VIOLENT REALITY: Arkansas ranks 7th in gun deaths, but weapons restrictions not on table
The 16-year-old had been shot three times — in the arm, chest and hip — by Armando Castillo, someone who shouldn’t have been able to buy a gun under federal law because of previous domestic violence charges.
After killing the teenager, Castillo went on to murder Zamora’s 15-year-old girlfriend, Adriana Hernandez, and her mother, Amanda Murillo, in a rampage that lasted hours. He piled the mother and daughter on top of each other in the back of a car, next to some elementary school fliers and candy wrappers. Then Castillo, who was dating Murillo at the time, shot himself.
The shooting victims that Mother’s Day in 2017 are among the more than 8,000 people slain by gunfire in Arkansas since 1999. More than half of the victims died by suicide. About 200 died in gun accidents. The rest were killed by other people.
Such casualties are the day-to-day reality of gun violence in Arkansas: People here die by gunfire at a rate higher than in 43 other states, according to an analysis of 17 years of federal data by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
Arkansas’ gun-death rate was 16 per 100,000 people from 1999 through 2016. Only six states — Louisiana, Alaska, Montana, Alabama, Mississippi and Wyoming – had more people per capita die by gunfire.
Federal mortality records analyzed by the Democrat-Gazette show that the four states with the lowest rates of gun deaths have enacted at least one of five laws that gun-control advocates, researchers, police and some lawmakers say would help Arkansas tackle its level of gun violence.
• Institute a waiting period for the purchase of a gun.
• Demand safe storage of firearms.
• Mandate the reporting of lost and stolen guns.
• Allow court orders to temporarily seize guns from people deemed to pose an immediate threat to themselves or others.
None of these ideas has received serious consideration by Arkansas lawmakers during the two most recent legislative sessions. Instead, the debate over gun violence in the General Assembly has focused on preventing rampage shootings, which have not occurred in Arkansas in the 20 years since the Westside school shooting near Jonesboro.
Republicans, who currently control the state Legislature, have proposed arming more school security officers and teachers, and expanding citizens’ rights to carry firearms in public places. Democrats, meanwhile, have opposed such measures, while many from the party advocate for bans on the types of weapons often used in mass shootings.
In the lead-up to the 2019 legislative session, only one of the five laws examined by this newspaper, so-called “red flag” laws, have received much attention from members of either party in the Arkansas Legislature.
Federal law requires licensed gun dealers, such as sporting goods stores, to conduct background checks on all purchasers. Private sellers in Arkansas are not subject to the same restrictions.
A 2008 Democrat-Gazette investigation found that at least 850 felons illegally used guns for hunting, and state officials said they didn’t run background checks on people who apply for hunting licenses. The investigation could not be replicated with more recent data because the information is no longer publicly available.
But cases like that of Jaylynn Daeshawn Green show that the background check process already in place isn’t perfect.
Police say Green, a 22-year-old man with a history of mental illness, shot up a North Little Rock apartment earlier this year after he bought two guns from a store in February and didn’t disclose past involuntary hospitalizations that would have prevented him from purchasing the weapons under federal law.
According to court records, Green jumped off the Broadway bridge in December 2016 because of his paranoia and delusions about police chasing him. He has since been hospitalized four times, and faces federal firearm charges linked to the guns’ purchase. He has not been charged in the shooting, which did not injure anyone.
“We could have denied [him the guns] if somebody did their job,” said Jacob Tipton, vice president of the gun store.
The store conducted the federally mandated checks, Tipton said.
When asked about Green’s case, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives referred questions to the FBI, which in turn referred them to the Arkansas Crime Information Center.
None of the agencies could say how Green was able to pass a background check. The Associated Press reported in March that several states struggle to provide complete data to the federal background check system.
In 2017, Congress passed a bill commonly known as “Fix NICS” (National Instant Criminal Background Check System), which requires states to put plans in place to report crimes and involuntary commitments to the federal system.
Brad Cazort, director of the state Crime Information Center, said there isn’t a significant backlog in entering information into the system, and involuntary commitments, such as Green’s, are put into a database that is separate from the criminal database as soon as the information arrives from court officials.
“How quickly they do that, I have no idea,” Cazort said.
