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It was not supposed to be this way. 

Tonya Carter* had gathered her family to start the New Year together. Her three sisters, several children and longtime boyfriend Delvon Kelley were all at her home on Westview Avenue in the Lee-Miles neighborhood after watching the ball drop at their own celebrations the night before. 

Her mother was running late. 

Carter was the first of her immediate family to graduate college, and her alma mater, the Ohio State Buckeyes, were gearing up to play the Alabama Crimson Tide in the Sugar Bowl. The semifinal would determine who played in the first-ever College Football Playoff National Championship game. 

At about 3:30 p.m., Carter’s father, Michael Brown, who had been invited by his oldest daughter, came to the house. When he arrived, the family occasion grew tense.

Brown, 58, and Kelley hadn’t spoken for a month. The two had been close, often playing chess, watching sports on television and shooting pool. 

But something had come between them. 

Brown had discovered that throughout Kelley’s nearly 20-year relationship with Carter, he had been physically, emotionally and financially abusive, according to letters the family later wrote to a judge. 

After a particularly brutal incident over Thanksgiving, the couple had broken up. So when Brown saw Kelley, he exploded with a father’s anger. 

This man, the one who had abused his daughter, the one who had caused her so much pain, who had blinded her in one eye, had the gall to show up here. In her house. 

He and Kelley argued. 

“I’ll be back with some people to take care of you,” Brown told Kelley, according to police. He stormed out. 

But not for long. 

Roughly 90 minutes later, Brown returned with his brother and another man. As his white Nissan thrummed up the cobblestone street, Kelley and two friends met them in the yard. 

Carter’s mother arrived just in time to see the two groups shove each other back and forth. 

According to the prosecution’s account filed in court, the situation quickly grew violent. One of Brown’s entourage went to the car and grabbed a baseball bat. 

In response, Kelley ran back into the house, making for the basement where he found a sword. 

The rest of the family — including Kelley and Carter’s son, barely in his teens — watched in horror as Kelley charged. 

Brown scrambled into the Nissan. Kelley swung the sword at Brown’s brother in the passenger seat. 

“His eyes were red-rimmed and glazed. He was growling bad words and foaming at the mouth,” Carter’s mother would later write to the judge. “It was like he had the strength of 20 men.”

Brown pulled out a gun. 

What exactly happened next is somewhat unclear, but according to letters the family wrote to the judge, Kelley wouldn’t back off.

A single shot was fired, and Kelley stumbled back, dropping the sword, his right thigh bloody. A neighbor, hearing the gunshot, dialed 911. 

Brown drove off. 

When the police cars arrived, they found the family dazed.

In the trauma bay at MetroHealth Medical Center, surgeons rushed to staunch the bleeding in Kelley’s leg. But the bullet had struck his femoral artery and fractured his femur. 

Cleveland’s first gun death of 2015 occurred 20 hours and 57 minutes after the year began.

The city was quiet for 13 days. 

Then, on Jan. 14, a 56-year-old man on West 62nd Street in the Clark-Fulton neighborhood shot himself in the head with a .22-caliber Röhm Gesellschaft revolver. 

The next came three days later. A 37-year-old man was found dead in the parking lot of Mac’s Sports Grill on Harvard Avenue. He was shot in the neck.

On Jan. 20, police found a 31-year-old man slumped over the wheel of his car at Brackland Avenue and Eddy Road in Glenville. He was shot in the head. 

A little over a week later, the floodgates opened. On Jan. 29, a West Side man called police dispatch, threatening to shoot himself. As dispatchers listened, a single gunshot crackled over the line. At his home, police found a .38-caliber Taurus revolver. 

Early the next morning, Jan. 30, paramedics rushed a 30-year-old man to the emergency room at MetroHealth Medical Center. He had been shot outside Club Fly High on Superior Avenue. By 2:16 a.m., he was dead. About 45 minutes later, another man was admitted to the University Hospitals emergency room across town with multiple gunshot wounds. After a two-hour battle, he died a little after 5 a.m. 

Two dead in less than six hours — the year had truly begun.

In January, there were seven gun deaths. By the end of May, the tally reached 55. Then July rolled around. The 31 days became Cleveland’s deadliest month for the year, witnessing 20 gun deaths.

That month, there were horrors anew. In a house on Ada Avenue in Glenville on July 17, police found three bodies, each dead by gunshot wounds. 

On July 28, a Glenville man shot his pregnant girlfriend before turning his 9 mm Ruger on himself. The woman died at the hospital, but doctors were able to deliver the baby. The premature girl lived for only four days. 

The summer snapped the city to attention. 

By the beginning of September, guns had claimed 97 lives in this city of 390,000. And it only got worse. In just weeks, 5-year-old Ramon Burnett and 3-year-old Major Howard were killed — innocents simply in the wrong place.

