By Tori Marlan
On October 17, 1994, Mariano DiVittorio, a 37-year-old restaurant employee, and Daniel Escobedo, a 56-year-old felon, drove to a gun shop in Oak Park. They surveyed the arsenal of weapons inside, handled the ones that appealed to them, and made their selections: two Jennings semiautomatic handguns for Escobedo and a Rossi revolver for DiVittorio.
Escobedo, who’d been convicted of narcotics trafficking and attempted murder, couldn’t legally buy a gun, so DiVittorio placed the order. He showed his Illinois firearm owner’s identification card and filled out two federal forms–a multiple-purchase form, required when someone buys two or more guns in a five-day period, and a standard firearms-transactions form, known as the 4473, on which DiVittorio scribbled “no” to such questions as “Are you a fugitive from justice?” and “Have you been committed to a mental institution?”
According to court documents, after the three-day waiting period imposed on gun sales by state law, DiVittorio and Escobedo returned to pick up their weapons. A ban on selling handguns in Oak Park had just gone into effect, so the men drove to the gun shop’s new Elmwood Park location. This time DiVittorio went inside alone, while Escobedo waited in the car.
About ten minutes later DiVittorio left the shop carrying the guns inside a brown paper bag. He set the bag on the backseat of the car, and the men drove off toward Chicago, unaware that law enforcement officers were tailing close behind.
Sometime before Escobedo pulled over on the 200 block of West 31st Street, DiVittorio removed Escobedo’s two handguns from the bag, transferred them to a second bag, and stashed them under Escobedo’s seat. When DiVittorio stepped out of the car holding the bag with his gun, Chicago police officers and special agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms–the Department of Treasury bureau that enforces federal laws and regulations on the sale, possession, and use of firearms–arrested him on the grounds that handguns were illegal in Chicago.
The ATF agents were also hoping to nail DiVittorio for an offense much more serious than violating a city ordinance: they suspected him of “straw-man purchasing” or “straw purchasing”–buying guns for people who can’t legally make the purchase themselves. In January of that year police on the west side, responding to a report of shots fired in a vacant lot, had seen a male between the ages of 17 and 19 toss a .380 semiautomatic pistol to the ground before fleeing. According to ATF agents, the pistol traced back to DiVittorio. And in September on the south side police had arrested two Gangster Disciples, ages 14 and 15, for firing a 20-gauge sawed-off shotgun out of an abandoned building. That gun too traced back to DiVittorio.
When later confronted with the evidence that he’d bought guns for Escobedo, DiVittorio pleaded guilty to the felony charge of unlawful transfer of firearms to a felon. According to ATF agents, he also confessed to having bought about 40 guns for unqualified buyers over the course of five years. More than a year and a half would pass before another of the guns DiVittorio had bought surfaced. When it did, it cost an Evanston teenager his life.
When arming themselves, criminals in Chicago rely on the straw purchase more than anything else. Police say every gang has at least one go-to guy and several more lined up. When straw purchasers get arrested, move, die, or just aren’t available, replacements are right next door, down the hall, across the street–“standing in line,” as one ATF agent puts it.
Straw purchasers set in motion chains of events leading to countless injuries and deaths, but apparently their complicity in the carnage either fails to register with them or fails to move them. Some buy guns as favors for friends or family; others do it for money or drugs or as a way to gain respect in their neighborhood. Because the law permits only people with relatively clean records to buy guns, “most of these people are not really criminal-type people,” says Chicago Police detective Peter Bukiri, who worked on the DiVittorio case. “A lot are women, addicts, first-time buyers with new gun cards. They’re not really your hard-core gangbangers or whatever. They’re a variety of people.”
They’re people like Mary Love, an unemployed 41-year-old woman from the west side who supplied drug dealers and gang members with 20 guns over the span of nine months in 1995 and ’96, according to federal and Chicago Police records. A nine-millimeter pistol she bought at Bell’s Gun & Sport Shop in Franklin Park in February 1996 later wound up in the hands of a 14-year-old boy. In June he was protecting a drug house and used it to shoot at police. Police riddled him with bullets, though he miraculously survived and was arrested. Love eventually received 24 months of felony probation for the unlawful sale of firearms.
