A month before Milwaukee erupted in flames and gunfire last weekend, the city’s chief of police, Ed Flynn, talked to The Marshall Project’s Simone Weichselbaum about Wisconsin’s permissive gun laws, which include the right to openly carry firearms. Flynn pointed out that Milwaukee police seize more guns per capita than any other major city — including Chicago, where gun violence has gotten much more attention. His dismay suddenly seems newsworthy, In the recent turmoil — sparked by the police shooting of a fleeing suspect — guns were everywhere. Firefighters delayed approaching a burning gas station because of shots being fired, and one firefighter was shot while giving first aid. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Marshall Project: I was Googling, and I saw that Wisconsin has an open-carry law. Is that without a license?
Ed Flynn: Well, you don’t need a license to carry a long gun, and no permit is required to carry a firearm openly.
How does that impact policing? I'm a New Yorker, and in New York City, if you walk around with a gun showing, you're going to be in a lot of trouble very quickly.
Yes, well that's true wherever I've lived as well. The law is, quite simply, lunacy. It's lunacy in an urban environment. These laws get passed overwhelmingly for ideological reasons, and, marginally to offer comfort to people who live in rural areas, where everyone knows everyone, and where the casual carrying of a hunting-style weapon no doubt causes little alarm.
For you, what do you tell your officers? How do they approach folks if they see a gun?
A) Carefully, and B) the foolishness of the law is it removes the notion of what’s reasonable suspicion to make an inquiry of someone engaged in a lawful act.
Can you please explain that?
For example, in Dallas [which also has open carry, and where five police officers were recently gunned down while accompanying a protest march] I have no idea how many police officers that assassin walked past with his assault rifle, but the fact that he walked past them did not give them — under Texas law — reasonable suspicion to make inquiries. Indeed, there were people in the march brandishing long rifles.
Right, I saw pictures of that.
In an urban environment, populated by strangers so to speak — as opposed to that bucolic somewhere where Joe carrying his shotgun creates no alarm — this law creates an impossible situation for police officers. Police officers at presidential events, those who aren’t directly involved in the protection detail, are routinely disarmed. The Secret Service doesn’t want a bunch of people whipping their guns out while they’re protecting the president. Now put that in an urban environment, in a hot spot characterized by high rates of homicide and non-fatal shooting. If they were allowed to inquire, officers might find that so-and-so is a felon in possession of a firearm, but what does he do when he confronts people carrying guns openly and presumably legally? Where to you start? Why are you picking on that fellow, instead of somebody in some other neighborhood?
When you are policing the most violent, heavily-armed society in the industrialized world, you're already starting with the potential for tragedy. When you exacerbate that with laws whose primary purpose is ideological — "I'll show you city-dwellers! I'll let everybody carry a gun equally!" That's what this is. This is ideology masquerading as Second Amendment rights. It's a foolish, reckless law in an urban situation. Legislatures that pass these laws could not care less about the violence in the cities. Couldn't care less, because they perceive cities to be populated by people who wouldn't vote for them anyway.
One of the things critics say — this is from the president of the Louisiana Police Chiefs Association: "Look at cities like Chicago. They have tough gun laws, and look at all their crime. Clearly, gun control isn't working." I'm sure you've heard that argument before. What's your answer to that?
Sure, we hear all this bullshit. State law trumps local ordinance, and the fact that one location tries valiantly to have strict firearm laws, doesn't have any impact on firearms coming from other jurisdictions that have virtually no firearms laws. I mean, right now in Milwaukee, we don't have any rights to govern ourselves when it comes to firearms. We're totally at the mercy of the state legislature, and they decided there can't possibly be enough guns in Milwaukee. The law is written in such a way as to casually and legally arm criminals. It is written in such a way as to flood the streets of our cities with high-quality firearms. Every year since the law has been changed, the number of guns we've recovered from criminals has increased. The time between the purchase of a gun and its use in a crime has decreased. Our non-fatal shootings have generally been on an upward trend, as have our gun-related homicides. This is the price Milwaukee is paying for a law passed by a legislature whose interests are certainly not urban. I'm being as diplomatic as I can be.
What's your response to those who think this is not a gun control issue, it's a mental health issue. These are a few deranged individuals who are responsible for the police-involved shootings, let's work on that. Let's leave the gun laws alone.