Graphic by Nikki Dawes
Arkansas is one of 33 states that do not require some form of background check in order to purchase a gun in every instance, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, even though state law prohibits felons or people with histories of involuntary commitments from legally purchasing guns.
In addition, the state has not adopted any required waiting period for gun purchases.
The Giffords Center, which advocates to reduce gun violence, gave Arkansas an “F” for its level of violence and the strength of its gun laws. The Giffords Center is named after former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., who was injured in an attempted assassination in 2011.
Kerri Raissian, a public policy professor at the University of Connecticut who studies gun laws, said requiring a background check for every gun purchase and preventing domestic abusers from buying guns, are good starting points for a state like Arkansas that has few laws regulating the sale of guns.
Connecticut, where Raissian conducts her research, is one of at least 10 states that have a universal background check law.
“Arkansas has no laws in the two easiest categories to get political support around,” she said.
Establishing a waiting period gives people who may be considering shooting themselves or others the chance to rethink the decision, said Lindsay Nichols, the federal policy director at the Giffords Center.
Private gun sellers interviewed for this article say they deny a gun sale if there is a “bell going off” that the potential client should not have a firearm. They also say they take other precautions, such as asking customers for their driver’s licenses, and recording their names and birth dates.
At an RK Gun Show at the State Fairgrounds in late July, 73-year-old Tom Powers of Hot Springs Village stood watching over his assortment of “curios and relics,” or antique target pistols. Powers, who sells about one gun a year at such shows, said he was not too concerned about people seeking out his unique set of guns to commit crimes but he still takes precautions.
At the gun show that day, he said, a buyer from Memphis inquired about a weapon, and Powers informed him that he doesn’t sell to people from out of state.
“Background checks are vital to trying to keep gun ownership in the hands of people that are law-abiding citizens,” Powers said. But he added that he fears that added requirements could become too intrusive, such as requiring government clearance for when a father passes a gun down to his son.
“Reality is somewhere between,” Powers said.
During the past decade, not a single bill has been filed to require universal background checks or waiting periods, according to legislative records.
Among lawmakers who support such laws, there is a feeling of futility, said state Rep. Vivian Flowers, D-Pine Bluff.
“For me, to be honest, I never thought to spend my time filing legislation if I knew that it was not likely — not only not likely to pass, but also likely to be used against me and my colleagues, politically, to move them out of office,” Flowers said.
During the 2017 General Assembly, Rep. Clarke Tucker, D-Little Rock, proposed legislation to prevent convicted domestic abusers from possessing firearms, but the bill failed to get enough votes in the House.
Lawmakers who spoke to the Democrat-Gazette pointed to the influence of the National Rifle Association, which can use its network of supporters to shower lawmakers in emails and phone calls ahead of controversial votes.
The NRA has donated about $200,500 to Arkansas politicians since 2000, according to records from the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that tracks the money spent on politics and its effects on elections. But the NRA’s influence goes beyond money and extends to endorsements.
The NRA assigns letter grades from A to F to legislators, and sends those grades to its more than 5 million members.
Reporters’ emails and calls to the NRA and to Anthony Roulette, the group’s lobbyist assigned to the Arkansas Legislature, were not returned.
Republican legislators who support few restrictions on gun ownership argue that placing more controls on the purchase of guns will not be an effective deterrent to crime.
“There’s a lot of reasons why [gun violence] happens,” said Sen. Trent Garner, R-El Dorado. “I’m not going to point fingers. There’s different ways that happens. I think that the substantial burden those laws in theory could place on law-abiding citizens could outweigh the potential good they could do.”
Garner has put forth a plan to provide more mental health resources for schools, one piece of a four-pronged approach to school safety. But he’s hesitant to support waiting periods for firearms.
“I know there’s a cool-down effect they say will come [with waiting periods], but when I buy something — a weapon — I want to have access to it as soon as possible,” he said.
Maj. Carl Minden with the Pulaski County sheriff’s office said he thinks most gun crimes are committed with illegally obtained weapons. But a waiting period might allow more time to conduct background checks that include mental health histories, he said.
“It would be very beneficial to us, because, if I just got out of the State Hospital, do I need to be going in and purchasing a firearm unrestricted and unvetted?” Minden said.
The 6-year-old began playing with the firearm. He shot himself in the face and died about a week before he turned 7.