They’re also people like James Kim, a 26-year-old medical student who supplied guns to the Spanish Cobras in 1994. According to court documents, over the course of two months Kim purchased 18 handguns for an undercover agent who, acting on a tip, was posing as a felon. Not wanting to be linked to any crimes the guns might help perpetrate, Kim had gone so far as to file off the serial numbers. ATF doesn’t know the total number of guns he purchased or how many are still on the street. Eventually he was sentenced to a year and a day in prison for just the 18 guns.
“There’s a misconception that the guns on the street are stolen,” says Chicago Police lieutenant Wayne Wiberg. “That is so far out of line you might as well say the guns came from the tooth fairy.” According to ATF statistics, only 10 percent of guns officers confiscate are stolen. Felons, juveniles, and others prohibited from possessing firearms don’t need to steal. They can easily acquire their weapons from legitimate dealers, in part because existing gun-control laws aren’t very effective.
Illinois is exempt from the Brady law’s five-day waiting period and background check, because by the time the bill passed state law already imposed similar restrictions on gun sales. State police screen potential buyers by conducting criminal and mental-health background checks, and qualified purchasers receive firearm owner’s identification cards. The application process is intended to weed out people deemed too dangerous or irresponsible to carry arms, but the background checks are less than thorough. Chicago police officers tell stories of juveniles obtaining FOID cards by simply lying about their ages and of cardholders listing vacant lots as their home addresses. According to Wiberg, who has been shot at and who wears a bracelet in memory of a friend shot and killed in the line of duty, the state once issued an FOID card to a dog named Fido.
Under federal law ten groups of people are prohibited from purchasing firearms: felons, fugitives, illegal drug users, the mentally ill, illegal aliens, those under 21, those dishonorably discharged from the military, those who’ve renounced their U.S. citizenship, those under a restraining order for domestic harassment, and those who’ve committed a misdemeanor crime involving domestic violence. But if prospective buyers find themselves in one of these categories, they still have options. They can finagle an FOID card and take their chances using it, or they can do what most criminals do–turn to a straw purchaser.
Each method requires a degree of what ATF agents call “lying and buying”–falsifying the 4473, the one-page federal firearms transaction form, which demands less personal information of buyers than a McDonald’s job application. The government trusts buyers to truthfully answer a series of yes-no questions regarding their eligibility, such as “Are you an alien illegally in the United States?” Buyers also must specify their address, sex, height, weight, race, birthday, and place of birth, so ATF knows how to locate them should their guns start appearing at crime scenes. The government seems sheepishly apologetic when asking for this cursory information; the instruction sheet attached to the 4473 assures buyers and dealers that the “estimated average burden” of collecting the requisite information is only six minutes.
During the three-day waiting period the dealer is required only to call the state police to confirm that the buyer’s FOID card is valid. The dealer is not expected to verify the information on the 4473. “It’s basically the honor system,” explains Jerry Singer, a special agent with ATF. “You go in and you answer these questions–and you’re supposed to answer them correctly. Of course if you falsify the form you could face federal charges.”
But the straw purchaser’s false claim–that he or she is the true buyer–is usually something only a full-blown investigation by ATF can refute. Unless the offender takes money from the real buyer during the sale or otherwise makes the dealer privy to his or her intentions, the straw purchase is nearly impossible to detect–and therefore nearly impossible to stop. By the time ATF has cause to launch an investigation, the suspect’s guns are already in the wrong hands.
In the spring of 1996 a group of Latin Kings frequently loitered around the Rogers Park Fruit Market, at 7401 N. Clark. Police occasionally arrested them for “gang disturbance” and disorderly conduct and mob action, but they’d soon swagger back to the streets, stuffing their hands in their pockets and casting intimidating glares at passersby, especially other teenage guys.
