LANSING — Mayor Andy Schor stood behind a lectern, local law enforcement by his side, in the days following a rash of Lansing shootings and decried the violence.
He pointed to the number of illegal weapons available in the city as a major factor, and said police had taken more than 500 guns off the street in the previous 11 months.
That was Dec. 13, 2021, near the end of Lansing’s most violent year on record.
Six hundred and two days later — on Aug. 7 — the mayor called a similar news conference to deliver a similar message a week after at least eight people were shot, including one fatally, in four incidents on a single Sunday earlier this month.
Lansing gun violence was “out of control,” Schor said, adding that illegal guns were “all over the place” and having a devastating impact on the city.
In the roughly 17 months between those news conferences, police seized another 667 firearms. But the shootings continued and illegal guns are still seen as a major driver, police and prosecutors said.
As of the end of June, there had been 165 shooting incidents in Lansing this year, putting the city on a pace for about 330 this year, or about 15 more than in 2022.
Lansing is far from the only city struggling to fight gun violence and the availability of illegal guns. The continual effort by police, prosecutors and cities to tamp down on the black market for guns underscores the difficulty they face in addressing gun violence. There’s no one root cause or source for the shootings and guns. And there’s no magic solution to the violence.
“Someone with $150 and the will, will pretty quickly find a gun,” said Daniel Semenza, an assistant professor at Rutgers University whose research focuses on firearm markets and violent crime.
How illegal guns enter the market
To better understand the challenge facing Lansing police and prosecutors who argue getting illegal guns off the street will help end the gunfire, it’s helpful to start with what’s known about how guns move from the legal to the illegal market.
“The really important thing to remember always is that every gun — when we call it an illegal gun — starts off as a legal gun,” Semenza said.
There are two main channels for firearms to move from one market to another.
The first is known as straw purchasing, when someone buys a firearm with the specific intent to give it or sell it to someone who isn’t able to legally buy a weapon. Sometimes it’s the purchase of a single gun, Semenza said, and sometimes it’s several.
Another channel is theft, either from gun dealers or from individual gun owners.
Semenza said theft from gun dealers is rare, but happens, and the more common location for weapons to be stolen from is vehicles. Thieves will look for pickup trucks or vehicles with a National Rifle Association sticker or other decals, any indication the driver might be a gun owner.
One popular venue for such thefts, he said, is parking lots at sporting events. It’s illegal in Michigan to take a gun into many large venues, so thieves know people with concealed carry permits are likely leaving their weapon locked in their vehicle.
Firearms can also make their way to the black market after being stolen from a home. And the guns can change hands multiple times before or after they are used in a crime.
“Guns are incredibly durable,” Semenza said. “They don’t biodegrade. They just sit.”
A firearm lost or stolen can be hidden for years before it’s used in a crime. Similarly, a gun used in a crime recently might have first entered the illegal market years ago.
Semenza cautioned against sweeping statements or definitive estimates on the number of illegal guns in circulation at any given time. There’s simply not enough data available and no current system to track the movement of every gun from factory to current holder, he said.
However, a surge in legal gun purchases in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, identified by the number of federal background checks legal sellers need to run, means it’s very likely the past three and a half years have seen additional guns move into the black market.
How a new top prosecutor and return to an old approach might help
Even a simple tally of how many guns are in the U.S. — legal and illegal — is elusive.
There’s no single federal mechanism to track every purchase, but estimates have put the number of guns in the country in the hundreds of millions.
And for many, that’s where the problem starts.
“I don’t know how you decrease that,” said John Dewane, the Ingham County prosecuting attorney. “I’ve read different philosophies on gun buyback programs. Some people say they work, some people say they don’t really work. I don’t know what the answer is.
“I think the problem is already here that we have so many guns in this country, that it’s easily accessible and cheap to get a firearm.”
Dewane was appointed as the county’s top prosecutor in December, taking over for Carol Siemon who retired during her second term. Dewane started in the prosecutor’s office in 2001 and had long been the deputy chief assistant prosecutor, or second-highest ranking official in the office.
In an interview with the State Journal in June, Dewane said one key part of his strategy with gun violence was to return to policies in effect prior to Siemen’s tenure, specifically the use of a weapons charge.
The felony firearm charge carries a mandatory sentence of two years in prison that must be served before the sentence for any other charge in a criminal case. Put more simply, it adds two years to any prison sentence if the defendant had a gun on them during the underlying crime. Siemon had limited the use of the charge in one of several policy moves that attempted to address racial disparities in the justice system.
“I believe possessing or using a gun during the commission of a crime just makes it much more dangerous and potentially life threatening,” Dewane said.
‘The tables are finally turning a little bit’
Lansing Police Chief Ellery Sosebee said Dewane’s appointment and the use of the felony firearm charge will help. He was among a cadre of local police officials who criticized Siemon’s decision to limit the use of the felony firearm charge.
“I think a lot of criminals thought that they would get a pass in Ingham County if they got caught with a gun,” he said. “And I think that the tables are finally turning a little bit.”
Sosebee said his officers have a regular focus on getting illegal weapons off the street, in partnership with federal agencies, and he believes prosecution as a deterrent is important. He added that educating legal gun owners on the proper ways to secure and store their weapons will also help reduce the number of lost or stolen firearms that make their way to the black market.
But Dewane and Sosebee said their departments, or even law enforcement in general, can’t end gun violence through arrests and longer prison sentences.
They’re both proponents of community violence intervention organizations, like the Advance Peace operation in Lansing, that are seen by many as promising solutions.
The organizations are rooted in the community and identify the small number of people most at risk of picking up a gun to settle a dispute. They build relationships and trust with them and, on a daily basis, work to show them a gun isn’t the solution.
Ghost guns and ‘switches’ complicate the issue
But adding even more complexity to the issue is the emergence of ghost guns — mail order or 3D printed firearms that require some assembly — and devices known as “switches” that can quickly turn a firearm into a fully automatic weapon.
Semenza, the Rutgers researcher, said while ghost guns remain a minority of all firearms, their increase in popularity is “jarring.” It’s still too early for research on their impact, but he said their availability “changes the entire calculus” for responses for law enforcement because they eliminate the primary legal market from the equation.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court backed a Biden administration effort to regulate ghost guns, temporarily allowing the government to require manufacturers of the untraceable weapon kits to conduct background checks on customers and mark their products with serial numbers.
Dewane said the “switches” are “super popular” among young people and are often seen as a status symbol or referenced in music videos.
“I think America has an infatuation with firearms,” Dewane said. “I mean, I think that’s really what it is. And unfortunately, I think everybody thinks that, ‘Well, if that person is carrying a gun, then I need to carry a gun.’
“I think it’s that mentality, which is concerning, as a citizen.”
Lansing State Journal reporter Ken Palmer and USA TODAY reporter John Fritze contributed to this story.