His aunt, Kenya Brevard of Little Rock, received a one-year suspended sentence on the condition that she get therapy, after she pleaded guilty last year to misdemeanor negligent homicide.
At least 11 children have been killed in accidental shootings in Arkansas since 2013, according to the state’s Child Fatality Notification list and previous news stories.
Six gunshot accidents involving children occurred last year, making Arkansas the second-most-likely state for a child to be accidentally shot, behind only South Carolina, according to data from Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense.
The group formed after the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting, which left 20 children and six adults dead, to push for “common-sense gun reforms,” according to its website. It advocates for more restrictive laws on acquiring guns, and its members say requiring owners to behave responsibly can deter deaths.
Groups like Moms Demand Action support “safe storage” laws, which call for harsher penalties on adults who leave firearms unsecured in the presence of minors. Such laws also can mandate certain forms of storage, such as gun safes, or require gun owners to purchase safety devices along with their guns.
A recent attempt to pass similar requirements in Arkansas, also put forward by Tucker in response to Eron’s accidental death, never made it out of a legislative committee.
Tucker said he discussed the legislation with Roulette, the NRA lobbyist, and was told that the organization would be “staunchly opposed” to the bill, ensuring that it would not pass out of committee.
Rep. Charlie Collins, R-Fayetteville, who sponsored legislation allowing college students to keep weapons on them while in campus dormitories, said “accidents happen” and he questioned how police could enforce safe storage laws.
“I would be really wondering to myself and worried that at the end of the day a lot of what this is about is compiling this list,” Collins said.
Strict laws mandating firearms’ safe storage have been passed only in four states that generally have passed other gun control measures. Oklahoma, Texas and Mississippi have passed measures to prevent children’s access to firearms, none of which require inspections to ensure compliance.
In addition, 11 states have passed laws requiring gun owners to report lost or stolen weapons to police. Despite the support of groups, such as the American Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, for efforts aimed at tracing illegal guns, Arkansas has not passed such a law.
“When we run a gun and it comes back not stolen, that’s not saying that it’s really not a stolen gun. It just means that it’s never been reported as stolen,” Minden said.
The Giffords Center’s Nichols said requiring that lost and stolen firearms be reported to authorities plays a big role in curbing gun trafficking.
“We hear of crime guns that are traced through the process that ATF uses for tracing crime guns to a consumer who bought a gun at a gun store, and the consumer will say, ‘Oh I lost it.’ Or, ‘It was stolen,’” Nichols said. “Law enforcement then has very little ability to determine how the gun got into the hands of the criminal or even who the criminal is.”
Not all law enforcement officers expressed support for legislation requiring gun owners to report stolen firearms.
Lots of firearms are not reported as stolen, he said, but many gun owners lose paperwork and don’t know the serial number tied to the firearm. Without a serial number, it’s difficult to prove that a gun found on the street or on a suspect has been stolen, he said.
But Gilchrist also said Arkansas’ gun laws hamper an officer’s ability to check whether somebody is legally able to carry a firearm. Advocates for “open carry” say a law passed in 2013 allows a citizen to carry handguns in the open without a permit, a position that has been supported by the governor and the attorney general. Still, it remains up to local officials to determine how to enforce the law.
In Little Rock, the Police Department does not have a written policy, but spokesman Lt. Michael Ford said officers act in concurrence with the opinion of Attorney General Leslie Rutledge and do not carry out arrests based solely on someone having a weapon.
“In the old days, if I went into a part of town that had a high propensity for gang activity … and I saw somebody with a gun, I had carte blanche the ability to make contact with them,” Gilchrist said.
A federal law that seeks to keep guns out of the hands of people convicted of domestic violence should have prevented him from buying a gun.
Police said they never learned how he obtained the weapon. His mother told Saline County investigators that it was his gun and they didn’t explore the subject further.
Some states are passing laws that encompass a broader range of indications that someone might become violent.
Five states have some form of law that allows for a court order to temporarily take away someone’s guns if he is deemed dangerous to himself or to others. The laws are similar to laws on domestic violence protective orders, Nichols said.
“The way these laws are structured, there’s so much due process built into them that they do only very temporarily prohibit somebody from having a gun,” she added.