Occasionally they sized up Andrew Needham Young and his friends, who often stopped by the market. At 19, Andrew had the beginnings of a goatee, dressed in baggy clothes, and wore three earrings–a loop and a stud through his left ear and a stud through his right. Standing over five feet ten and weighing 187 pounds, he had a muscular, athletic body. For 11 years he’d been a speed skater, placing second and third in a couple of national competitions. He now stayed fit lifting weights and playing pickup basketball. He also liked to roughhouse–more than his mother cared for–with his younger brothers, 8-year-old Clinton and 13-year-old Philip. But neither he nor his friends welcomed real confrontation, so they ignored the glowering gang members. Andrew and his core group of friends–which included his twin brother, Sam–figured they had better ways to spend their time: girl watching in malls, playing hoops, listening to hip-hop, attending parties, and cruising around in their parents’ cars.
At least once a week they stopped by the market, sometimes for snacks and sodas, sometimes to run errands for the Youngs. It was a quick drive from the Youngs’ home just north of the Evanston border. The owners, longtime friends of the Youngs, permitted the family to cash checks there.
At about 5:30 PM on June 10 Andrew drove Sam and two friends to the market and parked on Rogers Street with the sunroof open and the windows rolled down. Sam got out of the car and disappeared inside to cash a check for his mother, leaving Jonathan Stewart alone in the backseat. Andrew knew Jonathan from Evanston Township High School but had only recently starting socializing with him. Sitting beside Andrew in the front was one of his closest friends, Bruce Thomas. They’d skated together since they were children and considered themselves more like brothers than friends. Bruce had just returned from a vacation in Atlanta. He’d been gone only a week, but he’d missed aimless days like these, riding around with “my boy Drew,” not knowing or caring what they’d do next.
As they waited for Sam, a teenager rode toward them on a bicycle. He passed them at a walking pace, staring long and hard into the car: three brawny guys, two black, one white; baggy clothes; goatees; earrings; baseball caps; a visor flipped upward.
The boy on the bike, 15-year-old Roberto Lazcalo, was slight by comparison, standing only five feet four and weighing 120 pounds. The youngest of four children, he was born in Pueblo, Mexico, and raised in Chicago. Court documents state that he’d dropped out of Sullivan High School in his first year, claiming to a probation officer that it had been overrun with Gangster Disciples; he was now on probation for criminal damage to property.
According to testimony at his trial, Lazcalo cut behind the car on his bike and crossed the street, joining Mario Ramos and a few others who were congregated around the front stoop of an apartment building. Lazcalo exchanged a few words with them and then pointed at Andrew and his friends.
When Sam returned, Andrew, Bruce, and Jonathan were discussing their encounter with the kid on the bike. What was up with that? As Andrew drove away, Ramos, a skinny 18-year-old, ran toward the car, flashing an extended pinkie, pointer, and thumb to signify allegiance to the Latin Kings and then a reverse Gangster Disciples sign, an apparent challenge. Neither Andrew nor the others had gang affiliations, so they ignored the gestures–a sign of disrespect that in the eyes of gang members is punishable by death. “There is no neutrality in a heavy gang territory,” says one ex-police officer who used to specialize in gang crimes. “If you don’t flash a like sign back, you’re the enemy.”
According to Bruce Thomas’s testimony, Lazcalo, still on his bike, and Ramos, on foot, chased after the car, ducking into an alley and crossing a grassy lot. Andrew turned left onto Hermitage, left onto Birchwood, and right onto Clark, then caught a red light at Howard Street. Lazcalo and Ramos had nearly given up when they saw the car in the left-turn lane. Ramos hopped on the back of the bike, and Lazcalo, though he suffered from asthma, pedaled hard. When they came within a few car lengths Ramos got off the bike and jogged the rest of the way.
Andrew apparently spotted him approaching in the side mirror and reached for the window button. But it was too late. The barrel of a gun peeked out from under a white rag, the sight of which caused Andrew to jerk reflexively backward. A popping sound pierced the air, and in the moment of confusion that ensued Andrew turned toward Bruce and smiled.
Bruce briefly smiled back at his friend before realizing that Andrew didn’t look right. He looked tired. “Did you get shot?” Bruce asked him.
