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Midwest guns summit unites mayors in frustration with system and urgency in fixing it

“Slow-motion mass murder” is how Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn describes the near-daily gun fatalities that have become so commonplace.

Although both Milwaukee County and Minneapolis have seen mass killings, this summit was more about the steady drumbeat of gun deaths in our cities than the headline events.
REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

The individual stories at Thursday’s guns summit of Midwest cities were powerful. The rhetoric at the Minneapolis event was passionate. The array of political and law enforcement figures was impressive.

But was something different this time? Or was this just another exercise in futility?

“The fundamental difference now is you have the president of the United States working on this,’’ said Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who along with Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak pushed for the summit.  “I’m more confident now that something can be done than I’ve been in decades.”

Besides Milwaukee and Minneapolis, this summit drew the mayors of Des Moines, Kansas City, Milwaukee and smaller communities in the Midwest as well as federal, state and local law enforcement officials.

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It had been in the works for more than a year, but what gave the event a heightened sense of urgency, at least to those of us in the media, were the student killings in Newtown, Conn.

That horror has led to another national debate on gun laws and the 2nd Amendment.

Daily drumbeat of deaths

And although both Milwaukee County (six innocents and gunman killed at Sikh temple in August) and Minneapolis (four innocents and the gunman killed at Accent Signage company in September) have seen this sort of mass killings, this summit was more about the steady drumbeat of gun deaths in our cities than the headline events.

“Slow-motion mass murder” is how Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn describes the killings that have been going on so long that our culture almost has become immune to them.

Of course, most of those killings occur among young people of color in poor neighborhoods.

“But it’s so wrong when the first question about a murder is ‘Where was it?’’’ said Rybak.

Barrett talked about the issue of gun violence in much the same way as many ardent NRA members do.

He called it “a freedom issue” — but with one big difference between Barrett’s view of freedom and the NRA view.

“There has to be an emphasis on allowing grandmas to have the freedom to sit on their back porch and watch their grandchildren play,’’ Barrett said. “A lot of people don’t want to see change. But we’re fighting for that freedom.”

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Strong words. But what can a handful of mayors do?

Many local efforts to control gun violence have been overruled by the Supreme Court and federal and state laws. For example, the state law allowing people to carry concealed weapons pre-empts any local control efforts.

Mayors look to D.C.

Most at the summit seemed to agree that most gun change laws must come from Washington. Those changes don’t just focus on guns.

Rybak and Barrett continually — and pointedly — noted that the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms and Tobacco purposely has been allowed to starve by the feds. It’s been six years since the bureau has had a full-time director, and it has fewer agents now than four decades ago.

By law, it’s not allowed to computerize — and share — gun registration information with other law enforcement agencies.

Gun data in this country?

“We have up-to-date data,” said Barrett, dryly. “We have data up to the year 2000.”

Rybak asked an ATF representative to share a few words with the media.  The representative talked a little about “cooperation” among various levels of law enforcement and then was asked a general question about gun violence statistics.

“I’d rather not share,” he responded. “It may be illegal to do so.”

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“That goes to my point,” said Rybak.

The mayors, then, will push for an increase in shared data from the feds, tighter registration requirements and restrictions on assault weapons and the size of ammunition magazines.

But there also was much talk of greater sharing of information among cities and building trust in high-violence neighborhoods. But there were few specifics, meaning there was much about this summit that sounded like other conferences and summits in years past.

That these big-city mayors were in agreement that there’s a problem is not a surprise. One of the problems in the whole area of gun restriction is the vast difference in viewpoint between people in cities and rural areas.

‘Duck!’ draws different reactions

“I use the word ‘duck’ to describe the difference,” said Barrett. “If somebody yells, ‘Duck!’ in some neighborhoods of my city, people hit the ground. If somebody yells ‘Duck!’ in Spooner, it’s probably a mallard.”

But, for the moment, those differences may be smaller than normal. Newtown could have been anywhere.

(Flynn, the Milwaukee police chief, calls Newtown-type tragedies “high-hazard, low-probability” events.)

Rybak insisted that there was no “sense of futility’’ among the officials who met Thursday.

He understands that many in the public think that public officials again will be paralyzed.

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“But we can’t retreat into cynicism,” Rybak said.

Time will tell.