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.”