Something was wrong in Cleveland. 

That feeling was in the air the night of Oct. 1, when police Chief Calvin Williams faced the cold light of the news cameras on East 143 Street and Kinsman Road. A third child was dead in as many weeks. Five-month-old Aavielle Wakefield had been shot in her car seat, cut down before her first birthday, in a white Oldsmobile riddled with bullet holes. 

Flanked by Mayor Frank Jackson, Williams stood just outside the crime scene a few hours later. It was dark, getting late. But the chief remained. Facing the cameras, he begged for the public’s help in identifying the shooters. 

“We want bodies in jail tonight for this crime,” he said. He took a breath, pursed his lips, trying his best to remain professional. “For the family, I mean … it’s tough.” 

Police officers live behind an emotional wall, coping mechanisms for a job in which terrible human acts are everyday. But something had breached the chief’s carefully constructed barrier. 

Maybe it was the loss of someone so young and innocent. Maybe it was the rapid-fire deaths of three children under age 6. Maybe it was Williams’ own loss — his brother, William Williams, had been shot and killed by his girlfriend a few months earlier. Maybe he also saw his brother’s children, who he took into his East Side home, according to court records. 

Williams looked down, away. His eyes were wet behind dark-framed glasses. The former SWAT officer’s voice wavered. He shook his head. “It’s tough.” 

The chief looked into the cameras. “This should not be happening in our city,” he said. “And we’ve got to do something about it.”

At that point, the city was trending toward its deadliest year in a decade, on pace to surpass the 134 homicides police recorded in 2007. 

The final numbers, compiled by Cleveland Magazine after analyzing hundreds of pages of records from the Cuyahoga County medical examiner and Cleveland police, broke no records. 

In fact, the numbers revealed 108 gunshot homicides, including four uses of deadly force by law enforcement, plus one pending but probable homicide and 25 gunshot suicides within city limits in 2015, according to the medical examiner’s records. 

In 365 days, Cleveland witnessed 134 gun-related deaths — just a slightly worse than average year in bullets and blood. Calculated using the 2014 census population, Cleveland’s 2015 gun death rate was 34.4 deaths per 100,000 residents — more than 20 points higher than the 2014 national average. 

Exactly what’s being done about it? That’s even more difficult to tally. 

After repeated requests over four months, no one from Mayor Frank Jackson’s administration or from the Cleveland Department of Police would comment for this story. 

“Take away the statistics, take away the trends in what’s going up or down,” says City Council president Kevin Kelley. ”People are dying.”

The morning after the shooting, Delvon
Kelley’s body arrived at the Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner’s Office. The pathologist found two bullet fragments, the largest of which was an irregular gray mass of metal 1-by-1/2-by-5/16-inches. 

He marked it with the deceased’s initials, D.K., photographed it and placed it in a labeled envelope alongside the rest of Kelley’s belongings: two lighters, two keys, one Carmex lip balm. 

Four days later, Michael Brown turned himself in to police. He handed over the gun. 

A grand jury charged him a month later with aggravated murder, murder and felonious assault. Because Brown used a gun, each carried the possibility of extra time. And a previous criminal conviction — a 1976 robbery — made the very possession of a firearm into a further charge. 

In court documents, his defense attorney Henry Hilow wrote that Brown regretted what he’d done but acknowledged responsibility. The Brown family declined an interview for this story.

“Michael Brown was a good father, a good grandfather, a good friend,” says Hilow. “He came from a very close family unit and friends network.” 

Eventually, Brown pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and a weapons charge. He is currently serving five years at the Lake Erie Correctional Institution in Conneaut. 

“This truly falls in the category of a tragedy, because all the lives were interconnected,” says Hilow. “It had a permanent and devastating effect on the entire family.”

Judy Martin knows that devastation first hand. A neighborhood activist, she began speaking out about gun violence among young people after her son — a football standout at Euclid High School — was killed in 1994. She regularly organizes vigils for the fallen and runs a support group for the families of those who have died. 

“Why are we letting this happen?” she asks. 

Martin compares the bloodshed among Cleveland’s youth to the loss of life in the Vietnam War. In her car, she carries around poster board panels, the names of Cleveland’s dead youth listed on what she calls the Memorial Wall of Sorrows — mirroring those on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C. 

“Over in Vietnam, everyone was trying to kill each other,” she says. “Supposedly, that was the purpose of a war. You hurt people. That’s not supposed to be happening here.”

About 54 percent of those killed by guns in Cleveland during 2015 were between the ages of 18 and 34, according to Cleveland Magazine’s analysis, with those 25 to 34 making up the largest number in any age group. 