“I don’t know,” Andrew replied, lifting his left arm. A spot of blood soaked through his gray T-shirt. The bullet had entered his left arm, ripped through his heart, exited his right side, and lodged in the back of his seat. The light turned green. Bruce threw the car into park, moved Andrew into the passenger’s seat, and peeled off toward Saint Francis Hospital in Evanston.
Between the bucket seats, Sam cradled his dying twin brother in his arms. Andrew lost consciousness as Bruce ran red lights, cut off cars, veered into lanes of oncoming traffic, and shouted at people to get out of the way. They arrived at the hospital in a matter of minutes, but by then Andrew had completely faded. “Just like he went to sleep,” Sam would later tell his parents.
At least five people witnessed the shooting, including police officers who were turning right onto Clark Street at the time. They chased and quickly arrested Ramos and Lazcalo. And they retrieved the gun that Ramos had tossed under a car. It was a semiautomatic nine-millimeter Bryco 59, serial number 602683–ATF agents say it was one of the guns Mariano DiVittorio had bought before he was arrested.
Over the past decade Jennings has sold more than one million of the five compact models in its aptly named Pocket Pistol line. The Bryco 59, available in nine millimeter and .380, is the largest of them, weighing 34 ounces and measuring more than six and a half by four and a half inches. It sells for about $100.
According to a 1992 Wall Street Journal article by Alix Freedman, a lot of these smaller Jennings handguns “figure disproportionately in robberies and murders” and “exact their highest tolls in urban centers” because of their “sheer numbers, rock-bottom prices and easy availability.”
Neither collector’s items nor appropriate for hunting or target shooting, such handguns are illegal to buy or possess in Chicago; exceptions are made only for law enforcement officers, security guards, and people who registered their guns with the city before October 1983, when the ban went into effect. But nothing prevents Chicagoans from buying them at any of the 25 gun shops in the neighboring suburbs. Last year Chicago police confiscated 12,882 handguns. In the first four months of 1997 handguns were the weapon of choice in 81 percent of the city’s firearm homicides. On the list of firearms that law enforcement officers in Illinois had traced most often in 1996, the model of Jennings handgun used to shoot Andrew Young ranked fourth.
“A lot of these cheaper weapons are made to be attractive to those people that would use them in crimes of violence,” says ATF investigator Brandon Hawkins. He acknowledges that these guns could be purchased for self-defense, but he points out that a shotgun–a larger, more formidable weapon–is usually more appealing to people interested only in protecting themselves.
Detective Peter Bukiri, who once felt a bullet tear through his coat collar, wishes law enforcement officers had more leeway to monitor gun sales. “It’s sad, because these guns end up in people’s hands that shouldn’t have them,” he says. “This has nothing to do with the right to bear arms. We’re talking about guns going to gang members, shooting wildly, hitting everybody and anybody. There should be something in the system that asks these people, ‘What are you going to do with ten .25 Jennings semiautomatics?'”
But such information is none of the government’s business, because it’s every qualified American citizen’s right to purchase as many firearms as he or she desires. “We’re very cautious with the rights of individuals when it comes to firearms,” says ATF’s Jerry Singer. “It’s not illegal to go in and buy 20 or 30 of these concealable guns at a time.” And, he points out, even if guns used in crimes repeatedly trace back to one person, that person hasn’t necessarily violated the law. The original buyer could be selling them legally to people who then put them to illegal use or illegally pass them on. Gun owners have the right to sell their weapons, provided they keep a record of the sale for ten years and abide by state law by selling only to FOID cardholders. Only dealers, who are licensed by the federal government, have to bother with a 4473 form.
Stephen Young, a self-employed piano technician, had just returned from work and was looking forward to taking a nap when Sam called with the news that Andrew had been shot. “I think he’s going to be all right,” Sam told his father. Through the kitchen window Stephen could see his wife, Maurine, and their 13-year-old son, Philip, shooting baskets in the backyard. Philip wanted nothing more than to make the basketball team at school, and lately Andrew had made it his mission to help Philip improve his game. Stephen left the house without telling them about Andrew. “I thought I’d wait until I knew he was gonna be all right.”
