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How Curbs On Gun Tracing Data Hid Info On Milwaukee Teen's Death

The 2018 killing of 13-year-old Sandra Parks by a stray bullet in Milwaukee made national news because she had won third place in the city’s Martin Luther King Jr. essay contest for decrying the same form of violence that would claim her life.

Homicide detectives had seen video surveillance of the fatal shots and had a witness placing Isaac Barnes at the scene. Why did he fire blindly into a house and kill a child.

How did an AK-47-style weapon find its way into the hands of Barnes, a convicted felon who wasn’t legally allowed to own it? The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives found that 90 percent of guns used in crimes can be traced to just 5 percent of firearms dealers, reports the Washington Monthly.

Often, it’s white dealers in the comparatively affluent suburbs who are illegally selling weapons to convicted felons in the inner city. Police have no trouble going after those dealers when one of their own is shot. In 2015, two Milwaukee officers won a $6 million judgment against a suburban dealer who negligently sold the handgun used to wound them.

In 2003, Republicans in Congress, pushed by National Rifle Association lobbyists, made it so that any “trace” information about crime guns could not be released to the public. They stepped up their efforts to protect the gun industry two years later, granting dealers and manufacturers blanket immunity from most civil suits.

Reporter Jamaal Abdul-Alum asked the Milwaukee Police Department for information about the gun that took Sandra Parks’s life. The police flatly denied the request. In order to trace a gun, local law enforcement sends a request to the ATF, which compares the firearm’s markings to a national archive of distribution and sales.

Under the law, the federal agency must provide these trace reports to police departments confidentially, and only for criminal investigations.

The Milwaukee police later said there was no trace report. But there were hundreds of pages of other records: interviews, affidavits, ballistics tests, and descriptions of evidence—including the gun. 

The weapon that claimed Sandra’s life was made by Zastava Arms, a government-owned manufacturer located in Serbia, some 5,000 miles from Milwaukee. How the gun got to the streets of Milwaukee is a government secret.

Isaac Barnes didn’t want to say where he got his gun. Barnes said he chose to honor the “street code” and not say who had supplied the weapon, which he said he bought for $400. Even though it was a crime to sell a weapon to a man with a felony conviction, Milwaukee police never investigated the gun’s origin.

In December, Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott announced plans to sue the ATF for trace information identifying the biggest sellers of crime guns in his city. The agency had denied his open records request.

No public official would comment on how gun tracing deficiencies factored into the death of Sandra Parks—not the mayor, the district attorney, the city council member for her district, or her U.S. representative.

In the six years since Sandra died, Milwaukee has had a hundred incidents with Zastava guns alone. Only a few months after Sandra was killed, in February 2019, the Milwaukee police officer Matthew Rittner died while executing a search warrant, shot once through the chest with a similar Century Arms Zastava weapon.


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