What I Learned About Guns in Flint
The rule was that it was time to come home when the neighborhood streetlights came on in the evening. The rule was so simple that it was hard to explain showing up late after dark. The beautiful thing about the rule is that nearly all of the kids in the neighborhood respected that rule.
As I grew older and reflected upon those good old days' streetlights took much abuse. They became targets for footballs, baseballs, snowballs, and eventually BB guns. Throwing balls at the streetlights was to test our accuracy at punting, throwing out a guy at home plate, or how far we could throw a snowball. The good thing was we weren't very accurate. The idea of targeting the streetlight was never to put the light out for good.
On rare occasions, we hit the streetlights, and the hard glass covers never shattered. But shooting BB guns at the light was another story.
There was an odd and eerie link to those streetlights and guns, especially the streetlight in front of our house on Pengelly Road in Flint, Michigan.
Back in 1954, a little convenience store (then called a Drug Store) was robbed just a few blocks away at gunpoint. The store owner was shot and killed in the robbery. My mother and older sister were witnesses to that horrific crime. She was nine months pregnant at the time. I was born a few weeks later.
The murder shook Mom. Pengelly Road was a dirt road without streetlights. My father asked the City of Flint to put a streetlight in front of our house. That streetlight was essential to my mom and gave her a sense of security. It was important to my dad too.
Having heard the story of the murder at Charlie's Drug Store several times in my adolescent years made a lasting impression. But for the grace of God, neither mom nor myself would have survived that brutal killing. It was a gun that almost ended my life before it even started.
At that point in my young life, I learned that gun violence could traumatize people.
I first held a gun at the YMCA in downtown Flint. It was a BB gun. Today that seems like a peculiar place to introduce a young boy to guns of any kind. The idea was to teach us, boys, how to respect guns, learn about gun safety, and have some fun shooting them at targets. We learned important stuff like not pointing a gun at your little sister or yourself!
Kids growing up in the city, we didn't have woodlots behind our houses to shoot at tin plates or tree stumps. Most kids living in the city back in the golden age of Flint had never seen a gun.
My friends living across the street got BB guns for Christmas. Their dad was a pheasant hunter. Michigan is a place where many people are hunters. Thus, guns were part of the "up north" culture. We practiced using those guns in the basement of their house and along the railroad tracks nearby.
My mom was dead against me getting a BB gun or any other gun. So, all that was left was sharing my friend's BB guns whenever they decided to "practice." Sometimes my buddies would take a pot shot at the streetlights or take target practice at utility pole insulators down by the railroad tracks.
I knew then that shooting out streetlights and damaging glass insulators on a utility pole was a bad activity! My parents would not approve of that fun, nor would the Flint Police.
Parents sometimes graduated their boys from a BB gun to a .410 caliber shotgun. These small guns were used to shoot small game animals. A .410 shotgun was an introduction to real guns.
Boys my age witnessed on television the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. It was a sniper rifle that was used to kill him. Shooting our President with a gun was very traumatic for 10-year-old boys. Then came the killings of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, also by gunfire. I then realized that guns pose a real danger to America.
Like many college kids of my era, the 1970's, I loved southern rock. In 1975, the Lynyrd Skynyrd Band released a hit song Saturday Night Special. Besides being a great dance song, the lyrics of that song had a message that landed with me. What it did was give me permission to fight against handguns.
"Handguns are made for killin'
They ain't good for nothin' else
And if you like to drink your whiskey
You might even shoot yourself
So why don't we dump 'em people
To the bottom of the sea
Before some ol' fool comes around here
Wanna shoot either you or me."
Saturday Night Special
Once in law school, I learned more about the dangers of handguns. John Lennon was gunned down in December 1980 in New York City by a deranged fan with a handgun.
Not long after the death of John Lennon, President Ronald Reagan and his Press Secretary, James Brady, were shot by a man with a handgun. The attempted assassination occurred outside the Washington Hilton Hotel in the nation's capital. In my lifetime, there is a long list of famous people who were shot or killed by people with handguns, including President Ford, George Wallace, and Malcolm X.
By 1988, I bought a cottage in northern Michigan on the edge of the Huron National Forest. My friends and neighbors were bird hunters. They encouraged me to buy a shotgun. Up until then, I had never owned a gun of any type. So, they took me to a Flint Pawn Shop and introduced me to the owner, who found a suitable bird gun and a .22 caliber rifle for rabbit hunting. At age 34, I handed the shop owner some cash and became a gun owner. I made sure not to tell my mom about this discovery.
While shopping for a gun at the Pawn Shop, I wandered into the back room where dozens, if not hundreds, of guns, were in storage. I couldn't believe my eyes! Guns are not something working-class people like to pawn unless they are disparate. In Flint, there was a lot of desperation as the auto factories were permanently closed.
