Right now, somewhere in the Ingham County Jail, three minors are being held on violent firearm offenses.
They are being charged as adults, including Lamar Patrick Kemp, the 15-year-old boy who allegedly shot and killed political activist Theodore “Ted” Lawson with a .22-caliber handgun on Oct. 8.
It was part of a national trend of youths’ carrying weapons that law enforcement officials say is growing.
“Unfortunately, this year we have experienced a number of youthful offenders illegally carrying guns and engaging in both fatal and non-fatal gun violence throughout Ingham County,” Ingham County Prosecutor John Dewane said.
Lansing Police Chief Ellery Sosebee supported DeWane’s decision to charge Kemp as an adult with the hope that it could deter possible youth offenders. “Too often, these acts of violence are by youthful offenders with no value of consequence or accountability,” he said.
But where are these kids getting these guns in the first place?
“What we find is that young kids can get their hands on guns in a million different ways, and that’s usually not buying one off the street,” Ingham County Sheriff Scott Wrigglesworth said.
Instead, minors are increasingly breaking into cars and stealing unlocked handguns from gloveboxes, in addition to many more who somehow get a parent, friend or relative’s weapon.
Lansing Police reported 168 guns as stolen in 2020, followed by 176 in 2021, 139 in 2022, and 122 so far this year. FBI data show that in the last five years nearly $17 billion dollars’ worth of firearms was reported stolen nationwide, with the value of recovered weapons totaling just over $2 billion, according to Everytown for Gun Safety, a national gun control organization.
“The majority of illegally possessed firearms are stolen, and the majority of stolen firearms are actually stolen from cars,” said Ryan Bates, executive director of End Gun Violence Michigan, a nonprofit coalition established in 2022.
Gun theft from vehicles is now the largest source of stolen firearms in the United States, according to Everytown for Gun Safety, based on data provided by the FBI. On average, one gun is now stolen from a parked car every 15 minutes.
“If you’re driving around with a gun in your car, it should be locked up, because that’s how so many of these guns are ending up on the streets and in the hands of kids,” Bates said, adding that a secure car safe can be purchased from Walmart for under $20.
The problem is partially bolstered by nationwide gun sales that reached record highs in 2020, and Michigan is no exception. Statewide gun sales doubled from 492,171 to 1,068,511 between 2019 and 2020. In 2021, that number dipped to 970,990 before heading back to pre-pandemic numbers at 570,352 sold last year. On a related note, 2020 was also the year when gun violence replaced motor vehicle accidents as the number one killer of children.
“A lot of this correlates directly with gun ownership rates. The more guns that are in our society, the more gun violence there is — and gun ownership soared during the pandemic,” Bates said.
Secure storage laws are one way in which he said the trend could begin to be reversed.
“The research shows that when you have a strong, secure storage law that’s enforced, you can reduce youth firearm deaths and injuries by 50%,” Bates said.
“I always say that being a responsible gun owner means you’ve got to be responsible for all of your guns, every second of every day,” Wrigglesworth said. “When I come home from work, I put my gun in the gun safe or I put it in my locker at the Sheriff’s Office and then it stays there until the next time I’m going to carry it — whether that be for five minutes, five hours, five days or five months.”
Cultural changes in young people’s perception of what it means to carry are another factor in the rise of youth firearm possession and violence.
“It used to be maybe being a member of an athletic team, or the kind of car you drove made you cool. Now, especially on social media, we’re seeing that kids love to show other kids that they’re in possession of a gun,” Wrigglesworth said.
This is sometimes accelerated by fear.
“Maybe there’s some kids beefing with each other and one of the kids thinks, “Well, I know he’s got a gun, so that means I have to get a gun of my own’,” Wrigglesworth said.
Bates believes marketing has exacerbated the phenomenon.
“There’s been a big push by the gun industry to market guns to younger and younger people. Everything is being marketed as tactical, guns are being marketed to make young men feel powerful,” Bates said. “There is a very real and concerted effort by extremist elements in our society to tell young men who might feel adrift in our culture that the way to be a man is to have guns and have power over people through violence.”
Local organizations dedicated to at-risk youth outreach are a pivotal component of the effort to curb this new era of youth gun culture. In Lansing, these groups include The Village, whose founder, Michael Lynn Jr., declined an interview request, and Advance Peace, a charitable organization chapter established in Lansing last October that has already seen progress, program director Paul Elam said.
“We engaged 15 individuals who are at the center of gun violence last summer and enrolled them into an 18-month fellowship. In 12 months, we’ve seen 12 of these 15 individuals cease and desist from gun-related activity,” Elam said. “We’ve also seen gun related fatalities go down by 60%.”
With that said, “We can look at the data and see that children as young as age 13 have been involved in new shootings since we’ve been tracking the numbers,” Elam added.
For youths who slip through the cracks and are caught with a gun in their possession, “it’s already too late,” Wrigglesworth said.
“They’re going to get charged, probably as an adult,” Wrigglesworth added. “What we need to do is build this notion that it’s not cool to carry a gun. The only thing that’s likely going to happen is either you’re going to get criminally charged or find yourself in a gunfight and possibly end up dead.”
Instead, the goal is to recognize at-risk youth and intervene before negative influences can take hold of them.
“Our gun culture has changed,” Bates said. To fight back, “We need to set a much stronger positive example for young men about what their identity could be.”
— TYLER SCHNEIDER
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