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Wednesday, May 29, 2024

‘One Piece of the Puzzle’

Regional U.S. Attorney Zachary Myers on how illegal firearms complicate the legal system, and why gun violence persists.

Gun violence impacts a community’s every layer including individuals, families, governance, health care, and the economy. After 24 total homicides in Evansville in 2022, it didn’t take long for the new year to start on similar, tragic footing.

At 1:05 a.m. on New Year’s Day, a man called 911 to report he had just shot someone in the head, and the body was behind a movie theater on North Third Avenue. Evansville Police Department officers discovered the deceased shooting victim partially submerged in a creek.

They arrested the man who claimed responsibility for the shooting a short time later at his residence on a charge of murder. Sixty-five minutes into 2023, the year’s first homicide already was on the books.

Then, on Jan. 19, gun violence reared its ugly head again in a frightening, public way.
A former employee of Evansville’s West Side Walmart, already facing assault charges stemming from an earlier incident at the store, entered the store at around 10 p.m. — close to closing time — with a firearm and shot an employee in the face before engaging police in gunfire 12 minutes later. He was pronounced dead on the scene.

Zachary Myers, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Indiana, says many incidents of gun violence are carried out by “violent people who are illegally armed.” Photo of Zachary Myers provided by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Evansville’s recent gun violence trend is disturbing but not unique, says Zachary Myers, who has served as the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Indiana since November 2021. Indianapolis deals with the same issues, he says, “and rural areas aren’t untouched either.”

In January, Evansville Business sat down with Myers, an Indianapolis native, to discuss our community’s gun violence and strategies to slow it.

Evansville Business: What’s the driving force behind the uptick in local shootings?
Zachary Myers: What we’re dealing with right now is a complex problem because the shootings have all sorts of different origins. What they have in common is people who are angry and people who have firearms. More and more, that also includes children with firearms. On a ride-along with the Evansville Police Department, talking with a couple of young officers, they were lamenting that they’re repeatedly seeing young people who are armed and who have the judgment of children — because they are children — but they have a firearm in their hands. It’s easy to make that split-second, impulsive decision that irrevocably changes their life and the life of the person on the other side of that trigger.

EB: What’s the best strategy to keep firearms away from people who would do harm with them?
Myers: We support and respect the Second Amendment, and everyone who is allowed under the law to have a firearm is welcome to do so. If they so choose, we hope they make sure it is locked somewhere safe. Make sure that if you’re carrying it, you’re carrying it in a holster. But a lot of shootings involve people who have a firearm who shouldn’t have one at all because they’re too young or because they’ve got a prior felony, or they’re either the subject of a final protective order in a domestic violence case or picked up on a domestic violence misdemeanor.

We’ve seen that the people who are most at risk for pulling the trigger, whether it is harming someone in their home or someone just generally in the community, are people who either are engaged in violent crime already or who’ve engaged in previous violent crime, or people who are engaged in domestic violence. Violent people who are illegally armed drive a lot of the violence that we see.

My family comes from a medical background. So, I like to make the analogy that the criminal justice system is not your primary care doctor. We’re the emergency department. When we get involved, the bad thing has already happened. It might still be ongoing, but that line has already been crossed. And we do what we can to target our resources to try to prevent further violence from the people who have already engaged in crimes.

EB: How are some people obtaining weapons illegally?
Myers: They are doing what we call straw purchases. They’ll find someone who either is a friend or family, just someone they pay who isn’t prohibited from purchasing weapons. And that person will go to a licensed firearm dealer and will say, “This gun is for me.” Then, they’ll walk out and hand the gun to the felon. That’s a federal crime, and we can do something about that. In terms of the supply of illegal weapons, now when people make purchases in private sales or gun shows, we can’t do anything directly about that transaction, but we can still go after the person who is illegally armed if they’re someone who the data show in our practices is most likely to pull the trigger.

We’re also focusing on not just someone buying one or two guns for someone who shouldn’t have them, but people who are making a business out of illegally arming criminals because a criminal can’t walk into the gun store … We had a case in Evansville where a felon was 3D printing a type of gun that is illegal for anyone to have — what we call “ghost guns.” Since the firearm didn’t come from a manufacturer, there’s no serial number and no way to trace it.

You recover it from a crime scene, and you’ve got the gun, but you can’t tie it to who purchased or manufactured it. We’re focusing on the sources of supply of guns and the sources of violence.

EB: What else can be done?
Myers: We’re the feds. We’re a small slice of law enforcement. So, we really have to pick our battles because we can do big, difficult, important cases, but we can only do so many of them. We have to try to target what is going to be most valuable to the community in terms of public safety. We’re always talking with our law enforcement partners about what cases we can build and bring that are going to get people who are out there pulling the trigger off the street. But a lot of those shootings are personal disputes — things that, when I was a kid, might end up in fisticuffs, and now, people are armed and pulling guns and shooting each other over just normal human disputes.

During the pandemic, all over the country, including in Evansville, the homicide rate spiked. And I think some of that is just people are hurting, angry, and disconnected. We were suffering collective trauma from all the things going on in the world. We’re just in this really tough situation, and as law enforcement, we’re trying to get our arms around it and trying to bend it back to a better direction through the tools we’ve been given to enforce the law. We are only one piece of the puzzle, and it takes a whole community of engaging in different types of effort to try to reduce the violence.

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