By Alexandra Arriaga
Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism
On a Sunday afternoon nearly four years ago, Elvin Daniel was in his garden when he got a call from police: His sister, Zina Haughton, had been shot at work.
Zina’s estranged husband, Radcliffe Haughton, used a semiautomatic handgun he had bought from a man in the parking lot of a fast-food restaurant in Germantown the day before the shooting. He killed Zina Haughton, Maelyn Lind and Cary Robuck and wounded four others at the Azana Salon & Spa in the Milwaukee suburb of Brookfield. He then used the weapon to kill himself.
Zina Daniel Haughton, 42, left behind two daughters, ages 20 and 13.
Daniel, who owns a gun, said he was shocked that his late brother-in-law was able to buy a firearm despite a judge’s order prohibiting Radcliffe Haughton from possessing a gun.
“As naive as I was back then, I thought because I go through a background check, everybody did,” said Daniel, who lives in Illinois, where all gun purchasers must pass a background check.
Since his sister’s death, Daniel has pushed lawmakers to expand criminal background checks beyond licensed dealers to private sellers, such as those who advertise on Armslist where Haughton found the seller of the gun he used in the mass shooting.
“I mean, the day before that (shooting), I was one of those that says, ‘You know what, leave me and my guns alone,’” Daniel said. “I still feel that, but I believe that everybody should go through a background check when they buy a gun to keep guns out of (the hands of) people that shouldn’t have them.”
Zina Haughton’s daughter, Yasmeen Daniel, who was at the salon and witnessed her mother’s murder, is now suing Armslist, charging the website facilitated the illegal purchase of the gun used in the shooting. Armslist has asked a Milwaukee County Circuit judge to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing it cannot be held liable for the actions of its advertisers.
Eighteen states as well as the District of Columbia have expanded background checks beyond federal law to include at least some private sales. Two more states — Nevada and Maine — have expanded background checks on the ballot this fall.
The federal Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, which took effect in 1994, required licensed dealers to subject buyers of handguns to a background check before a sale is made. The law was extended to shotguns and rifles in 1998.
Who is prohibited from purchasing a firearm?
Under state and federal law, people prohibited from buying guns include anyone who is:
- Underage: Minimum age to purchase a firearm in Wisconsin is 18. To buy a handgun through a licensed dealer, the federal minimum age is 21. Convicted or charged with a felony or another crime punishable by imprisonment for more than one year or found delinquent as a juvenile after April 21, 1994 for a comparable crime;
- A fugitive from justice;
- An unlawful user of or addicted to a controlled substance or ordered to alcoholism treatment;
- Adjudicated as “a mental defective,” including anyone found to be insane, incompetent to stand trial, appointed a guardian or determined to be a danger to himself or others;
- Committed to a mental institution;
- An immigrant without legal status;
- Dishonorably discharged from the military;
- Has renounced his or her U.S. citizenship;
- Is subject to a court order restraining him or her from harassing, stalking or physically threatening an intimate partner or family member;
- Has been convicted of a misdemeanor for domestic violence.
Expanding background checks popular
A Marquette Law School Poll this year found 85 percent of registered voters in Wisconsin, including 84 percent who have guns in their homes, support closing the private-sale loophole. A CNN poll in June showed 92 percent of respondents nationwide favored expanded background checks.
Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn said such a law would not eliminate the city’s violence, but it “would add another layer of oversight that may help keep guns out of the hands of those prohibited from possessing guns.”
But Republicans who run Wisconsin state government have blocked attempts to require background checks for purchases from private sellers. That position is shared by the National Rifle Association, which gave $3.6 million to Republican and conservative candidates in Wisconsin between 2008 and 2014.
Roughly one-third of gun purchases today occur outside of licensed gun stores, according to soon-to-be-released research from Harvard University and Northeastern University.
Expanding background checks to private sales is the “most promising” option for preventing gun violence, said Ted Alcorn, research director for Everytown for Gun Safety, a group that advocates for policies meant to prevent gun violence. Alcorn said exempting private sales allows prohibited buyers — including convicted felons and domestic abusers — to buy firearms “no questions asked.”
Dr. Garen Wintemute, director of the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California-Davis, has studied gun policies for more than 30 years and agrees universal background checks are among the most effective ways to prevent gun violence.
‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ for guns
Wintemute said private sales are like “Don’t ask, don’t tell” for guns. He has watched customers at gun shows, including in Wisconsin, walk away when a licensed dealer pulls out paperwork for a background check and head toward unlicensed sellers.
“Machine Gun” Marty Brunner is a licensed gun manufacturer and dealer. “NRA4 EVER” is tattooed across the knuckles of both his hands. Speaking at the Badger Military Collectible Show at the Waukesha Expo Center Aug. 5, Brunner said he believes purchasers go to private dealers because “they have something to hide” and that such dealers are more likely to sell “hot guns” previously used in crimes.
Tom Hardell, owner of Tom’s Military Arms & Guns, said he “definitely” supports universal background checks. Hardell said he has turned down a lot of “gang bangers” after running a background check.
“It hurts me as a business, and it hurts Milwaukee because that’s where the guns are coming (from),” Hardell said.
Lawsuit targets Armslist
When her husband’s violence escalated in October 2012, Zina Haughton got a four-year restraining order prohibiting him from possessing weapons.
A background check by a licensed dealer would have blocked Radcliffe Haughton from getting a gun and alerted police to his attempt to illegally buy one, according to the lawsuit filed by Zina’s daughter, Yasmeen Daniel, with help from the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
Instead, he visited Armslist.com, which the lawsuit alleges helps “prohibited and otherwise dangerous people” buy firearms.
Eric Van Schyndle, a lawyer for Armslist, did not respond to several messages seeking comment. A Milwaukee County judge will hear testimony on Nov. 1 to decide whether to dismiss the case. Armslist defeated a similar lawsuit in Illinois in 2014.
Background checks stall in Wisconsin
“It seems really obvious to me that if you are a person who knows that you can’t pass a background check, you’re going to buy from one of these private sellers, and that is indeed what’s going on,” said state Rep. Terese Berceau, D-Madison, who introduced a bill in the most recent legislative session to close the loophole.
Under the bill, all firearm transactions would have to go through a licensed dealer and buyers would be required to pass a background check. Exceptions would include guns given as gifts among family.
State Sen. Nikiya Harris Dodd, D-Milwaukee, called the legislation a “no-brainer.” Milwaukee had 119 gun-related homicides and 633 nonfatal shootings in 2015, according to the Milwaukee Homicide Review Commission — the highest in at least 10 years. Gun violence costs individuals and the state of Wisconsin billions a year in medical bills, law enforcement costs and lost lives, the Center has reported.
Of the known suspects in the 2015 gun homicides, 69 percent — or 66 suspects — were legally prohibited from possessing a firearm at the time of the crime, according to the commission.
Jennifer Gonda, a lobbyist for the city, said universal background checks are a key part of the city’s legislative agenda. But she is skeptical the proposal would pass the Legislature.
“We didn’t make much headway with the Democrats and … we’re making less with the Republicans,” Gonda said. “In some ways, it feels like we’re spinning our wheels a little bit.”
For now, universal background checks remain out of reach. Elvin Daniel is reminded of that every day by the bracelet inscribed “For the love of Zina” on his wrist.
“Had he gone through a background check, he wouldn’t have been able to buy a gun,” Daniel said. “Chances are, Zina would still be with us right now.”