Well, let me put it this way. It's an act of profound faith to think that you can make military-grade firearms available to anyone who wants to purchase one, and not have mass casualty events.
That fact is, our laws are written in such a way as to make the mentally ill, but undiagnosed, in a perfect position to have access to these firearms, and a lot of our most homicidal individuals don't meet standard definitions of mental illness. They're sociopaths. We're arming them with military grade hardware. What in the name of God does anybody think the framers had in mind? Do they think the framers had in mind that they would arm the masses so that at any given time they could overturn the results of an election? Is that what we're doing? If we're going to make these weapons available to anyone who wants them, to parade around in public spaces, perhaps during elections, perhaps outside polling booths ... Is this notion that the framers really wanted to build into the Constitution, the destruction of democratic institutions? That's the logic of these idiotic laws. The logic of these idiotic laws is political violence, and mass casualties.
Why do you think there’s not a consensus on this issue in law enforcement?
There's no single voice for law enforcement. There are 18,000 separate jurisdictions governed by 18,000 different sets of politicians. The average citizen's influence is limited to their local agency. A lot of these agencies are very responsive to community control, and that means, "By all means, we'd like you to have a gun." If you localize it enough, what you end up with is a lot of value sets that mitigate against any coherent national sense of safety.
Were you surprised that the Cleveland Police Union boss said, "Hey, can we please hit pause on open carry?" during the Republican convention there?
Police unions have generally been captured by the conservative Republican movement, and they're going to be good boys and girls. They ask things of Republican legislatures that benefit them, and they're going to toe the line on most of the major issues. I was quite honestly amazed that the Cleveland president had the guts to ask his political masters to pretty please allow them to be safe during the convention. That's like a profile in courage in this day and age.
Police unions have started to play hardball politics, and they've been very successful in the Republican legislatures against the Democrats for whom — in the cities — they work.
These things are all interlocked. I mean, gerrymandering is interlocked with the kind of gun laws we have. You've seen the math. You've seen where the votes are concentrated, but because they're highly concentrated, they lose their ability to influence legislative events. We end up with laws that are passed to prove people's conservative bonafides, because in this day and age, most people are worried about primaries, not general elections. Most general elections are a foregone conclusion anymore, so it's all about the primary. That means appealing to the base. That means being more reactionary than your opponent when it comes to gun laws. All of that political posturing has real consequences in terms of the body counts in Chicago, in Milwaukee, in St. Louis, and everywhere else. These laws have consequences, but they don't have consequences for most of the constituents of the representatives that pass them. We're stuck with these ideological laws that are causing real harm.
Are you hopeful this will change?
No. Not at all. Nope. I mean, you can't kill enough babies [to change the politics of guns]. I don't think you can kill enough police officers. Despite these dreadful casualties, nope, they're not going to change.
That's very depressing to hear, sir.
It's very depressing to spend as long as I have in law enforcement, and be involved in this fight, and just be defeated constantly. This isn't just pessimism. We've been suffering defeat, after defeat, after defeat. A lot of law enforcement frustration with the Black Lives Matter movement type issues isn't nay-saying people's rights to be concerned, fearful, or want accountability, it's that that's the only thing anybody talks about even now. We've been trying to get attention to the crime in the cities issue for years. State legislatures don't care about it. Congress doesn't care about it. Nobody cares about it. We're left dealing with it, and the vast majority of department and individual cops are trying the best they can. This thing breaks, and boy we've got 10,000 people on the streets about the cops. Where the fuck are they when we need them to change the kind of laws that are giving us record body counts? That's a genuine, sincere angst that I see when police chiefs meet.
Do you think other police chiefs share your sentiment?
You pick your target. Obviously, attitudes are affected by regional differences, but if you're in a major city chiefs meeting, and we're talking about this, there may be some differences about how much gun control is really needed, but there isn't much. I haven't seen much dissent about this notion about the assault weapons among the major city chiefs. The ones that police jurisdictions characterized by diversity and violence, they're very frustrated.
Garry McCarthy, who got fired in Chicago, was one of the most vocal, passionate guys on this issue that I know. So was Tony Batts, who got thrown out in Baltimore. These guys are trying hard in polluted political environments, and in neighborhoods that were suffering from generations of crappy politics, as well as violence. Of course they're going to be the first ones thrown over to the side.