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Talking to Convicted Felons About Gun Control and Mass Shootings

These inmates have first-hand experience with gun activity—legal and otherwise—and most of them are skeptical the government can or will do anything to limit Americans' access to firearms.
Photo via AP

After last week's horrific mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, that killed 14 and wounded 21, a familiar debate is playing out across America. On the left, Democratic lawmakers are calling for more gun control, theorizing that universal background checks, assault weapons bans, and aggressive enforcement against unlawful gun dealers is not only wise, but desperately needed. On the right, Republicans argue that such laws would infringe on constitutionally guaranteed rights, yet do nothing to stop these mass shootings. The solution, the NRA and other gun-rights advocates believe, is more guns—in schools, in movie theaters, in restaurants, in shopping malls, at sporting events, and anywhere people gather in public. A gun rights group even wants to perform a mock mass shooting at the University of Texas this weekend to show how "gun-free" zones are dangerous to the public.


For a fresh perspective on what often feels like a stale gun debate, VICE talked to inmates at the Federal Correctional Institution in Terre Haute, Indiana. These convicted felons have first-hand experience with guns—legal and otherwise—and, unsurprisingly given their life experiences, are mostly skeptical the government can or will do anything to halt in the proliferation of guns across America.

Frederick Stidham is habitual criminal currently serving 235 months for a gun charge. Specifically, he was caught with a stolen gun and charged as an "armed career criminal," and says that he has "pretty much been in jail all of life," thanks to convictions that predominately stem from burglaries.

"I was a scrapper," Stidham explains. "I mostly broke into old farmhouses and stole mostly metal and other stuff." Often, he admits, the "other stuff" included guns—"lots of guns."

"I've never bought a gun in my life," he continues. "So when I see people on TV saying stuff like they need to check peoples' backgrounds for mental health, it all seems like a big waste of time to me. I don't know any inmate in the Stages program that bought a gun legally, and there is a lot of gun offenders in that program."

The Stages program Stidham's referring to is for inmates like himself who suffer from mental illness. According to Stidham, he suffers from borderline personality disorder, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia.


"But I ain't so crazy that I don't know that just about every farmhouse has a gun in it, and anywhere they have empty hunting cabins you can find guns and ammo," Stidham adds. "You have to be a real moron not to find a gun in America if you really want one."

"Junior," a 37-year old inmate from Michigan who made a living buying and selling guns, recalls traveling to gun shows around the country and purchasing thousands of dollars worth of guns. "Assault rifles, 9mm, 45s, bulletproof vests, you name it," he says. "And there was no background checks. As long as you had the money to throw down, you can buy whatever you want at a gun show if you know the right places to look."

An inmate in his 60s whom I'll call Mr. Williams thinks that if guns became less available on the legal market it would benefit guys like him. A career bank robber who went about his business old school—with a gun in his hand—and did discharge his firearm in more than one bank, Williams says, "I don't know any real criminal who wouldn't be extremely happy if Congress [passed] harsher gun laws, and I am someone who is been in prison most of my life."

To make his point, he reflects back to the 1990s, when the assault weapons ban went into effect (it was allowed to expire under President George W. Bush in 2004). "A lot of guys I know mad big money selling those guns," Williams says." I had a celly [cellmate] from California who made millions, and you can bet right now there are guys out there stocking up on assault riffles, just waiting to sell them on the black market. It'll be more lucrative than selling dope, and probably a lot safer."


As a final thought, he adds, "I think all of these people who go into crowded places and kill people are as sick in the head as those who think the world would be a safer place to live without guns in it. Neither live in reality."

Junior, who is serving 60 months for possession of a stolen gun, takes a different position.

"Guns have to go," he tells VICE. "I don't care about the Constitution or peoples' rights, too many people die each year from gun violence, and after speeding so much time in prison around guys who constantly talking about gang-banging and robbing and killing people—and laughing about it—it makes me sick to think that I used to be apart of this mess."

He believes that Obama should start by offering an Australia-style gun buy-back program. After that, he believes that law enforcement should go door-to-door and take peoples' guns.

"I think the problem is that urgent," he says. "And I don't want to hear about tradition and heritage. If you want to hunt, use a bow."

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