By Edgar Mendez
This story was originally published by Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, where you can find other stories reporting on fifteen city neighborhoods in Milwaukee. Visit milwaukeenns.org.
The Milwaukee Police Department seized 8,076 firearms from Jan. 1, 2020, to July 8, 2022, nearly half of which came from five North and Northwest side ZIP code areas.
These ZIP codes – 53206, 53209, 53218, 53216 and 53210 – were the top five in the number of guns confiscated and represent 47% of all such confiscations in that period.
The majority of all the guns confiscated in the city came during police incidents (63%), 18% from search warrants, 9% from traffic stops and 3% from subject stops, according to data obtained from the Milwaukee Police Department through an open records request.
Gun violence has become a pressing concern for city leaders and residents, evidenced not just by the amount of crime involving guns in the city and record homicide rates but also by how much attention the issue has received in local elections. The figures offer a more than two-year snapshot into where guns, crime and police come intersect in Milwaukee.
Although the top five ZIP codes loom large, four others each had more than 500 guns seized during this period. These were 53204 and 53215 in South Side areas; 53208, which includes the Near West Side and parts of the North Side; and 53212, which stretches across parts of the East and North sides.
But 53206 stands out, with nearly 1,000 guns (988) recovered in an area of the city known for concentrated poverty and high incarceration rates. The guns confiscated there account for 12% of the city’s total over that time period. The second highest total, 765, was in 53209, while 722 guns were confiscated in 53218, 701 in 53216 and 679 in 53210.
Milwaukee Police Department Inspector Paul Lough said those numbers coincide with the areas in the city with the highest amounts of violence.
“There’s a lot of nonfatal shootings, homicides and we have a lot of ShotSpotter incidents in those areas,” he said. ShotSpotter is a gunshot detection technology used in
Milwaukee and other cities to alert law enforcement to gunfire.
‘53206 has been abandoned’
Dennis Walton, a community leader and co-host of the “Soul of the City Gospel Radio” show, said the amount of guns and violence his neighborhood in the 53206 ZIP code has experienced over the past few years is the result of ongoing neglect.
“There is a lack of leadership and concern for the residents that are suffering in this area,” Walton said. “There’s no sense of urgency to clean up this area. 53206 has been abandoned.”
Ald. Khalif Rainey, who represents sections of 53206 on the Common Council, was unavailable to speak to NNS.
A total of 960 guns were recovered in Rainey’s Aldermanic District 7. The highest total of firearms, 1,164, were recovered in District 15, which is represented by Ald. Russell Stamper II, while 1,101 guns were confiscated in District 6, represented by Ald. Milele Coggs.
Milwaukee has seen an increase in fatal and nonfatal shootings since 2020 and set all-time highs in homicides in both 2020 and 2021. This year, the city is again on pace to record an all-time high.
Some attribute the rise in violence to the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic caused increased economic hardship and social isolation, which disconnected some from support systems and resulted in increased stress and partner violence, experts say.
Lough said once a firearm is recovered by police it is checked for fingerprints and swabbed for DNA to see if someone who is prohibited from maintaining guns had possessed it.
The gun also is fired and the casing entered into the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network, or NIBIN system, to see if it has been used in any incidents in which shots were fired, he said.
South Side neighborhood sees steep rise
The 53215 neighborhood on the South Side has experienced a significant increase in guns recovered from 2020-2022. In 2020, 157 guns were confiscated and the following year there were 215. By July 8, police had already recovered 157 firearms in that neighborhood. That’s 9% of the city’s total so far in 2022, compared to a 5% mark for the neighborhood in 2020.
JoAnna Bautch, executive director of VIA Community Development Corporation, a nonprofit that serves several neighborhoods in 53215, said neighbors are concerned about public safety. She said she thinks the increase in guns is linked to more violence, which, in turn, acts as a catalyst for people to obtain guns as a tool to prevent it.
“Safety means having a gun is the message,” she said. “At the beginning of the pandemic there was so much uncertainty and people were scared and when people are scared and they don’t have positive resources to combat that fear, they go to what they know and hear the most.”
She said reducing the harm caused by firearms and other violence in the neighborhood is a joint task for law enforcement and elected officials – and for residents.
“Community engagement is a tool,” she said. “Positive activities like neighborhood cleanups and attending meetings and letting people know that this community is paying attention to what’s happening so don’t come over here with those problems.”
More guns on the streets?
District 8 Ald. JoCasta Zamarripa, who represents sections of 53215 on the Common Council, said it’s also been her perception that there are more guns on the street in recent years. As a result, she said, Milwaukee and other cities across America have experienced a spike in gun violence.
The weakening of common sense gun laws “that make it easier for people to get their hands on guns is having unfortunate consequences here in Milwaukee,” said Zamarripa, who had 459 guns recovered in her aldermanic district during the time period examined.
David Hemenway, director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center, which studies violence and other issues, agreed that there has been an increase in firearm deaths since COVID. But he said researchers aren’t positive about the specific reasons why it occurred.
“There are all these theories about what the issue is, but I don’t think we know,” said Hemenway, a leading authority on gun violence.
In general, though, he said, there always seems to be a strong correlation between guns and more deaths.
“Overwhelming evidence that when you put guns into situations it makes crimes more lethal,” he said. “Guns don’t cause road rage, they make it more lethal.”