforts are woefully inadequate. The only way for citizens to protect themselves against gun violence, they say, is by having and being prepared to use guns.
"There is no way the police can be present every minute of every day to protect every law-abiding citizen," says Bill Maund, a Madison resident and gun proponent. "A society where people reserve the right to protect themselves is the greatest deterrent to harm."
Banditry and havoc have spoiled Duane Dahl's once quiet neighborhood, just off of Raymond Road. Over the last five years, he's grown weary of his neighbors, many of whom he suspects sell drugs. The addicts and juveniles he blames for robberies and violence have him anxious, even afraid. And it's only gotten worse.
"In the summer, you hear quite a few gunshots," he says. "Last summer, there was a fight right out there [in the courtyard]. I don't know if it was over drugs or what, but these two kids got pistol-whipped pretty good, busted their faces right up."
Excluding accidental shootings and suicides, gun deaths are uncommon. Just three of Madison's seven murder victims last year were shot. The last one occurred on Nov. 21, when Larry Gardner was shot dead in a south-side apartment. Police have no suspects.
Austin Bodahl, 23, died on May 22, 2007, after Daniel Kelly, 31, shot him following a brawl outside of a State Street bar. Kelly, who claimed he acted in self-defense, was later acquitted of first-degree reckless homicide.
Kevin Cobbins, 26, died after being shot multiple times last July by James Bohanan, 34, following an argument over a woman. Bohanan was arrested last month after nearly a year on the run.
"Most of the shootings involve groups of people who don't like each other, people who are either trying to intimidate others or people who get angry and lose control," says Madison Police Capt. Tom Snyder. "A lot of times it's gang-related. Victims almost always know the shooter."
But this isn't always the case. Last September, when a motorist checked on the bicyclist he accidentally struck with his vehicle, the bicyclist pulled a gun and shot the motorist in the shoulder. A January 2007 road-rage incident on Whitney Way ended with one motorist opening fire on another.
Police don't track how many people are shot in a given year, because gun crimes span 25 criminal classifications, from disorderly conduct to murder. But a review of police incident and media reports shows at least 18 people have been nonfatally shot since January 2007. Curiously, many victims are shot in the leg, suggesting local shooters aim to maim rather than kill.
Other shooting incidents seem intended to instill fear, like shots fired in the air (remember: what goes up must come down) or at moving vehicles. All officers usually find when they arrive are spent bullet casings.
A recent drive-by shooting proved more serious than that. On April 30, Tyrone Wheeler, 19, was shot in a spray of bullets from a passing car in the 600 block of West Washington Avenue. The alleged shooter, 17-year-old Michael Thomas, allegedly popped off three rounds, striking Wheeler, a vehicle occupied by a man waiting for his wife and the Dane County Mental Health Center building. Thomas was purportedly upset with Wheeler for seeing the same woman he was.
Though shot, Wheeler escaped serious injury. Thomas, captured two weeks later, was charged with attempted murder.
The incident underscores the pettiness underlying many shootings. "Respect is such a big issue among young people today," says Chavez. "How do I deal with it if you turn around and call me a name? What's that worthy of? In some cases, it's enough disrespect that people look to serious violence."
Most shooting victims have lengthy, often violent criminal histories. (For this article, Isthmus contacted 11 local gunshot victims, all of whom refused to talk. Some are similarly uncooperative with police.) But there are other ways that ordinary people are victimized by guns.
'This is a stick-up!'
Each year, about 120 people are robbed at gunpoint in Madison. Unlike shootings, which are concentrated on the city's south and southwest sides, hold-ups occur with unsettling randomness.
"When we're talking about violent crimes and firearms in general, one thing that has been a turning point is the number of robberies," says Snyder. "Robberies of all kinds with firearms have increased."
Late one evening in early March, Claudia Garcia, 22, was unpacking groceries when two masked gunmen burst into her home, near Fitchburg. They ordered her husband and brother to kneel in the living room with their hands behind their backs, and directed Garcia to the sofa, where she held her baby daughter while her residence was ransacked.
"I was very scared," says Garcia, with a heavy Spanish accent. "I was very afraid they were going to kill us. They wanted money. My husband said to them we didn't have money, but they keep saying, 'Where are the big bills?'"
When the gunmen didn't find money, they herded the family into the basement, then stole a plasma television. No arrests have been made.
In 1997, Madison saw more than 200 robberies, a record. A new record was set in 2005, with more than 300 robberies. By 2006, robberies surpassed the 400 mark, 140 of them committed with a firearm. (The number of armed robberies with a firearm fell last year to 119.) Pedestrians and businesses are still the primary targets for hold-ups, but police are noting more home invasions.
In a single night last November, gunmen entered the homes of two Madison couples. Nothing was taken, but in both cases a female was battered. The gunmen, who police suspect were after drugs, apparently had the wrong addresses. A family last year was robbed as they moved into a residence whose previous tenant was a known drug dealer.
The vast majority of robberies in which a gun is brandished never lead to shootings. But these do occur. On May 14, a 31-year-old man was shot in the leg on Madison's east side after he tried to flee an attempted hold-up. In late January, 22-year-old Danny Turner was shot in the elbow after a struggle over the gun allegedly used by Prentice Kilgore, 24, to rob him of $30. (Kilgore later accidentally shot himself in the leg and was arrested after seeking medical treatment.)
Incidents like these keep Bill Maund on edge - and ready to defend himself, if need be.
"Big, strong guys don't get beat up and robbed, it's only the weak," says Maund, 74. "Now that I'm older, I'm a lot more cautious. Actually, sometimes I'm scared."
A string of burglaries in his neighborhood have heightened Maund's fears. He says he was robbed at gunpoint three times while living in New York in the 1960s. "It's a scary thing to have a gun to your head," he states matter-of-factly. Although he's never been victimized during his 30 years in Madison, the stick-ups have stuck with him.
