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Tougher gun laws may not deter most persistent offenders, data show

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Wearing red as a sign of a lost loved one
Wearing red to denote a loss of a loved one to gun violence, a woman places a photo of the person she lost on a tree at the altar of the Church of the Ascension at the third annual Remembrance of Life Ceremony earlier this month.
Judy Griesedieck / For MPR News

Some Minnesota lawmakers say they plan to push again for more restrictive gun laws. But passing new or tighter laws may not deter the most persistent gun offenders. 

  In many cases, suspected gunmen are already legally banned from possessing guns. 

  MPR News examined hundreds of Hennepin County cases charged in adult court last year that involved gun-related crimes. More than a third of the alleged offenders in those cases were already under a firearms ban because of past convictions for serious offenses.

  The data reveal a complex picture of criminal gun use. The numbers, however, don't offer any definitive answers for lawmakers on how to deter the violence or stem the use of guns by people who shouldn't have them.

  "People on the street are plenty smart," Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said. "A lot of times they'll give the guns to juveniles, because they won't suffer the same kind of penalty. Or if someone is going to get a gun and wants a gun, he sends his girlfriend in the gun store to buy it for the felon, because the felon can't buy it."

  Among the 465 Hennepin County gun cases reviewed, MPR News found:

  41 percent of gun crimes charged in 2013 involved violent acts such as assault, robbery, attempted murder or murder:

Henn. Co gun-related charges, by type
 
 

The median age of suspected gun offenders was 26. The oldest offender was 80. The youngest was 17: 

Henn. Co. gun-related charges, by age
 
 

And 6 percent of suspects were women.

GUNS EASILY OBTAINED

Tough penalties deter some, but many felons know how to get around laws designed to prevent them from getting guns, said Freeman, whose office prosecuted at least one shooting last year that involved two people who were banned from possessing guns.

  Early morning Feb. 3, Chase Dent-Wells knocked on the bedroom window of his former girlfriend, Pearline Amy McGhee, who had moved back into her father's home in Brooklyn Park. Dent-Wells had been inundating McGhee's phone with dozens of calls and angry text messages after McGhee posted on Facebook that she had a new boyfriend. 

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  She let Dent-Wells in the house. A few minutes later, the young man lay bleeding on the floor after being shot three times by her father, 55-year-old Amos McGhee. 

  Amos McGhee had prior criminal convictions which made him ineligible to possess firearms legally. It was the same for Dent-Wells. Amos McGhee testified that he shot Dent-Wells with a .22-caliber pistol when he thought the younger man was going to shoot him first. Police found two guns at the scene of the shooting, but no identifiable DNA or fingerprints were found on the 9 mm pistol prosecutors believe Dent-Wells brought to the house.

  Amos McGhee testified that he bought his pistol "off the street." Freeman said his office decided not to charge McGhee for illegal gun possession because of the circumstances surrounding the shooting. The jury acquitted Dent-Wells of all charges. 

  Bobby Joe Champion, Dent-Wells' attorney and a DFL state senator, says it's possible tougher laws could have made it more difficult for Amos McGhee to get a gun. And Champion says he supports requiring background checks for private gun sales. 

  But strict gun laws, he added, can only do so much.

  "I don't want just stronger gun laws from the perspective of just prosecuting people," Champion said. "I think you want to create opportunities for people to distance themselves from that sort of lifestyle.  Make it a little more difficult for them to get guns in their possession, so we will all be safe and we can continue to be productive and thriving citizens."  

SPIKE IN GUN-RELATED CHARGES

In general, prosecutions of crimes involving guns in Hennepin County have increased the past few years, while violent crime has decreased. According to the latest information from state courts, the number of gun cases prosecuted in Hennepin County between fiscal years 2009 and 2012 increased by 134 percent. 

The Hennepin County Sheriff's Office has reported that violent crime in the county declined by 37 percent between calendar years 2006 and 2012.  

Tough law enforcement, not new gun laws, is key to convincing repeat gun offenders to put down their weapons, said Hamline University Law School Professor Joseph Olson. Police officers can basically harass chronic law breakers to the point where they give up, said Olson, who is also past president of the Minnesota Gun Owners Civil Rights Alliance. 