Martin’s son, Chris, was 23 when he was killed. The shooter, Juwan Gardner, was 21. On the 13th anniversary of the shooting, Martin visited Gardner in prison. They talked for about an hour. 

“I don’t know what happened, but I hugged him on the way out. Because he looked like my son,” says Martin. “To me, I’m looking at another child.”

In Cuyahoga County, more than 70 percent of the 1,844 weapons violation cases in 2015 originated in Cleveland, according to statistics compiled by the prosecutor’s office. Almost a quarter of the county’s gun cases came from the Cleveland police department’s 4th District — the East Side neighborhoods of Kinsman, Buckeye Shaker, Mount Pleasant and Brown’s neighborhood of Lee-Miles.   

“How are they ending up on the street?” asks Martin. “How does a person who is 16 years old with no money end up with a gun?”

Even as the violence is becoming more localized, the gun trade is not. 

Cleveland, where the majority of violence in the county occurs, has not a single federally licensed storefront firearms dealer located within its city limits, according to records maintained by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

“People travel to sell these guns, they buy and sell them on the street, they buy and sell them on the Internet,” says Carole Rendon, acting United States Attorney for the Northern District of Ohio. “They buy and sell them at gun shows. There are a whole host of places people can go to illegally purchase guns.”

Although illegal guns are plentiful, they are difficult for law enforcement to tackle proactively. Too often, a gun has already found its way into the wrong hands by the time law enforcement gets involved.

Last year, the U.S. attorney’s office charged 126 people with federal firearm violations in the northern half of Ohio, 66 of them from the Cleveland field office. The majority of those cases were prosecuted under laws prohibiting felons from possessing firearms, says Rendon, who previously served six years as first assistant in the office. In Cuyahoga County, 49 percent of gun-crime cases in 2015 carried a charge of violating a similar state law that prohibits felons from possessing a gun, according to statistics from the prosecutor’s office.

Catching an unlicensed seller or corrupt gun dealer is a more difficult case to make, says Rendon. “Everybody has limited resources,” she adds.

Many of those operations require ATF agents to pose as buyers — a time-consuming, expensive and sometimes dangerous proposition. In one operation in 2011, agents set up a shoe store in Mansfield called Tredz. Posing as less than reputable buyers, they purchased pills, drugs and 70 guns off the street. But to do that, agents had to man the storefront for a year.

“The numbers of people who had illegal weapons that were willing to walk into a store and sell them to a guy behind the counter was stunning,” says Rendon. 

Hamstrung by scarce resources, law enforcement efforts to stem the tide of illegal guns often have the feel of removing handfuls of sand from a miles-long beach. 

According to annual reports from the ATF’s Office of Strategic Intelligence and Information, from 2010 to 2014 law enforcement in the city of Cleveland retrieved and traced 6,645 guns. While not every traced firearm was used in a crime or even illegally acquired, that figure means police retrieve and trace, on average, about five guns every day — all in a city without a single storefront from which to buy them.

“In the end, stopping guns is not going to be realistic while society continues to have this Second Amendment thing,” says city councilman Jeff Johnson, who regularly sees violence in his ward that stretches from
St. Clair Superior to South Collinwood. With stricter enforcement tough to come by, Johnson says combatting gun violence becomes a matter of trying to influence personal choice.

“You try to deal with the individual who decides to make better choices than to pick up the gun,” he says. 

Raymell Easter

“He was really excited [about his job], but I knew there was another side of him besides that,” says Latasha Washington, about her son, Johnteze Tunkara. “I knew he was struggling a lot with disconnecting himself from his friends that he used to hang around with.”

Johnteze Tunkara

Cleveland has a history with firearms.

In summer 1975, Congress paid a visit. For two years, Cleveland had led the nation’s medium-sized cities in handgun homicides per 1,000 residents. The House Judiciary Committee was considering federal gun control legislation. So they came to the deadliest place they knew. 

In the federal office building on East Ninth Street, the committee heard seven hours of testimony. Mayor Ralph Perk and Board of Education president Arnold Pinkney said their piece. Then Samuel R. Gerber also took the stand. 

The Cuyahoga County coroner since 1937, Gerber was both a lawyer and physician. Licensed to treat patients in both Maryland and Ohio, he could also practice law in Ohio, federal courts and even the U.S. Supreme Court. 

Gerber ran through his argument with characteristic efficiency. In 1974, there were 420 firearm deaths in the county, he told the committee. Of those, handguns caused 356. 

Gerber laid out a chart with photographs of typhoid fever, malaria, tuberculosis and measles. Each was easily communicable, dangerous when unleashed among large groups. Beside them: a silhouette of a revolver. Handguns were a disease, he argued.