With four sons who’d needed plenty of stitches, Stephen knew his way around the hospital. He bolted past the admission area and into the emergency room, where Andrew lay pale and motionless on a table. His clothes had been removed. Stephen saw no blood, but what he did see frightened him–a doctor leaning over his son, pumping down hard on his chest. “Oh, God,” Stephen thought, “this isn’t good.” A security guard appeared out of nowhere and shuttled him off to a waiting room.
Someone from the hospital called Maurine with an abbreviated message. “It’s about your son Andrew. Please come to the emergency room.” The caller refused to elaborate. Maurine called a friend for a ride, since Andrew had borrowed her car. At the hospital Maurine went numb when she learned Andrew was dead.
In a small room reserved for grieving, Sam and Jonathan Stewart sobbed. Bruce Thomas thrashed about, denting a metal lampshade with his fist and hurling a table through the paneled ceiling. Stephen wrapped himself around Bruce and held on as though riding a wild horse.
Andrew’s younger brothers, Clinton and Philip, arrived on their bikes, and a doctor told them what had happened.
The family spent the next five hours in a room with Andrew’s body. Maurine and Stephen later said they prayed, ran their fingers through his hair, and looked into his quiescent blue eyes. They caressed him as the warmth abandoned his body.
Of all his sons, Stephen had spent the most time with Andrew, coaching him on the ice and traveling with him to speed-skating meets all over the country. Earlier that day he’d seen Andrew ironing a shirt. “Check your schedule,” Stephen had said. “You’ve got to get to DeVry and get registered.” After taking a few classes at Oakton Community College, Andrew had decided to enroll at DeVry Institute of Technology to study computer science. “OK,” Andrew had promised.
Stephen could feel Andrew’s presence in the room. “I made a vow to him–I’m going to be a father you can be proud of, and I’m not going to let your life be wasted. I really believe that his spirit was around the room and that he was quite aware of us, and I wanted to get through to him that I was going to honor his memory any way I could.” Then and there Stephen decided to devote his life to fighting for stricter gun control.
That night the younger boys slept with Stephen in the master bedroom. Maurine spent the night in Sam’s room, holding him tight as he trembled and wailed.
When Matt Rodriguez took over as superintendent of the Chicago Police Department in 1992, he disbanded the gun unit, which had consisted of ten officers and one lieutenant and had concentrated specifically on getting guns off the street, requesting ATF traces, and targeting people who armed juveniles and felons. Rodriguez reassigned a few of the officers to work closely with ATF.
Detective Peter Bukiri found himself working in ATF’s weapons-trafficking unit, where he handled the trace for the Bryco 59 used to shoot Andrew Young. Bukiri can’t remember exactly what prompted him to do the trace, but he guesses a police officer working on the case called him with the request. He sent the gun information–including make, model, and serial number–to ATF’s National Tracing Center in West Virginia, which does all the traces in the country. NTC investigators contacted the manufacturer and learned that the gun had been shipped to Riley’s Inc., a wholesaler in Avilla, Indiana, on July 29, 1993, then transferred to Breit & Johnson Sporting Goods in Oak Park on August 6. Breit & Johnson, which had moved to Elmwood Park in 1994, informed the NTC that a customer named Mariano DiVittorio had bought the gun on September 7, 1993.
ATF investigators don’t know where the gun went immediately after it left DiVittorio’s hands. But they do know that DiVittorio and at least one of his customers –Daniel Escobedo–had connections to the Latin Kings. At this point DiVittorio had already been convicted for selling the two guns to Escobedo, and the case was closed. After ATF closes a case on a straw purchaser, says Jerry Singer, it fully expects guns the purchaser bought to keep “showing up for years to come.”
In 1994 ATF had started a program called Project Lead to better identify straw purchasers, weapons traffickers, and others engaged in illegal gun activity. Six Project Lead investigators now work out of ATF’s Chicago office and are responsible for developing investigative leads in Illinois, Wisconsin, and northwest Indiana, which they do primarily by analyzing data on gun traces.
