Violence hasn’t disturbed guns’ role in state culture

Rodrick Dantzler fired the first shot before 2:30 p.m. on a Thursday -- July 7, 2011. Minutes later, his mother phoned Grand Rapids police to report her son had called and told her he had killed his wife.

Had that been his only crime, it would have been just one of more than 500 firearm homicides in Michigan that year. But Rodrick Dantzler wasn’t finished. Before the day was out, eight people (including Dantzler) would die by his hand, and two would be seriously wounded.

guns-in-michIt was the largest mass murder in the city’s history, the worst in Michigan in many years. As police pieced together the evidence, one question came to the fore: How did Dantzler, a convicted felon, get a gun?

While much of the debate in the wake of Newtown and other mass killings has been about assault rifles, Dantzler’s killing spree fits a much more common pattern: Most homicides in Michigan and the rest of the country are committed not with assault rifles, but with handguns. As in many of those cases, the gun Dantzler used – a 9-mm semi-automatic Glock – had been legally purchased, reported stolen and ended up in the hands of a man with an extensive criminal record.

Dantzler’s story is just one facet of an ongoing debate in Michigan and elsewhere in America in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., school massacre. “Guns in Michigan” will explore a variety of questions: What happens at the intersection of gun rights and public safety? How pervasive is gun violence in Michigan? Have recent state policy changes led to more or fewer deaths by guns? What role do policies regarding mental illness play in public safety?


“How did that person who’s not supposed to have a gun get a gun?” asked Grand Rapids Police Captain Jeffrey Hertel, who headed the investigation. “Who put it in his hands?”

Hertel and other law enforcement officers say that most guns used in crimes and confiscated by police were legally purchased, but wound up in the wrong hands. The claim by gun rights advocates that more people need to arm themselves in defense against the illegally armed becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: The more guns in circulation, the more likely they are to be used in crimes.

Of the 7,617 people killed in Michigan between 2000 and 2011, 5,128 – or two-thirds – were killed with firearms, according to State Police records. Police reports often are vague on the type of firearm used, but at least 3,145 of those victims, and likely more, were killed with handguns.

“Our fear is that the more guns that are sold, the more guns that are legally purchased and in homes, the more guns are going to end up on the street,” Hertel said.

Mayors push gun restrictions

It’s a fear shared by many others in law enforcement and local government. It’s why New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Boston Mayor Thomas Menino in 2006 formed a nonprofit group, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, advocating tighter restrictions. More than 900 mayors across the country, including 12 in Michigan, have joined. That includes Dave Bing in Detroit, Dayne Walling in Flint, Virg Bernero in Lansing and George Heartwell in Grand Rapids.


“I grew up with guns,” Heartwell said, but he added: “I want to keep stolen guns out of the hands of criminals. If I were king, I would ban handguns or I would require that if you use a handgun for target practice or sport that you store it at a facility,” such as a shooting range.

He knows that’s unlikely.

As of April 1, Michigan residents held 378,584 concealed pistol permits, according to State Police records, or about one permit for every 21 adults in the state. And the actual number of concealed handguns likely is much higher, since one permit can cover multiple guns.

In the Michigan homicides in which the relationship of the victims and killers are known, most are related or at least acquainted, State Police records show. Most arise from arguments. If a gun is close at hand, an argument can turn fatal.

Gun proximity seen as contributor to violence

“Just simply having the weapon increases the odds that they’re going to use it,” said Jesenia Pizarro, an associate professor of criminal justice at Michigan State University, who is studying ways to decrease violence in Detroit. “A lot of times these are spontaneous events that turn lethal.”

Her research is looking at the multiple social factors that can lead to homicides, including poverty and unemployment. “If you’re going to build an intervention, it’s important to know why these people are killing each other,” she said. The easy access to guns is one of many factors, she said.

Obtaining an illegal handgun is “not that hard at all,” Pizarro said. “You can actually get them for pretty cheap. The truth of the matter is all these illegal guns out there started as legal guns. The more you saturate the market with legal guns, the more you increase the chances these legal guns will end up on the black market.”


Under Michigan law, it is a misdemeanor if a gun owner fails to report it stolen.

“I can’t say I’ve ever seen anyone charged with that,” Hertel, the Grand Rapids Police captain, said. Often after police recover a handgun, “we’ll call and say, ‘Do you know where your .38 is?’ and they’ll say, ‘It’s in the basement,’” Hertel said. “Then they go check and it’s not there. Whether they’re lying or it was stolen we don’t know.”

The handgun Rodrick Dantzler used was registered to a man in Kent County just outside Grand Rapids. The owner reported it missing July 30, 2009, a couple of weeks after he showed it to a group of people in his home. Two years later, it resurfaced on the tragic July day in 2011.

In the end, Dantzler’s estranged wife, Jennifer Heeren-Dantzler; their 12-year-old daughter, Kamrie; his wife’s parents, Thomas and Rebecca Heeren; Kimberlee Emkens, Dantzler’s former girlfriend; Amanda Emkens, Kimberlee’s sister; and Marissa Emkens, Amanda’s 10-year-old daughter all were dead by gunfire.

After being cornered by police, Dantzler shot himself in the head. Next to his body, police found the 9-mm Glock with a 30-round magazine. Only three unspent bullets remained in the clip.

Why Dantzler went on the killing spree remains a mystery.  In a lengthy report on the case, Kent County Prosecutor William Forsyth concluded: “It would appear that he was simply a very angry man ...” A very angry man who got a gun.