“If the various governments in these United States can institute controls to conquer diseases, why can not the same governments control the disease caused by the indiscriminate use of firearms?” he asked. 

Since Gerber’s day, crime has decreased drastically. Yet urban gun deaths persist. 

It’s a public health problem, says Thomas Gilson, the county medical examiner since 2011. Making a diagnosis, however, is more complicated. 

“What’s the cause of the problem? Who’s affected? Who isn’t affected and how do we bring more people from potentially affected to not affected?” he asks.

But in Cleveland, those questions only lead to more questions.

“How does a person get access to a weapon?” he continues. “I didn’t grow up around guns, so what prompts a person to say, ‘This is the best resolution to whatever problem, be it self-inflicted or other-inflicted injury, that I would use a firearm to take a life?’ ” 

Gilson doesn’t have the answer. 

“That’s well beyond what I can do,” he offers. “But that’s a really important question.”

Cleveland City Council and Mayor Frank Jackson have made attempts at a solution.

While the state already restricts carrying a concealed weapon without a license and bans the sale of guns to felons, the city has tried to get tougher on guns. 

A decade ago, the city pushed for laws that would have banned assault weapons and required registration of handguns. But the Ohio legislature responded by passing a law in 2006 prohibiting cities from regulating tougher than the state. Cleveland challenged the state law all the way to the Ohio Supreme Court but ultimately lost.

In April 2015, the city tried again with a new set of gun regulations. The new law created a gun offender registry, which requires a resident convicted of a gun crime to register with the city. 

“We live in a state [where] our legislature seems to be very easily influenced by the gun lobby,” says City Council president Kevin Kelley. “They’ve essentially forbidden municipalities from regulating in any way that is stricter than the state.”

Shortly after the new law passed, Ohioans for Concealed Carry took to the courts, asking that the city be barred from creating the registry, asserting that it went beyond the bounds of state regulation. After a delay, the registry began in November. 

A Cleveland Magazine public records request filed in February for the contents of the registry was not returned, but a city spokesman confirmed that as of May 13, no one has registered.

“I think we’ve legislated up to the point that is within the state shackles,” says Kelley. “Of course, we got sued for doing just that. It’s a tough environment to navigate.”

When Latasha Washington moved her family to Ashbury Avenue in 2012, she was smitten with the Glenville neighborhood. 

Just a few blocks north of Case Western Reserve University and around the corner from the sparkling Heritage Lane development project, it seemed like a quiet spot. 

“I thought this was a very nice neighborhood,” she says. “When I would ride through, I saw cops around all the time.”

But three months after they moved in, three gunmen broke into her two-story home. They came in through the side door, she thinks, while she was asleep. Washington woke up to one holding her at gunpoint while another rifled through her closet. They took her wallet and her laptop. 

“I was angry,” says Washington. “I wanted to whoop something off them.” 

When the police arrived, she couldn’t identify them. “I didn’t have my glasses on, so I was blind as a bat,” she says.

The move to Glenville also ushered in a problematic period with her son, Johnteze Tunkara, who was just becoming a teenager. 

When he was younger, Tunkara was bright and creative. He loved to draw and design clothing. He dreamed of starting his own fashion line and owning a business. He had a singular sense of style — slick haircuts, the right shoes. 

“He taught himself,” says Washington. “Whatever he put his mind to, he did it.”

But as he got older, Tunkara had discipline problems and bounced in and out of school. He got in with a bad group of friends, says Washington. He had inherited her stubbornness. 

Still, she pushed him toward a career and school. Despite his troubles, Tunkara and his sister began a teen advisory board for City Rising Farm in Hough about a year after the move to Glenville. 

At the farm, Tunkara took the lead on teen recruitment, says Elle Adams, program director. He put his creative mind to work, trying to figure out ways to get his fellow teenagers involved. You get a space and some food, and I’ll bring the kids, he told Adams. 

When Adams reserved space at the library, complete with pizzas, Tunkara brought along seven friends. Five of them signed up for the program. “He was like our Pied Piper,” says Adams.

But back at home, Washington did her best to guide Tunkara. Once, he smashed a bathroom shower door during an argument. The two scuffled, and Washington called social services and the police. 

Tunkara was put on probation.

“I wanted him to see that life,” she says. “I wanted him to say, ‘OK, this is not where I want to be.’ ”

In 2014, Washington sent her son to the Glen Mills Schools, a sleepaway reform school in Pennsylvania. For nine months, Tunkara went through the school’s heavily structured program of rehabilitation. He seemed to have recaptured his spark for learning and came home with a GED. 

While he was still the same teasing and rambunctious handful, Tunkara had finally straightened up to his mother’s liking. 