Maund doesn't carry a concealed gun in public, because Wisconsin law does not allow this. But he would like to. Wisconsin is just one of two states without a concealed-carry law, the other being Illinois. The Legislature has twice passed concealed-carry legislation, only to have it vetoed by Gov. Jim Doyle.
The mere prospect that citizens might be armed, says Maund, would be enough to make criminals think twice. When it comes to public safety, Maund feels gun-wielding bad guys have the upper hand: "In the everyday crime of opportunity, the gun minimizes the opportunity for people to be violated."
In the 1990s, then-Madison Mayor Paul Soglin backed a hotly contested referendum to ban handguns in Madison. More than a decade later, he stands by the effort.
"When you cut through all of the nonsense, the fact is that the more handguns we have in our community, the more deaths we have from firearms," says Soglin. "If somebody's got a handgun, it's more likely to be used in a suicide or fired toward a friend or loved one than an intruder."
The referendum failed by a razor-thin margin, though, in Maund's view, the terrible message it sent lives on.
"It's that kind of thinking that's to blame for Madison's crime problem," he says. "The attitude that promotes the idea that guns are bad and that citizens don't have a right to protect themselves is the same point of view that attracts groups of people that are not law-abiding citizens."
Laying down the law
Modern gun control began with the federal Gun Control Act passed by Congress in 1968. The law placed broad limits on gun manufacturers and owners. Among other things, the law created categories of individuals - including felons, drug users and people who have been involuntarily committed to mental institutions - who are prohibited from owning firearms.
In 1994, the government began requiring federally licensed gun sellers to conduct background checks on prospective gun buyers. The National Instant Criminal Background Check System processes and verifies the information. Lying on the form is a federal felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
But while gun laws may prevent people like Bill Maund from buying an AK-47 assault rifle, they didn't stop felon Calvin Watson from obtaining one. Watson, 39, who also owned a .44 Magnum, was arrested last August on Madison's west side after police discovered the weapons in his car.
Larry Gleason, owner of Grampa's Gun Shop on Williamson Street, has run background checks on every customer for more than 25 years. In that time, just two were denied. He doesn't oppose background checks, but says they've done little to reduce crime.
"Why would a criminal go to a gun store and fill out a form?" he asks. With more than 250 million guns in America, "If someone wants a gun, they can get a gun. If you're going to rob a store, you don't care if your gun is legal."
More likely, says Gleason, a felon in the market for a firearm would simply turn to newspaper classifieds. Only federally licensed gun sellers must run background checks; private sellers don't even have to get a buyer's name. It's a loophole Gleason wants closed.
Gleason would like all gun buyers to be licensed, as they are in Illinois. Private sellers would have to see the license before handing off their guns.
"Basically they run the background check and give you a license," says Gleason. "That means if you got a couple a guns you're selling through the newspaper, when someone comes to buy a gun, you'd better see their license. It's easy to enforce."
That would keep law-abiding sellers from inadvertently putting guns in the hands of criminals. However, notes Gleason, "If you're a crook selling guns out of the back of your car, you don't care if someone is licensed or not."
The Centers for Disease Control estimates that upwards of 4.5 million of these secondhand firearm transactions occur annually, in addition to the two million handguns purchased each year from licensed sellers.
In 2004, President George W. Bush let a ban on assault rifles expire. Rather than pass more gun controls, his administration decided to step up enforcement of existing laws.
In 2005, Madison police received a $117,000 Project Safe Neighborhood Grant to combat gun violence. Under the grant, which has since expired, police made 192 arrests and confiscated 60 guns. "This grant," says Capt. Snyder, "kind of helped get us into the mindset that this is a big problem."
Federal attorneys have also begun prosecuting more gun cases, especially those tied to drug trafficking. Most have prior convictions of violent felonies or serious drug offenses.
"Unfortunately, in the state system, sometimes it's just a little slap on the hand," says Chavez. "The federal system has a little more teeth to it. When you find out you're going to federal prison, that definitely sends a message."
In addition to primary charges, federal prosecutors have an arsenal of charging enhancements that all but guarantee a lengthy prison sentence. Federal judges can also pile on years if the gun was used in a shooting, if multiple guns were seized, or if any guns were stolen.
"We don't give probation," says Assistant U.S. Attorney Rita Rumbelow. "If you come into federal court as a convicted felon in possession of a firearm, you're not going to get probation. We don't do jail with work release. There is no parole. Prison time is prison time."
The times they are a-changing
In a 2005 survey of Dane County youth, 1,300 youngsters claimed some level of gang affiliation. Since the first wave of street gangs set up shop in Madison 20 years ago, several extraordinary gun battles have been waged on city streets. And police expect to see more of the same.
"It's reasonable to believe the problems we see with guns will get worse," says Capt. Snyder. "That can be hard for some people to accept, especially those who've lived here their whole life, but times change."
Chavez wants the city to invest more in gang-intervention programs. Opening a community center is no longer enough, he says, adding that city leaders need to stop debating whether or not guns are a problem in Madison.
"Madison is at the point where we could do something about the issue if the community was willing to take it seriously enough," says Chavez. "I'm the only one in the city who actively works gangs. When you look at cities our size, we fail in comparison to how other cities address their gang problem. They have gang units."
On Feb. 9, 22-year-old Dontae Collins allegedly shot two people outside a bar on Park Street. Neither was his intended target. Both survived. Chavez says this is the kind of shooting that tends to focus public attention on the problem.
"We don't want the streets to be a place where there are all of these shootouts," he says. "But it's probably going to take, unfortunately, a major incident where somebody who is not involved to get caught up in the mix before people really start to realize how serious it is."