Each month the Chicago Police Department compiles a list of all the guns it confiscates–an average of 1,400 a month. Brandon Hawkins, Project Lead’s regional coordinator, sends the gun list off to the NTC, which determines the dealer who sold each gun, the person who bought each gun, and any other relevant information, such as whether the buyer is linked to other traces. Hawkins and other Project Lead investigators then pore over the voluminous data, “looking for things that can be investigated–reoccurring names, reoccurring addresses, reoccurring streets.”
Hawkins, who stands over six feet tall and weighs 240 pounds, spent eight and a half years as a Chicago police officer. He was shot twice in the arm, once in the chest, and once in the hip–all while answering one rape and robbery call. He says he’s also held a number of gunshot victims, including children, in his arms as they died. “Gun violence is my pet peeve,” he says. “I look at shootings. Every single one of them.”
Project Lead investigators also study multiple-purchase forms that dealers send in when someone buys two or more weapons in a period of five days. If, for example, a form indicates that a resident of the Robert Taylor Homes has bought 50 Tec 9s–large guns popularized by Miami Vice and favored by gang members in the project–Hawkins figures there’s cause for concern. But he knows that more cunning straw purchasers can easily elude detection by buying one Tec 9 a week. Since the Gun Control Act of 1968 prohibits the government from keeping a national registry of handguns and rifles, ATF has no way of knowing how many guns any given individual has purchased.
When Project Lead investigators suspect a problem they’ll usually have special agents pay the person a visit. “The people who really think they’re buying guns for their protection, you won’t have any problems from them when you knock on their door,” says Hawkins. “They’ll invite you into their homes and show you the guns. But a lot of these people who are straw purchasing, they can’t account for their guns. Usually we get a lie. ‘That gun was stolen.’ Well, did you make a police report? ‘No, but I’m glad you came. I’ll do that right now.’ Or some people will say they didn’t buy the gun, not knowing that you have the paperwork.”
If ATF agents have enough evidence to make an arrest, they then present the case to the U.S. attorney’s office. In each of the past couple of years the Chicago office of ATF has arrested an average of 45 suspected straw purchasers. But by its own best count, the U.S. attorney’s office has prosecuted only 19 cases involving straw purchasers since 1994, and some of those cases targeted not the straw purchasers but the people they supplied. “They’re used to prosecuting political corruption–when you bring in your little straw purchaser, how does it look to them?” says Hawkins. “Many people are being hurt as a result. Most murders are committed with weapons provided by straw purchasers. It’s not enough to stop the murderer–because the person who provided the murder weapon is still out there giving weapons to other murderers.”
When the U.S. attorney’s office declines to prosecute straw purchasers, police officers sometimes take the offenders to state court on charges of gun running, which is a felony, or of failing to keep and maintain records of a weapons sale, a misdemeanor–a last resort, since they know a misdemeanor conviction won’t necessarily put the offender out of business. The state’s attorney’s office says it doesn’t know how many straw purchasers it prosecutes each year.
Even when straw purchasers are convicted, says Hawkins, they tend to receive lenient sentences. “The courts don’t understand the ramifications of the problem,” he says. “They will look at a straw purchaser having no criminal background and say, ‘We don’t really have a bad person’–forgetting that one gun with 6 bullets can kill 6 people, one semiautomatic with 15 bullets can kill 15 people, a semiautomatic SKS with a hundred-round clip can kill a lot of people. So they don’t see what happens when these guns leave the hands of a straw purchaser and get into the hands of a real bad person or a street gang.”
But in federal cases judges are limited by sentencing guidelines, says assistant U.S. attorney Sergio Acosta. He points out that offenders with no criminal background would receive a sentence of 10 to 16 months, less if they plead guilty. Other factors can increase the length of the sentence, such as the number of guns bought and whether the offenders purchased the guns specifically for use in another felony–which is always difficult to prove.
Among straw purchasers Mariano DiVittorio hardly stood out. “It was just a normal case,” says Detective Bukiri. “We didn’t think it was going anywhere. But the U.S. attorney’s office took it and prosecuted. It was a surprise to me.” He believes the case was appealing only because of DiVittorio’s association with Daniel Escobedo, a “notorious longtime thug.”