A red flag law — or extreme risk order of protection — is the only proposal for gun legislation that has gained noticeable traction from Arkansas lawmakers ahead of the 2019 legislative session. Two Democrats, state Rep. Greg Leding of Fayetteville and state Sen. Will Bond of Little Rock, have already drafted a proposal that they are pitching to fellow lawmakers.
“Indiana has this kind of law,” Leding said. “It’s not considered a liberal stronghold.”
Republicans Garner and Collins expressed some openness to similar proposals, though each cautioned that he would have to scrutinize the details of a final bill.
Leding said the proposal he and Bond are working on is modeled to be most similar to a law passed in Connecticut after the Sandy Hook shooting.
Federal mortality records show Connecticut with the sixth-lowest rate of gun deaths in the nation, and the state’s Senate Majority Leader, Democrat Bob Duff, attributed much of that to the work done passing gun laws in recent years.
“The data is very, very clear that we’ve had a reduction in gun crimes and gun deaths since Sandy Hook, so it’s hard to argue that the laws have had no effect whatsoever, because they have,” Duff said. “Pass what we have in Connecticut, and you’ll see your state become safer.”
Little Rock’s police chief sees the solutions to gun violence in a broad scope. Drug addiction, mental illness, poverty and other historical issues almost all intersect in the areas with high gun violence, said Chief Kenton Buckner.
“I don’t think there’s one law that we could come up with, or even a group of laws that would single-handedly reduce gun violence in our city or this country,” Buckner said earlier this year. “So I think it needs to be a comprehensive approach to that.”
The vast majority of gun owners are responsible, he said. Problems arise for authorities when those involved in gang activity or drug operations get ahold of firearms, he said.
That’s what happened to Charles Colclasure, who was shot in Little Rock in 1989 when two teenagers tried to steal his car.
The teens were in the middle of a crime rampage, said Colclasure’s wife, Elaine. She is the central Arkansas chapter leader for Parents of Murdered Children. The nonprofit provides support for people whose loved ones are homicide victims.
When her husband didn’t return home that night, she and other family members started searching for him. She heard on the news that a body had been found in the river, and she just knew, she said.
“He was a good husband, he was a good father, he was a good son, a good brother, a good friend,” Elaine Colclasure said. “When he was killed, it made a terrible impact on his family and my family.”
At the time of his death, the couple had three daughters — the oldest was completing her senior year at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville and the youngest was 7.
Amy Stivers, another member of the support group, has spent the years since her daughter, Danick Adams, was shot to death immersed in homicide, watching true crime TV shows and trying to identify strategies investigators could use to discover who killed Adams in 2008.
Adams, 18, was walking out of a 24-hour gym with a friend early in the morning when a masked man asked for their money. Both girls complied. Then he asked for their car keys. Adams refused.
The man shot her five times. Her death left other relatives to care for her baby daughter, Neveah.
Stivers, who grew up around guns, said she hates assault rifles and thinks guns should be kept off college campuses, out of classrooms and away from bars. She also thinks other controls could be put in place to keep people safer, such as requiring everyone who purchases a gun to submit to a background check.
Stivers said she thought red flag laws sounded beneficial, but she glanced over at Colclasure, asking the older woman to confirm her assertion that nothing will ever change.
“We’ve got too many people that are too attached to the NRA, and they’ll all jump up and say ‘You’re going to take away our guns,’” Colclasure said, adding that many of those too close to the NRA are Arkansas legislators.
The two women — along with Melinda Crowder, whose daughter was strangled in 2006 — lean on one another. They attend sentencing and parole hearings with group members and have monthly support group meetings.
Stivers can list personal details about Crowder’s daughter, Casey: she was a hunter, she was close to 5 feet tall, she was tough.
Both women look to Colclasure for guidance. She tells them to stop watching TV shows about murder. Stivers said she’s tried, but always falls back into the habit.
“There’s no such word as ‘closure,’” Stivers said. “It never ends. … I mean there’s still going to be that empty chair at the table every single holiday that we have to remember. There’s an empty chair there, and we know who goes there.”
TOP PHOTO: Little Rock police officers search a house for evidence on Aug. 6, 2017, on Howard Street in Little Rock. Photo by Thomas Metthe / Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
INSET PHOTO: Pulaski County sheriff's office personnel gather evidence at the scene of a Jan. 19 shooting at the Fairfax Crossing Apartments at 5900 McCain Park Place. Photo by Staton Breidenthal / Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.