At 17, he was admitted to the Towards Employment job-training program and got a job through the Step Up to University Hospitals program, which provides full-time employment to residents of neighborhoods nearby. He was the youngest member of the all-adult medical program.

To ace his interview, he practiced over and over with Washington. “He drove me crazy,” says Washington. “When he finally got it, he came home and said, ‘Mom, I got it, I got it, I can’t believe I really got it!’ I was really proud of him.”

But his mother could tell Tunkara was wrestling to balance his new approach to life with the one he was trying to leave behind. 

“He was really excited, but I knew there was another side of him besides that,” says Washington. “I knew he was struggling a lot with disconnecting himself from his friends that he used to hang around with.”

On March 11, Tunkara and a few others, including a friend of a friend named Raymell Easter, were at the house. His mother was at work, and his sister was upstairs. The group was hanging out in the basement and smoking marijuana, according to what Washington was able to piece together after the fact. 

When Tunkara came upstairs, he realized the family television had disappeared. While the exact details are unknown, Tunkara confronted Easter about the missing television, according to court records. Their argument deteriorated into a fight.

It’s not clear who started it or in which order events progressed, but eventually Tunkara grabbed a kitchen knife and stabbed at Easter. 

Using a .380-caliber handgun, Easter shot Tunkara five times in the chest, shoulder and neck. As Tunkara lay bleeding in the doorway between the foyer and living room, Easter and another person, whose identity is unknown, fled into the midafternoon warmth. They left the TV behind.

It was the 21st gun death of the year — the first of a person under 18.

As he fled, Easter dropped the gun on Orville Avenue between East 110th and 111th streets, he later told the Cleveland police homicide detectives. 

It was never recovered. “In all likelihood, that gun was picked up by somebody,” says Easter’s attorney Craig Weintraub. “That’s a street gun, and it continues to harm people in the city of Cleveland.”

In June, U.S. Marshals found Easter in an East Cleveland apartment. In September 2015, he pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and aggravated robbery. 

He was sentenced to 22 years, plus three for using a gun. 

At his sentencing, Easter didn’t say much. Weintraub addressed the court on his behalf. “He’s extremely remorseful,” Weintraub said. “This wasn’t the intent when he went over there. Things just happened between them.”

Washington took the stand. 

“Now, I’m not going to sit up here and portray to you like my son was a good kid,” she told the court. “My son had problems, but he also saw that there’s also a way out. And I believe that …”

“Just because he had problems doesn’t mean someone has the right to kill him,” interrupted Judge Shirley Strickland Saffold. 

“Exactly,” said Washington.

“The Bible assures you you’re going to have a troubled life. Everybody’s going to have trouble. I try so hard not to have any more trouble and it just comes. Everybody,” the judge continued. “So just because he wasn’t perfect doesn’t mean anybody has the right to kill him.”

Washington’s son was in heaven, “living the life,” she told the judge. His vessel was gone, but his spirit lived on.

Staring down her son’s killer, Washington said she felt nothing but sympathy. “I’ll pray that God has mercy upon your soul,” she said. “I truly do, because you’re going to need it.”  

As Washington left the witness stand, the judge thanked her for her time. “I’m very sorry for your pain,” the judge said. 

“But I’m at peace,” Washington said. “I’m at peace. There is no pain. It’s peace.”

Looking back on it now, sitting in her dining room just a few feet from where her son died, Washington thinks Easter should have gotten more time. 

“He still gets out and he still gets a life. I forgive him. I told him my son’s in a better place,” she says. “But in the same token, I don’t think that he fully gained an understanding of what he did.”

On a cool Tuesday in February 2016, about 50 leaders from the Greater Cleveland Congregations stand behind a podium beside Northfield Road in Bedford Heights. The group — a nonpartisan alliance of area congregations and organizations from many denominations and sectors — is gathered on the commercial strip to protest the store across the street. 

Bars and dark tarps keep prying eyes away from the windows. A gun safety poster hangs lopsidedly beside the entrance. Inside, half the store is taken up by fishing gear, poles stretching high, lined up side by side. A counter runs the length of the store. Pistols and revolvers gleam black and chrome beneath glass and fluorescent light. Behind them, shotguns and rifles line the walls. 

The red sign out front reads: “Atlantic Gun & Tackle.” Underneath: “Since 1957.”

According to documents provided to the Greater Cleveland Congregations by a senior local law enforcement source, from January 2010 to early June 2013, there were 3,407 firearms recovered and traced back to their original point of sale by law enforcement in Cuyahoga County. 

Of those, 965 were traced back to just three stores: Stonewall Range in Broadview Heights, B&T Shooting in Middleburg Heights and Atlantic Gun & Tackle in Bedford Heights.