Convicted of murdering his brother-in-law in 1960, Escobedo had appealed his case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which reversed his conviction on the basis that during his interrogation police had violated his right to consult with an attorney and hadn’t effectively warned him of his right to remain silent. The Supreme Court heavily cited Escobedo’s case in its landmark 1964 Miranda opinion.
Bukiri believes that DiVittorio, who was convicted only of buying for Escobedo, would have walked if he hadn’t been tainted by Escobedo’s notoriety (Escobedo was convicted of possession and sentenced to five years in prison). Still, DiVittorio received just a six-month prison sentence and three years probation. He was out of prison before the Bryco 59 he bought was used to shoot Andrew Young.
In the months following the shooting Andrew’s 13-year-old brother, Philip, withdrew from friends and family. His teachers called home to say he wasn’t participating in class. He didn’t make the basketball team. His doctor started him on antidepressants. The 8-year-old, gap-toothed Clinton, whom Andrew had affectionately called Toothy, burned toys on the stove, picked fights with older boys, and stood smack in the middle of the street “almost daring cars to hit him,” says his father. Sam holed up in his room and drew prolifically–mostly angry faces, sad faces, and tributes to Andrew. A part of him, he told his mother, seemed to have died with his twin. As toddlers they’d shared a language indecipherable to their parents. As young adults they’d shared friends that Andrew, the more extroverted of the two, had met and made for both of them. Sam now felt utterly lost and alone. His whole identity had been intertwined with Andrew’s.
Their mother, drawing strength from her faith in God, focused all of her energy on helping the family grieve. Their father, Stephen, organized a weekly Bible-study group for his sons and Andrew’s friends. He also made good on his promise to Andrew. He worked with gun-control advocates, spoke at local protests, and attended national conferences. He learned that every year 40,000 Americans die from gun violence. If current trends continue, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, gunfire will become the leading cause of death due to injury in the United States by the end of 2000; in Illinois, as in nine other states and the District of Columbia, it already ranks first. The financial burden on the public is enormous. According to a 1995 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the cost of medical care for gunshot victims amounts to approximately $1.4 billion a year. Taxpayers absorb the bulk of these costs, since 80 percent of victims don’t have private insurance. Trauma centers lose millions of dollars annually treating gunshot-wound patients. As a result, many have closed.
During a conference in Washington, D.C., Stephen visited the Vietnam War Memorial and learned that about 58,200 names were etched into the wall. He did some quick math and realized that the number of Americans killed in the Vietnam war equals the number that gun violence kills every year and a half. “There’s a war outside right now,” he says, “and as with the war in Vietnam, it’s going to take a social movement to stop it.”
In the meantime Stephen believes that litigation is the answer. He wants to see manufacturers held accountable for the hazardous effects of their products. Like tobacco, firearms are not regulated by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. “If you come up with a new idea for a teddy bear or a squirt gun based on a Star Wars movie, you face a lot of licensing and regulation and safety inspections,” he says. “You bring a gun to market, there’s virtually no resistance to putting that thing on the shelf.”
While he takes some comfort in the fact that Roberto Lazcalo was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to 55 years in prison and Mario Ramos pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and could be sentenced to 20 to 60 years, he believes the people who gave Ramos the gun are to blame for Andrew’s death as well.
Stephen has hired Richard Mallen to file a wrongful-death suit against Ramos and perhaps others, including DiVittorio, based on what they learn when they depose Ramos. Stephen has particular contempt for Breit & Johnson, the gun shop where, according to ATF’s Jerry Singer, DiVittorio bought the “vast majority” of the 40 guns he confessed to straw purchasing. ATF doesn’t know how many of those guns are still on the street, but Stephen believes it’s only a matter of time before one of them tears another family apart.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): gun photo by Lloyd DeGrane/ uncredited photo of Andrew Young/ Stephen and Maurine Young with Philip, Sam, and Clinton photo by Lloyd DeGrane/ various uncredited Andrew Young photos.