Two years after slayings, investigation continues

Although there never was any doubt that Dantzler had committed all the shootings, nearly two years later the case remains open. Grand Rapids Police and federal authorities have spent the months since investigating how Dantzler obtained his handgun.

A federal grand jury on Jan. 30 indicted Joseph Michael Krul, a Grand Rapids resident with a felony record, on three federal counts for possessing the gun that ended up in Dantzler’s hands. Krul was a friend of the man who legally had purchased that gun, and he had been in his friend’s home a few days before the gun disappeared.

While Krul awaits trial on charges that could put him in federal prison for many years, local police and federal authorities hope to arrest at least one more person, one more party in a chain of transactions that put a 9-mm Glock in Dantzler’s hands.

“I said from the beginning, ‘We’re going to follow this case to the end,’” Captain Hertel said. “That gun has a lot of bodies attached to it.”

Pat Shellenbarger is a freelance writer based in West Michigan. He previously was a reporter and editor at the Detroit News, the St. Petersburg Times and the Grand Rapids Press.

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Ken Oscarson
Tue, 04/09/2013 - 9:25am
Please clarify your statistics. Of the 7617 people killed in the 10 year period, how many were in drug related activities? How many were committed under the influence of alcohol? How many were associated with armed robberies? Now we get down to the real statistical data of domestic violence. Let's look at the demographics of race, income level, employment status and then maybe we can find social requirements for responsible gun ownership. Oh, now wouldn't that be discrimination? The responsible possession of a firearm requires that it be kept in a secured place when it is not on your person. Now we are adding a safe or lockbox to the cost of ownership. Is that discrimination? We have a trigger lock requirement here in Michigan. Any gun sold must be sold with a keyed trigger lock. These are not a substitute for a safe but would deter many accidental shootings by youngsters. There will always be crazy people out there and with the law enforcement system we have, each individual must be responsible for their own safety. If you could ask the victims of this murderer if they were aware of his violent nature, they would probably agree he was a bad person to be feared. What would be their recourse? LE can't act until there is a crime, judicial action for a restraining order is a joke, so they lived in fear un-willing or unable to protect themselves from vicious attack by this animal. It is difficult to put yourself in their situation when you have a good job, live in a decent neighborhood and have the resources and influence to think you and your family are safe in your home. Unfortunately, for many folks this is not the case. As a young man, I walked unafraid of the street for I was on equal footing with a typical punk looking for trouble. I have aged and could now offer little resistance or flee a confrontation with the street hood of today. So I watch when and where I go out, situational awareness is a serious consideration in my daily routine. It still does not eliminate 100%, the need for personal protection for me and my wife.
Brady Schickinger
Tue, 04/09/2013 - 9:42am
The problem with the article and others like it that appear to justify tighter controls on legal gun owners, is that they never follow through logically to the next step to a logical policy change. Universal background checks wouldn't have prevented Rodrick Dantzler from obtaining the handgun. Michigan already has universal background checks through state law and the legal owner passed his before it was stolen from him. Mayor Heartwell suggests a ban on handguns, but even that wouldn't work even if it was constitutional. There are millions of legally owned handguns in America. They can survive through several human lifetimes. The state doesn't have the money to compensate owners through confiscation and even if confiscation did occur, criminals wouldn't give theirs up. The best piece of policy that could come from this case is to increase the penalties on people who provide guns illegally to people who later use them in a commission of a crime. But that would involve targeting criminals rather than legal gun owners, something gun control advocates know is much less likely to generate controversy, headlines and grant money.
Roger Martin
Tue, 04/09/2013 - 12:18pm
I have personal protection firearms and a CPL. I believe strongly in the 2nd Amendment, but also in rational, sensible gun regulations. So far, I greatly appreciate the comments on this story. They are civil, raise good points on both sides, and reflect just how difficult this issue is. Thanks
Barry Visel
Tue, 04/09/2013 - 6:20pm
Early after Sandy Hook, comments were made that many other countries/cultures that also have guns don't seem to have near the killings that we have in the U.S. Is anyone trying to figure out why we seem to be different? Is there something we might learn from other cultures?
Jim Pearson
Tue, 04/09/2013 - 9:59pm
The statement, "It was the largest mass murder in the city’s history, the worst in Michigan in many years," is accurate. But, in the larger discussion of the constitutional right to bear arms, the story Michigan's worst mass murder, ever, adds a certain twist. Much of Bath Consolidated School was blown up in 1927 by an angry school board member, killing 44 people including school children, and injuring 58 more. The arms of choice were dynamite and pyrotol which were once sold at hardware stores but are unavailable to the general public today. Those arms are now off limits to the public like howitzers and fully automatic firearms. That certainly suggests that restricting some of the more dangerous arms reduces deaths. In no way does the 2nd Amendment garantee the right to ALL arms. That is well established in law. Unfortunately, ANNM explosive materials remain available and Timothy McVeigh took full advantage of them.
roger p
Wed, 04/10/2013 - 2:44pm
I may be at some web-link disadvantage, having come to this article via an article referencing the piece here is Bridge about gun permits per-capita, but I am left wondering: what is ' "Guns in Michigan" '? Is it the title of some forthcoming book? An article somewhere else in Bridge magazine? And what about all the questions "Guns in Michigan" is supposed to be exploring? There don't seem to be covered in this article. ? ?
Derek Melot
Wed, 04/10/2013 - 4:57pm
Guns in Michigan is the overall name of the series of stories and graphics Bridge is presenting this week. We published four posts on Tuesday. We will publish four more on Thursday at 8 a.m. Thank you for your question. Derek Melot, senior editor