At a Detroit gun show, Jeffery Gerritt , now editor of the Herald-Press, learned how easy it is to buy an assault weapon.  

In 2002, a barrage of bullets from an AK-47 assault rifle interrupted the dreams of eight-year-old Brianna Caddell.   

While she lay sleeping in her Detroit home, one of the bullets ripped through the front-porch into Brianna's first-floor bedroom. It went through her arm, before bursting through another wall. Another bullet hit her in the chest and took her life.  

Using a weapon of war in a drive-by shooting, a drug dealer beefing with another dealer over turf had hit the wrong house, spraying it with two dozen rounds.

 Brianna's mother, Pamela Martin, wanted to donate her daughter's organs. But Brianna's beautiful eyes were the only part of her body the bullets left intact. Martin donated them.   

Like all Detroiters, I was outraged and stunned. A columnist and editorial writer for the Detroit Free Press, I had seen a lot of meaningless murders. This one  shook me. I knew Martin and her daughter's death seemed especially senseless.

That was 17 years ago, an age of relative innocence. Even the highest-profile killings then were motivated by money, revenge, or another horribly unjustified but explainable reason.

The Columbine High School massacre in 1999, and the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing by terrorist Timothy McVeigh in Oklahoma City, gave us a horrific glimpse of death's new face. Still, in 2002, indiscriminate mass shootings had not yet become daily news fare, or a defining piece of our cultural mosaic.

During my nearly 20 years in Detroit, the city reported 300 to 400 homicides a year. A few were as macabre as Brianna's. Some were provoked by little more than an untoward stare, a practice we called grimmin.'

Still, I never witnessed a lone gunman, entering a crowded store or school with an assault rifle, and calmly and coolly opening up, slaughtering, indiscriminately, people he had never known, people who had never slighted or disrespected him.

In truth, most of the dozens, or hundreds, of men convicted of murder I have interviewed over the years would have been as appalled by an event like last week's mass shooting in El Paso as are the rest of us.

Today's killing sprees are not triggered by revenge, money, or any of the usual suspects, but by a diabolical and irrational hatred of others and self, or perhaps an equally irrational quest for glory, recognition, and immortality.

Violence is, as Stokely Carmichael famously said, as "American as cherry pie.” But God help us all if we ever get used to this.

Looking for easy answers

Like you, I want neat solutions, easy answers. I want to fix problems – now – and blame others for them. Inevitably, I fall into sloppy, simplistic thinking.

I'm not going to blame President Trump for 22 dead and 24 injured in El Paso. I wish I could. Then we could solve the problem simply by electing a new president. 

Neither, however, will I accept another nonsensical notion: “It's not the gun; it's the person.”

No doubt, it takes a person to pull the trigger, but what trigger he pulls matters. A shooter with a 9 mm handgun might kill two or four. With an assault rifle and several 30-round magazines, he might kill 22, as Patrick Crusius, 21, did in El Paso; or nine, as Connor Betts, 24, did in Dayton.

Is an armed community safer?

My gut says no, but I also have a concealed carry license. I own a Sig Sauer 9mm handgun. In the extremely unlikely event I'm in a mall, or on a crowded street, when someone starts blasting, you can best believe I want to be strapped.

If the manufacture of firearms ceased forever today, this country still would have hundreds of millions of guns – enough to give generations easy access to firearms.

Anyone who thinks gun control will solve the problem is naive. Anyone who thinks guns are not part of the problem is delusional.

An express lane for assault rifles

Three years after Brianna Caddell's murder with an AK-47, I decided to check out how easy these guns were to purchase for a column in the Detroit Free Press. I asked a former gang leader I knew to go to a gun show with me at the Gibraltar Trade Center, outside Detroit, and help me shop. 

I started by buying a Yugoslavian SKS military rifle, probably more than 40 years years old, with a worn walnut handle. It used cheap and readily available 7.62X39mm ammunition, and came with flip-up sights and a bayonet.

A chatty saleswoman tried to interest me in a in a 50-caliber Beowulf, a “bad mamma jamma,” she said, that could sink a ship. The recoil, she said, would “bust up my shoulder.”

Some sales pitch.

It took me five minutes to buy the SKS, which appeared similar to an AK-47. If memory serves, I filled out a one-page form with my name, address, and birthdate, and put the $200 purchase on a credit card.

At another booth, I bought a hellfire trigger system for $60 that could enable the gun to shoot in more lethal three-round spurts. I also bought a detachable 30-round magazine for $25, and a fold-down stock with a pistol grip for $55 – all with no background check.

A few years ago, I did a similar story, as the deputy editor of The Blade in Toledo. At another gun show I bought an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, two 30-round magazines, and a box of .223 Remington cartridges for $1,200.

This time, the purchase took about 10 minutes. Because I bought from a licensed dealer, I had to undergo a background check that took a few minutes.

(I donated the first gun to the Wayne County Sheriff's Office in Detroit, who used it for training. I gave the second gun to the Toledo Police Department.)

On both occasions, I walked out with my rifle thinking, this is crazy.

The president also seems to be asking questions in the wake of last weekend's mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton. He condemned racism, bigotry and white supremacy, and even hinted at strengthening gun laws. 

Gun violence is a public health issue. Somehow, we need to be immunized. If the president provides an opening to move forward on any front, even one small step, we shame ourselves by not taking it.

There is no quick fix or easy answer. Our safety and sanity is a long journey that includes reforming our mental health system, which is in a shameful shambles – and, yes, we need additional restrictions on gun ownership and use, including a ban on the kind of assault rifles that killed Brianna Caddell.

I understand some people enjoy shooting assault rifles recreationally, but then I think of Brianna and the thousands of victims of mass shootings. Their right to life seems much more important.

Like you, I'm trying to make sense of what was once unthinkable. Staring at the new face of death, we must love one another or perish.

With every fatal shot, we all bleed.

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