The Texan and His Gun

Passing on a frontier tradition, without a frontier.

Just before 9 a.m. last May 18, a report sped through Austin police headquarters that an armed man had taken hostages inside a junior high school on the city’s affluent west side. Patrolmen responded quickly, sealing off hallways in the school with revolvers drawn. The initial report proved wrong. A 13-year-old boy named John Christian had walked into his eighth-grade honors English class carrying a Browning sport model .22 semiautomatic rifle. In front of thirty classmates, he shot his 29-year-old teacher, Rodney Grayson, three times, then ran outside, where a coach captured him near the bicycle rack. Grayson died soon afterward in a hospital. John Christian’s mother is a respected Austin attorney and his father is George Christian, the former presidential press secretary for Lyndon Johnson. The youth didn’t know why he shot his teacher; a state psychiatrist later testified that he could have just as likely taken aim on his classmates or killed himself.

The murder was front-page news as far away as Boston, but to Austin policemen it was anticlimactic, almost superfluous. At 12:30 the same morning, a 27-year-old veteran patrolman named Ralph Ablanedo had stopped a ’66 Mustang in South Austin. He ticketed the young woman behind the wheel for driving without a license and radioed downtown for a warrant check on the passenger. A former University of Texas honors student, David Powell, also 27, was wanted for misdemeanor theft of four felt-tip pens from a bookstore and for writing 113 bad checks worth $5000 to local merchants. As Ablanedo returned to the Mustang, a burst of automatic-rifle fire exploded the rear window, shredded the patrolman’s flak jacket, and wounded him fatally. Minutes later, in a nearby parking lot, another officer fired between six and nine shots at Powell from his service revolver. Powell triggered another automatic burst and hurled a military grenade which failed to detonate because adhesive tape jammed the firing mechanism. The cop was not injured, the young woman ran screaming in surrender from the Mustang, and Powell escaped on foot, allegedly carrying a .45 handgun and a knapsack containing 2 ¼ ounces of methamphetamine. Left behind was a Red Chinese version of the Russian AK-47—one of the deadliest military small arms in the world—that Powell probably bought on the black market in the Army town of Killeen. The tense, frantic manhunt ended on another public school campus two hours before John Christian walked into his classroom. Discovered behind a shrub by night watchmen, Powell surrendered meekly, asking one arresting officer, “Can’t we work this out?”

John Christian is now in the high-security ward of a private psychiatric hospital. David Powell is on Death Row. Their victims were buried the same day in separate cemeteries. “Things like this don’t happen in Austin,” mourned a friend of Rodney Grayson’s. “In New York City…but not in Austin.” Uniformed officers stood in military formation at Ralph Ablanedo’s graveside. Underscoring the tragedies was the sense of frustration that lingered afterward. Even Mexico, which has unsuccessfully tried to disarm its private citizens, allows them the kind of .22 rifle John Christian wielded. While stringent handgun controls adopted by other states might have limited David Powell’s access to the .45 he allegedly carried, his possession of the AK-47 and the grenade demonstrate the futility of our present gun-control laws as means of saving lives. Federal and state enforcement of laws that restrict private ownership of military weapons to responsible hands is thorough and severe. Only the rigors of a police state could disarm the lawless underground. In both Austin slayings, guns were in the wrong hands at the wrong time.

Texas is the third most populous state in the nation, and one of the most urban. Though most of our lives are tamer than our house cats’, Texans are still perceived as gunslinging louts by many of our countrymen. We promote our macho image and glory in the historical nearness of the old frontier, which may seem a harmless assertion of regional identity, but as we have made the transition to an urban society we have retained frontier attitudes toward firearms. As a result, while the formerly savage countryside is subdued, our cities are among the most dangerous places on earth.

According to the latest national crime reports from the FBI, the murder rate in Texas is exceeded only in the less populous states of Nevada, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. The FBI calculates annual murder rates by the number of victims per 100,000 residents. By that standard, five of our metropolitan areas are among the country’s 25 most likely places to be killed. Famous for its cowboy honkytonks and street fights, Lubbock is our current leader, with a homicide rate of 19.1. Texarkana registers 17.6, a rate almost identical to those of similar towns deeper in the South—Shreveport, Birmingham, and Jackson. San Antonio, whose style of violence was best illustrated by the mad barrio rampage of Fred Carrasco, is close behind at 16.8. Among the larger Standard Metropolitan Statistical Areas in the FBI study, Dallas-Fort Worth’s murder rate of 15.2 ranks fifth behind Miami’s 15.6, Los Angeles’ 16.0, New York’s 17.1, and—leading the nation—Houston’s 18.0.

In some ways these rates sound worse than they really are. In a given year, the odds against being murdered in Houston are roughly 5500 to 1, and those odds become astronomically longer if he lives in an affluent subdivision. Houston’s most dangerous area may be the strip of bars, pool halls, and barbecue joins on Dowling Street, but odds there favor coming up on the wrong end of a switchblade or straight razor rather than a gun, since, historically, half as many Southern blacks have owned guns as whites. Houston blacks are catching up fast—in part, as a means of holding whites at bay. Mickey Leland, elected last November to succeed Barbara Jordan in Congress, used to say that laws to control cheap handguns in Houston would amount to unilateral disarmament for blacks. But most of the ethnic violence, as in other cities,

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