The Island of Gary: Guns or laws, which protects us better?

April 8, 2013

(Handout photo)
Gary, Indiana resident Karen Freeman Wilson at a recent press conference urging stronger legislation on gun laws in Indiana. The press conference was held just days after two teenage brothers were gunned down in Gary.

Recording more than 100 murders in one year from gun violence was routine in Gary during the 1990s, making the city one of the deadliest cities in America for its size. 

Gary officials had asked for tougher gun restrictions within city limits. But the state of Indiana, which is run by NRA-supported Republican lawmakers had refused to enforce those laws. They even passed a state law overriding any local gun bans.

That upset people like Ruben Gonzalez, 47, who says in his experience living in Gary, gun violence is never far away. He had personally been affected.

He had friends and relatives get shot. And he worried about his own safety.

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“Every time you walk out your doors, I hate to say it, (you’re) preparing yourself not to come home sometimes because some of the violence that goes on,” Gonzalez said. “It doesn’t even have nothing to do with you. It’s because of how these guys are feeling inside.”

Most recently, Gonzalez added two more names to those close to him who were shot and killed.

Brothers ShaQwone Ham, 19 and Charles Wood, 18, were longtime neighbors of Gonzalez. Gonzalez went to high school with the teens’ mother, Shalonda.

Gonzalez saw ShaQwone and Charles on the day they died. Police say the two were walking to their grandmother’s house for Sunday dinner when they were shot and killed.

“They spoke to me and say hey what's going on? I said hey fellas what’s going on? I went in the house, didn’t think anything about it like a normal day. And, an hour or two hours later, got the bad news,” Gonzalez said. “It hurted me bad but I just seen those guys. I know them. They’re like family to me. They were good kids, good kids.”

Two teenage suspects were charged in connection with the murder of the brothers.

Prosecutors believed the teenage suspects were carrying illegal guns.

In Indiana, it’s illegal for anyone under the age of 18 to possess a gun. It’s also against the law to carry one in public without a state license. Still, Indiana has some of the most lax gun laws in the nation.

Gary’s Police Chief Wade Ingram, a retired Chicago lieutenant, said the use of illegal guns is a major problem. He had some ideas on how to quell the violence.

He says he’d like to see is mandatory registration, mandatory training, and a firearm registry.

Ingram explained that having legal gun owners registered their guns will make it easier to trace it if it gets stolen and then used in a crime.

But Ingram, who was still a rookie when it comes to navigating Indiana’s gun establishment, was unlikely to see any of his ideas or suggestions become reality.

That was because in the Hoosier state, there were countless laws already in place.
But most of them were there to ensure the rights of gun owners. 

“To further restrict gun rights in the state of Indiana? No, no, that discussion will not take place in the Indiana General Assembly,” said Indiana State Rep. Jerry Torr, assistant majority floor in the Indiana House.

Torr, whose district includes the wealthy Indianapolis suburb of Carmel, chuckled at the suggestion that altering Indiana’s minimal gun laws would happen anytime soon.

Torr’s GOP party holds super majorities in both the Indiana House and Senate. Republicans also control the Governor’s office.

In 2010, Indiana lawmakers passed a law rendering useless any local government firearms restriction bans, such as Gary’s own ban on semiautomatic weapons.

Dr. Vernon Smith has represented Gary in the Indiana House for the last 23 years.
He has a hypothesis on why Indiana’s gun laws are the way they are.

“If there was ever a state that was owned totally by the NRA, Indiana is one,” Smith said. “Indiana has constantly protected the NRA and carried out the NRA’s agenda.”

In the past, Smith introduced bills requiring background checks at gun shows or training for gun owners, all of which never got a hearing.

But in a session taking place during such fervor for new gun laws, Smith was hopeful.

He’s pushing a new bill to outlaw semi-automatic weapons and high capacity ammunition in all of Indiana.

“I did think that it would be vetted,” Smith said. “It didn’t happen, didn’t happen!”

Karen Freeman Wilson sees the local versus state law debate from two sides.
As a former Indiana Attorney General, she’s been the enforcer.
And now as the Mayor of Gary, who has to live under those restrictions.

“At some point, they really do have to understand local communities knows what’s best for local residents, especially when you have a polarized general assembly like we have,” Freeman Wilson said.

Polarized, she says, in terms of urban versus rural and even conservative Republican Southern Indiana versus heavily Democratic Northwest Indiana.

“There are many who fail to identify with Northwest Indiana as a whole,” Freeman Wilson said. “They treat us like we are a foreign zone.”

But another top indiana Republican House member, Jim Lucas says it’s not north versus south, it’s law abiding versus the criminal.

“Why do we want to regulate legal, law abiding citizens access to best means to defend themselves against people who have no regard for laws,” Lucas said. “Against bad guys with guns, the best defense is good guys with guns.”

Lucas even pointed to Chicago’s rash of gun violence as a reason restrictive laws don’t work.

Illinois does not, as of this publication date, grant concealed carry permits although a federal appeals court is urging it to pass one. Illinois is the only state in the nation that does not allow concealed carry permits.

“Chicago has some of the toughest if not the most toughest gun laws in the nation. How’s that working out for you guys up there?,” Lucas said. “If guns are that easy to get in Indiana, why aren’t Hoosier statistics rivaling that of Chicago?”

According to some statistics, there are approximately 315,000 registered gun owners in Indiana.

And now, Indiana lawmakers are testing whether more guns make communities safer.

If adopted, Senate Bill 1 would require at least one person in every public school to have access to a gun. If passed, Indiana would be the first state in the nation to do so.

It’s important to note that even Indianapolis area lawmakers have tried and failed to discuss Indiana’s gun laws.

Indianapolis. too. is dealing with gun violence. It recorded 99 murders last year.

Democratic House member Ed DeLaney says during the outcry over this violence, lawmakers come off as being tone deaf.

His own introduced resolution, calling for lawmakers to at least discuss the state’s gun laws and the effects of violence in communities, has not gotten a hearing.

“The majority of our people want the large volume gun clips restricted, they want automatic weapons off the street, they want a real registration system and gun show regulation,” DeLaney said. “They want that and it’s kind of sad that the public is so far ahead of the legislature and the legislature can’t even talk about it but I think that’s where we’re at.”