The Bedford Heights location of Atlantic Gun & Tackle accounted for 694 of those weapons. In 2000, a weapon that was used in the murder of a police officer was purchased there. Cleveland police traced more than 120 guns used in city crimes in 2006 to the store, according to The Plain Dealer.

“What we’d like is to begin a dialogue with that owner, for him to acknowledge that they’re coming from that store,” says Rabbi Joshua Caruso of Fairmount Temple and founder of GCC.

Sam Borsellino owns the store. In addition to selling firearms, the shop does minor repairs and offers classes toward a concealed carry license. A third-generation family business, which opened a second location in Brecksville about 30 years ago, Atlantic Gun & Tackle has been in operation for 59 years. 

“Their complaint was, I think, that we sell guns, and we sell guns that show up in traces on occasion. That’s nothing more than the result of us being in business for going on 60 years and being one of the largest dealers in the area for 60 years,” says Borsellino. “Quite naturally there’s going to be more of our guns out there than somebody else’s, and that’s why they show up. It’s just common sense.”

Every buyer undergoes a Federal Bureau of Investigation background check to purchase a firearm, says Borsellino.

“We do things the way we’re supposed to do them. We always have, and we’ve been very successful at it,” he says. “Obviously, it looks like we’re trying to be punished for being successful at what we do.”

The protest was a part of the Do Not Stand Idly By initiative, a national effort to make inroads against gun violence. The campaign is calling for additional funding for smart gun technology — weapons that would unlock with a fingerprint or a radio-frequency identification bracelet and could cut down on accidental discharges.

The initiative also wants governments to leverage their purchasing relationships with gun manufacturers. Police forces periodically buy large quantities of weapons and should use that relationship to demand manufacturers keep better track of where their weapons end up, says Caruso. 

So far, 82 cities have pledged their support, including Sacramento, California, and Atlanta. In Northeast Ohio, 17 municipalities and other organizations have signed on, including Cleveland Heights, Shaker Heights, the Cuyahoga County Sheriff’s Department, Rep. Marcia Fudge and the Cleveland Clinic. One organization, one of the largest municipal purchasers of weapons in the region, is missing from the group’s list: the city of Cleveland.

“It’s about proper distribution practices,” says Caruso, “really putting pressure on the manufacturers and gun store owners to have accountability.”

Bubbly and full of smiles, Braylon was the center of Shanee Robinson’s world. He didn’t fuss and rarely cried. 

As Braylon toddled around the first floor of the three-bedroom house on East 63rd Street in Slavic Village, Shanee built a life around him. The boy’s father, Ricardo Sims, was around often, though he didn’t socialize with her side of the family. 

Shanee took it upon herself to support her son. So the 24-year-old decided to go back to school. She enrolled in a program to get her phlebotomy technician certificate, while continuing to work at a nursing home. It would be a step up — from housekeeping to taking blood samples. 

As Shanee studied to get the certificate, her sister, Shonda, often watched Braylon. “He was a really special kid,” says Shonda. “I will say, the only baby that I actually asked to baby-sit.” 

In early 2015, Shanee’s hard work paid off with a new job at a plasma clinic. “She was doing all the right things,” says her sister.

The afternoon of April 12, 2015, was like so many others in the house on East 63rd Street. Shanee was baby-sitting two other children. One-year-old Braylon played with them in the living room, beside two couches. 

But then it all changed. 

Shanee turned away for just a moment and a single gunshot echoed through the house. The bullet grazed Shanee’s left shoulder, according to Shonda.

She spun around, and Braylon was bleeding on the floor. One of the children she was baby-sitting, a 3-year-old, had shot him. 

Shanee had never seen the gun before, Shonda says.

Shanee dialed 911 and then called her sister in a panic. Shonda was in a hardware store parking lot when her phone rang. She hopped in her car and sped to the house her sister had rented from her on East 63rd Street. As she arrived, the paramedics were leaving to rush Braylon to MetroHealth.

Shanee was in shock, Shonda recalls. “She must have instantly picked him up, because she had blood on her,” she says. “That’s all I remember. Just her. Her just saying that it just … happened so quick.” 

In the trauma waiting room, the Robinsons gathered and prayed for little Braylon. Thirty minutes passed before a doctor emerged. Braylon was gone, she told the family. Shanee collapsed on the hospital floor. 

Braylon was Cleveland’s 32nd gun death of the year.

Shonda doesn’t remember much else. The funeral was held at Eric J. Williams Funeral Homes on Buckeye Avenue. Braylon was laid to rest at Cleveland Memorial Gardens.

“It was a real sad day, because it was like, This is for real. I think it hit my sister then, you know, he’s not coming back,” says Shonda, her voice trailing off. “It was a sad day, but the sun was out. The sun was shining.”