Long guns are like family heirlooms to working-class people. In some cases, it may be the only thing a boy gets handed down after the death of a father or grandfather. I could only imagine the shame and regret someone must have felt to pawn a gun handed down through the generations.
Up to that point, the only thing I knew about shotguns other than don't point them at others or myself was that in Flint, criminals steal these guns and then saw off the barrels.
In time, I became the Prosecuting Attorney. Shortly after taking the oath of office, a Captain at the Sheriff's Office called me. He said my county car was ready and equipped with a police radio just in case I needed it. He said I needed to schedule an appointment to "qualify" at the range. It wasn't clear what that meant. He asked me to go to the Flint Police gun range and practice shooting a .44 Glock pistol!
That telephone conversation caught my attention. I wondered what I had gotten myself into. So, the Captain picked me up, and we drove to the gun range. He handed me a lightweight pistol. After explaining the proper shooting position, the officer pointed to the silhouette targets in the distance. It was the first time I ever held a handgun.
I leveled the Glock pistol and shot dead center on the target about half a dozen times. The officer's eyes got wide, and he started to smile. He said, "Son, you are pretty good at this. Have you ever shot a gun before?" I hesitated to answer him. Because I didn't want to share the stories about the hours of practice, we boys had shot at streetlights, utility insulators, and beer cans back in the old neighborhood.
After some quick thinking, I mumbled something about this target practice reminding me of my days at the downtown Flint YMCA as a twelve-year-old shooting BB guns.
In those days, it didn't take long to realize the full dimensions of the so-called gun problem in Flint, one of the murder capitals of Michigan. In that role, I was the Chairman of the County Gun Board, a panel of law enforcement that issued permits to carry handguns. It was a felony crime to carry a handgun without a permit.
People had every crazy reason for wanting to carry a handgun without restrictions. What I learned during twelve years of overseeing handgun permits, not many people were honest about their reason for wanting to carry a pistol. It was simple; they feared real or imagined crime in Flint.
People who lived in the most dangerous, crime-ridden parts of town never asked for the right to carry a pistol in public. Overwhelmingly, it was white male suburbanites from the far reaches of the county that wanted the right to carry a handgun. They came from places where crime was almost non-existent.
To be sure, Flintstones love their guns. In the Flintstone cartoon show, neither Fred nor Barney carried a gun around the mythical town of Bedrock.
For nearly all Flintstones, the only crime they will personally experience in their lifetime is watching the local news. That, of course, is full of scary crime stories. These scary stories attract viewers, which begets advertisers with pockets full of money.
After becoming Prosecutor, I learned that the famous last words are "Go ahead and shoot me!" That may seem like a joke, but it's not.
You only learn about stolen handguns on the evening news after someone is shot or murdered. Those stolen handguns are everywhere in Flint. The people who buy a stolen handgun don't get concealed carry pistol permits.
Far away, the most bizarre homicide case in my nearly 40 years in criminal law was in Mt. Morris Township, just outside of Flint, involving a stolen handgun. A six-year-old boy found a stolen handgun on his uncle's bed and took it to school. The boy first took the gun out of his backpack and shot and killed his six-year-old classmate.
The victim was a beautiful little girl named Kayla. She would have been 22 this past year.
The handgun used to kill little Kayla was stolen at a teenage house party. The parents of the party's host hid the gun in his attic. A teenager stole the handgun at the beer party and then sold it on the street for cash.
That case taught me that no matter how shocking the killing, certain groups in America that profit from manufacturing guns conjure up every excuse not to acknowledge the obvious. To most parents, law enforcement, and good citizens, there are too many guns. These good people don't belong to a group like the NRA that profits off tragedy. These good people are forced to live with the consequences of handgun violence.
What I learned is that a good many politicians also profit from gun violence tragedies. Gun manufacturers shower politicians with money to ignore the tragic consequences in cities like Flint, Michigan. They threaten politicians with defeat if they don't follow their extreme views on guns.
That is true about the NRA because they targeted me twice for defeat! It is hard to target the store clerk cleaning up the mess on aisle #6 when it was the bottle of catsup, and a reckless shopper caused the mess. In that analogy, I was the store clerk cleaning up the mess on aisle #6 in Flint. Flint voters settled that argument, I won that battle, and the NRA lost.
The NRA was upset about my comment at a press conference with 193 news reporters worldwide. I warned people who buy handguns to think twice because they think they will make them safer. The warning was that it's more likely they or a family member will be a victim of crime with the gun than without.
If you have a handgun at home, please lock it up properly. Keep it out of reach of children or curious teenagers. Home invasions are usually motivated by criminals in search of a gun. In the case of beautiful little Kayla, the gun owner went to prison for his reckless storage of the handgun that killed her.
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This is Arthur Busch, and you have been listening to Radio Free Flint. Have a good day.