  "The programs that have worked have essentially said 'we're going to raise the street cost of the lifestyle you've chosen,'" Olson said. "That is, we're going to arrest you as often as we can for whatever we can ... We're going to disrupt your criminal life."

  Olson said that method is at the heart of a strategy developed in the late 1980s by criminologist David Kennedy. The program helped reduce gun violence in cities like Boston and Baltimore, he added. 

Minneapolis adopted that approach in the mid-1990s in response to a sharp uptick in violence. Olson said it worked, and he wonders why Minneapolis hasn't gone back to it.  

When it comes to stopping the illegal supply of weapons, "nothing works," said Olson. It's more effective to focus on people who use guns to commit crimes and those who illegally sell guns to offenders, he added.

'I DIDN'T HAVE NO FEAR'

  MPR News contacted more than a dozen men convicted of gun crimes last year, to ask them if they thought new or stronger gun laws would have deterred them from carrying guns. All of them declined our request.

  However, some former gang members say when they were in gangs, they weren't afraid of getting arrested for carrying guns.  

  Demetrius Harris, 19, says he grew up in the Cabrini-Green housing projects in Chicago and joined a gang when he was 13.  He didn't come from a broken home. Harris says he had a supportive family and stable home environment.  He says he chose to hang out in the streets because he got a charge out of carrying a gun around. 

  "I didn't have no fear whatsoever," he said. "I didn't even care."  

Even getting shot when he was 18 didn't discourage him from gang life. "It just amped me up," Harris said.

  He tired of the lifestyle eventually and left Chicago. Harris joined the North Four program based in north Minneapolis. The program helps young African-American men like Harris get educated and employed.

  The race of suspects is not routinely listed on the criminal complaints.  However, data from the Hennepin County Medical Examiner's Office show that in 2013, 86 percent of people shot to death in Minneapolis were black.   

Nationally, more than 90 percent of black homicide victims from 1980 to 2008 were killed by other African-Americans, according to data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics study.

  One of Harris' fellow program members, 20-year-old Delvin Jones, said when he was carrying guns, he didn't even think about getting caught. Guns and violence were just another part of life in the north Minneapolis neighborhoods he grew up in, he added. 

  Would he have turned out differently had he grown up in a peaceful neighborhood?   

"Yeah, I would have been a square. I probably wouldn't be in the program right now.  I would never come to the program. I would have been set," said Jones. "But, that ain't how it worked out."

  Currently, a person who knowingly provides a gun to someone who's not supposed to have one can be charged with a gross misdemeanor. Freeman wants to make that offense a felony. His proposal is part of a package of laws he backed at the Legislature last year that failed to pass.

  Freeman would also like legislators to make it illegal for convicted felons to possess ammunition, make it easier for repeat juvenile gun offenders to be tried as adults and redefine certain domestic assault crimes as "crimes of violence."

  For instance, a person convicted now of domestic assault by strangulation who gets caught with a gun is guilty of a gross misdemeanor. But Freeman said a person convicted of a "crime of violence" could be charged with a felony with a minimum five-year sentence if caught with a gun.

MOURNING LOST SONS

  Freeman would likely find support among a group that, for the last three years, has come to the Church of the Ascension in north Minneapolis to remember those killed by people with guns.    

Recently, about a dozen women sat in the creaky wooden pews wearing red jackets or blouses to indicate they've lost a child to violence. The sounds of a Gospel singer brought them to their feet. Portraits of the slain -- mostly young black men -- sat on white marble steps leading to the pulpit under the majestic, vaulted ceiling of the 120-year-old sanctuary.  

   For ceremony organizers, it was more than a remembrance. 

  Preventing more gun deaths means passing new and stricter laws, such as requiring background checks for private gun sales, said Heather Martens, executive director of Protect Minnesota, a group working to end gun violence. Members of her organization will be back at the Capitol this year to lobby for that.  

"We are honoring those we've lost," Martens said at the ceremony. "We want to make sure they did not die in vain."