Which comes first: safety or an armed populace?

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Two Smith & Wesson Pistols

By Skyler Ashley
Bath-DeWitt Connection staff reporter

DEWITT — Upon entering DeWitt, one the first things you can find is the Clark Corners, a shopping plaza not too far from downtown. While it appears mostly barren, one store definitely grabs attention and that is Capital Area Tactical.

Upon meeting the staff there was a sense of community to be felt. The staff felt strongly in their support of guns, so it raised the question: what exactly is the current gun climate like in DeWitt? While Americans debates gun crime on a national scale, how is DeWitt affected? Is it lowering crime or causing it?

The crime rate is not alarmingly high, because DeWitt lacks the qualities of an environment that nurtures violence; statistics and experts back this. An environment that does would essentially have to be the opposite of DeWitt. These factors offer more insight into what keeps DeWitt’s crime rate low, not gun ownership.

“Communities like DeWitt have a shared expectation of demeanor in public, of what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable.” This environment does not attract the criminal activity that would require firearms or a militarized police force to prevent,” said Chris Melde, an associate professor of criminal justice at Michigan State University.

Capital Area Tactical is a firearms and tactical clothing dealer that deals to civilians but has primarily focused on supplying law enforcement. Capital Area Tactical has a very supportive attitude towards the Second Amendment and gun rights for private civilians. The store’s Facebook page often links to stories supporting gun owner’s rights.

When asked if he believed this philosophy was reflective of the people of DeWitt, Langenbacher responded, “Absolutely. This is a rural town, the people here work hard and they are happy to have their second amendment rights supported.”

Capital Area Tactical conducts itself very professionally; no sales are made without a rigorous background as per the state laws within Michigan. The shop and its staff are definitely trying to contribute in bolstering responsible gun ownership within DeWitt. Current or former members of law enforcement agencies conduct gun safety courses at Capital Area Tactical, including the class required to obtain a concealed pistol license.

As to whether or not there were any public figures within DeWitt that had a negative reaction to their opening, Langenbacher explained that was not the case and that, “the community has been happy to have us.”

This is not to suggest there was much of a fanfare on either side, DeWitt Chief of Police Bruce Ferguson referred to DeWitt as having “neither a big NRA presence nor a presence of the anti-gun types.”

DeWitt’s Police Department does not handle gun registration itself, but the Clinton County’s Sheriff’s Office’s 2014 Police Report (encompassing DeWitt and the surrounding area) states that 11,709 guns were legally registered between 2013 and 2014. According to statistics provided by the United States Census Bureau, Clinton County’s population is around 76,739, so in just two years enough guns were registered for nearly one-seventh of the population. Indeed, the DeWitt area is well armed.

After mentioning to Langenbacher the popular idea that a well-armed citizenry can play a role in reducing crime, the Capital Area Tactical employee agreed and went as far as to say it is “a fact.” The news stories posted on its Facebook page suggest that as well.

However, MSU’s Associate Professor of Criminal Justice April Zeoli had something else to say.

Zeoli offered that:

“We live in a world of infinite possibilities, absolutely there are cases where someone was able to thwart a crime using a firearm. However, having said that the idea that more firearms leading to less crime, has not truly been supported the research that’s out there.”

Zeoli is referring to the statistics that often show that guns are disproportionately used to commit crime rather than prevent it. For example, in 2012 the FBI reported on its website that across the United States there were 409 justifiable homicides perpetrated with firearms, as opposed to the 8,897 that were deemed criminal.

Does this suggest that the entire notion that guns could prevent crimes in DeWitt is incorrect? Ferguson, the DeWitt police chief, could not recall a situation where a civilian thwarted a crime using a gun, so the question was turned towards how guns have been used in crime.

Ferguson told of two incidents: one from 2006 where an estranged man attempted to murder his ex-wife and shot one of the responding officers in the face. The other occurred in 2014, which was a home robbery with the intent to trade the stolen guns for narcotics.

This does not exactly fit the narrative of guns prevent crime in DeWitt, but consider the two main arguments for this idea: that criminals will be less reluctant to target a well-armed populace and said populace will be able to defend itself when threatened. These are both hypothetical situations and crime statistics are not convenient enough to provide straight answers, especially when crime itself can be carried out with legal firearms.

However there is no real concrete reason to believe someone couldn’t stop a crime such as robbery with a concealed pistol, it just hasn’t happened in DeWitt as of late.

Ferguson could not recall a serious crime being perpetrated or prevented with a gun in years and according the DeWitt Police Department’s 2014 Annual Report, there has not been a weapons offense since 2011. Based on the lack of homicides from 2011 to 2014 and the information that supports there has been responsible gun ownership (based on the lack of weapon offenses), this is a positive for DeWitt.

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Downtown DeWitt

If it is not guns keeping the crime rate low in DeWitt, what is? First let’s look at demographics, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s website DeWitt has a low population of 4,507, with a median age of 40. The town also boasts a high median household income of $76,000 and education attainment rate of 97.8 percent.

DeWitt Police Officer Chad Vorce talked about the town’s low-key nature in comparison to the surrounding area, jokingly mentioning DeWitt’s ordinance on grass length.

Ferguson was adamant that his “community is not afraid to be involved with the police. Over the years we have developed a mutual trust.”

Ferguson said that communication has been the key element to keeping the town secure, adding, “We don’t have overt criminal activity, people move here because they feel secure.”

What keeps these communication channels open? “I have an open door policy, anyone can come talk to me at anytime,” says Ferguson.

Melde, the MSU professor, said, “communities with high crime rates also have high drop out rates” and the statistics mentioned above show that this is hardly a problem in DeWitt.

Melde’s expertise backs Ferguson’s claims as he agrees that “good income and good education work together to help open a communication channel which prevents crime.” DeWitt has both.

So it is clear that the gun owners of DeWitt are not vigilantes, they’re hobbyists who enjoy hunting and firing guns at the range. Considering that Michigan’s state website reports over a million of different hunting licenses being sold each year and that most of Capital Area Tactical’s consumers are ex-law enforcement or military, it is clear that is where the true cultural draw in rural communities like DeWitt is.

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