Gun ownership is an integral part of our identity and economy in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. But that doesn’t mean that gun crimes don’t happen.
Last August in Aniak, witnesses say that Joseph Yaska grabbed his AK-47, aimed it at his girlfriend, and told her to run. They say that he shot her twice and then turned his gun on a nearby truck. He allegedly shot and killed Bruce “Gotor” Morgan, who was sitting in the front seat, and tried to shoot several of his neighbors. When the Troopers caught Yaska, he told them that he was angry and didn’t know why.
Yaska hasn’t gone to trial yet, but there are two things we know about what happened that night. The first is that Yaska allegedly tried to commit a mass shooting. The second is that he shouldn’t have had an AK-47 at all. Yaska had pled guilty to domestic violence charges, and according to federal law is prohibited from possessing firearms.
If you’ve been convicted of domestic violence or any felony you’re not supposed to own a gun. But in the Y-K Delta people get them anyway.
"We respond to the shooting of guns in communities by people that are impaired," said Trooper Captain Barry Wilson, who supervises Trooper operations throughout Western Alaska. "We respond to weapon offenses where people are threatened with weapons."
The majority of the violent crimes that Troopers investigate don’t usually involve guns, said Wilson. He also said that the Troopers don’t actively look for illegally owned firearms when they’re on patrol. They seize them where they find them, or if the firearms are reported, and they might not always be aggressive about it.
When asked if he had ever heard of an officer declining to confiscate guns from a convicted felon Wilson said that he hadn't, but he added, "Can I imagine it happening? You bet. I mean, clearly I could."
Gun laws can be tough to enforce in Alaska’s villages. They’re confusing. Federal law says that convicted felons can’t own any firearms, but state law says that they can own long guns. The federal background check system is flawed, and in rural areas many gun owners get around it by selling guns in person-to-person sales.
According to Wilson, this gets at another reason that guns laws are hard to enforce in the Y-K Delta: guns are a fundamental part of life here.
Walt Monegan is the Director of Alaska’s Department of Public Safety. He also grew up hunting and fishing in Western Alaska. "Guns are necessary," he said. "They’re kind of like chainsaws: they make a lot of noise, and if you hold them they are going to hurt you."
For Monegan, the gun laws we have on the books don’t always reflect the Y-K Delta’s reality. Guns are essential to practicing subsistence. "You gather food because that's what you have to do," he said. "And if you don't, you go hungry." In villages without regular law enforcement or animal control, he added, they’re an essential part of self-defense, too.
If anything, Monegan is concerned that enforcing gun laws could take firearms away from too many people, including some who might not be dangerous. He remembers one conversation he had with community leaders in Kotzebue a few years ago.
"They talked about young men who may have made a mistake when they were really young," he said. "Now they are adults and they still can't carry a gun to provide for their families, which causes a loss of status in the community, as well as personal self-esteem. That has a tendency to drag them down."
Monegan said that there are gun policies that could better reflect rural Alaska’s needs. Communities could approach felony gun possessions the way that they approach drunk driving, for example. Felons or abusers would be banned from having weapons for several years, and then could earn that privilege back if they demonstrated reformed behavior. Or local law enforcement could keep hunting rifles at their departments that low-risk offenders could “check out” and return by a certain time.
If we want fair gun laws that make rural Alaska safer, Monegan said, they’ll need to be rooted in the values of those communities.
"Our citizens are our first line of defense," he said. "And especially in the rural areas because unlike the Western culture, Native culture is all about we, not me."