“Violent crime in general is an enormous problem for our society and our city in particular,” says Rendon, the acting U.S. attorney. “But I think a lot of the research has shown it’s also a symptom.”

She ticks off poverty, poor education, the illegal drug trade, lack of opportunities and supervision for young people as root causes. 

Councilman Matt Zone, who chairs the safety committee that oversees the police, emergency medical and fire services, says the most effective way to staunch gun violence is community development. He cites his West Side ward, which includes the Gordon Square Arts District, as an example.

As recently as the 1990s, it had one of the highest rates of violent crime in the city, Zone says. “Today it is among the safest census tracts,” he says. “We’ve done a lot of quality low-income and market-rate housing, created over 78 new businesses since 2006 and have over 700 people employed in that district.”

But not all areas of the city are sharing in that economic success. Councilman Kevin Conwell can count the homicides in his Glenville ward — including that of Tunkara. Last year, there were 17. His neighborhood, more than anything, just needs jobs, he says, which is why he hosts two job fairs a year. 

“When I grew up, Glenville was a mixed community where people had jobs and people were working. They were working at General Motors, Ford Motor Co.,” he says. “Work is therapeutic. The work has disappeared.”

Councilman Zack Reed, who frequently speaks out about gun violence, echoes that sentiment while tacking on a few additional points. Reed blames the Jackson administration and his fellow council members for not dealing with gun violence head on. He would also like to see an improvement in police-community relations so that more crimes are solved. 

“I’m the one who’s constantly showing this administration and my colleagues that we’ve got a problem, guys!” says Reed. “We’ve got a problem. This violence is not leaving our community. And they didn’t do anything about it.”

In the 2016 budget, Reed secured $75,000 to help combat the violence. Reed would like to see that money put toward violence interrupters — neighborhood ambassadors who try to stop the violence before it takes place. Reed and Johnson have pledged $25,000 in additional funds.

Reed is also hoping to raise additional money from private donors to bring in national expertise. He tapped the Chicago-based nonprofit Cure Violence, which works in 23 cities across the country to treat gun violence as a medical epidemic, for a week of meetings in late May. Reed hopes to use the group’s strategies to detect and interrupt conflicts, identify and treat the highest risk individuals and change social norms.

“They’ve seen a reduction in shootings when they’ve put this model in place in the first three months,” Reed says.

Such a national organization may be needed, as locally run efforts have a problematic track record in Cleveland. In February, former Cleveland Browns wide receiver Reggie Rucker pleaded guilty to stealing about $500,000 from two nonprofits, the Cleveland Peacemakers Alliance and Amer-I-Can, to pay gambling debts. 

“He stole from the very violence interrupters he so publicly claimed to support,” wrote Rendon in a news release at the time. 

Reed says a new approach is necessary. 

“We always talk about, you’re not going to arrest your way out of this problem. Well, right now the city of Cleveland is in a position where they don’t have any money to hire police officers if they wanted to,” says Reed. “So I’m glad that we’re able to go with this new public health model and technique.”

At 9:25 a.m. April 13, Cuyahoga Medical examiner Thomas Gilson begins an autopsy. Quiet and reserved, with gray eyes behind plain wire-rimmed glasses, Gilson has a staff of six board-certified forensic pathologists. But still, Gilson does more than 100 autopsies per year.

Before him is the body of a 1-year-old boy, 31 inches from head to toe. Braylon Robinson weighs only 25 pounds. 

Gilson has two young children of his own. But in this job, one swallows hard and does the work. The pathologist’s creed: science first.

He tracks the path of the shot, finding an entrance wound above the lip and exit wound on the back of the head. There is no single bullet, just three gray metal fragments. He removes them, photographs the larger two, and places the three of them together into an evidence envelope.

The night before, police recovered two handguns that had been hidden under the couch in the home where Braylon was shot. 

According to Shonda, the guns belonged to Sims, who had been at the house that morning. “I don’t know the whole truth behind it,” says Shonda. “He said they were registered. He said they were his.” 

At the lab, the guns are test-fired and entered into the ATF’s National Integrated Ballistic Information Network database. Since it began in 1999, that database has catalogued roughly 2.8 million ballistic images — the matching of bullets, shell casings and weapons that one might see on CSI. 

Using projectiles and cartridges from a shooting scene, the goal is to find links between homicides in which there might not be a suspect, says Gilson. 

The Cleveland police department runs its own ballistics unit at police headquarters — complete with NIBIN terminals. For all the other municipalities in the county, the guns are tested at the state’s lab in Richfield.

“Ideally, we will bring all of that work under one roof,” says Gilson.

Soon, all guns recovered by law enforcement in Cuyahoga County may go to the medical examiner’s crime laboratory. This year, at long last, the county will attempt to have a unified gun intake system. 

Such a system could speed up the process of entering guns into the national database. More entries could mean more matches. 

“We recognize that a backlog exists in testing and entering firearms into NIBIN,” wrote Cuyahoga County prosecutor Timothy McGinty in a memo to his staff in February 2016. “The NIBIN system is an invaluable tool in fighting violent crime.” 

Despite the backlog, McGinty’s office has already seen potential successes from the system: A database search resulted in the indictment of Marcus Ladson for the March 2015 killing of Curtis Avent. 

Although most of the required equipment has already been purchased, the regional lab won’t be ready until fall, says Gilson. He says the NIBIN terminals will have to be transferred, and there is still a small arsenal of sample weapons to acquire. The county also must find the right person to oversee it.

But for now, guns recovered at a crime scene remain in the city’s custody. 

Although it’s unclear which one fired the fatal shot, the weapons found at East 63rd Street included a .22-caliber Walther with seven rounds in the magazine, one in the chamber. The other, a black .40-caliber Glock Model 22 had eight bullets in the magazine. Its serial number was KWD602.

Police records reveal that the Glock was reported stolen in 2007 from a home on East 119th Street in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood. While the refrigerator had been moved and the kitchen blinds were askew, the only thing missing was a gun. The burglar knew where to look. A few days before, the resident had shown the gun to a friend, according to the police report. Now it was gone.

A 4th District officer took it all down: Glock Model 22, .40-caliber, black, serial number KWD602. 

The couple who owned it didn’t have insurance on the gun, the pair told the police, but they did remember where they purchased it: Atlantic Gun & Tackle.

In early May 2016, councilman Zack Reed sets up his easel, securing the metal legs one by one. He places a piece of poster board atop it, printed with a map of Cleveland. Orange-topped pushpins are buried in its surface, scattered across the city. He adjusts the microphone and starts into his speech, half-prepared, half-riff.

“Mr. Chairman, thanks to our police department, we have the numbers for the year so far. Staggering, disturbing and scary,” says Reed. “We’ve had 30 homicides so far this year.” 

He restates for effect: “Thirty.”

Reed’s poster is a fixture in the City Council chamber. Every few weeks, he sticks more pins to update his colleagues on Cleveland’s killings, gun-related or not. 

Tonight, the mayor, chief and television crews are in attendance to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the police department. It’s the perfect stage.

Five months have passed since the end of what was trending toward Cleveland’s deadliest year in a decade. 

In March, Ricardo Sims and Shanee Robinson were charged with three counts of child endangering, one count of reckless homicide and one count of involuntary manslaughter in the death of their son, Braylon. Both are out on bond. Since one of the guns found in their home was reported stolen, they also face a charge of receiving stolen property. Their case is slated for trial in August. 

Shanee is pregnant with twins, a boy and a girl, says her sister Shonda. She is due in June. At her job, she has risen to supervisor. 

“She is a good mother. Besides that happening, that tragedy, she is a great mother,” says Shonda. “I’m sure she will be the most protective mother ever. She’s definitely going to be different. She has to be.”

Suspects have also been arrested in the murders of 5-year-old Ramon Burnett and 5-month-old Aavielle Wakefield, the 99th and 114th gun deaths of the year, respectively. At the time of their arrest, none of the suspects are older than 21.

Donnell Lindsey, the suspect in the shooting of 3-year-old Major Howard, the 104th gun death of the year, was arrested in an Atlanta suburb May 10. He is only 23 years old.

“Mr. Chairman, I stand on the floor to say this is an epidemic,” says Reed. “This violence continues to run rampant throughout our wards, throughout our communities, throughout our neighborhoods.” 

Councilman Kelley, chairing the meeting from the rostrum, takes a swig from his water bottle and adjusts his red tie. 

Reed continues, stabbing a finger at the mayor and his cabinet. 

“When our women and children are not safe in our society, no one is safe in our society,” he says.

Councilman Kevin Conwell leans back in his chair, holding his tablet computer in the air, browsing the web. 

“This violence will not go away. It is not going away. It is going to continue until we get serious about this problem,” says Reed, his voice sonorous and rising, sounding unmistakably like he’s contemplating a run for mayor. 

“We’re serious about the [Republican National Convention]. But after the RNC, this problem of violence, right here on this board, will continue until this body does something about it.”

Councilman Johnson, who also acknowledges mayoral aspirations, wasn’t in attendance for Reed’s performance. But he’s seen it before — and he’ll see it again.

“He’ll bring the board, and they’ll roll their eyes,” says Johnson. “But there’s another freaking pin. And that pin is John Doe on Harvard Avenue.”

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