During the first week of April, as the Legislature considered the case for concealed weapons, Texas mourned the consequences of two gun-related tragedies in Corpus Christi: the murder of Tejano superstar Selena Quintanilla Perez and the shooting of five workers at a refinery inspection company by a disgruntled ex-employee. The question before us is whether guns are the solution or the problem. As you’ll see in the following stories, everyone seems to have an answer.
FEAR AND LOADING
BY GARY CARTWRIGHT
TEXANS WHO HAVE NEVER OWNED A HANDGUN—much less thought about carrying one in their car, purse, or shoulder holster—may have to reconsider their position now that the Legislature is about to enact the concealed-weapons law. The myth and mystique of the gun culture is becoming sober reality. No one can say how many new weapons will be purchased or carried on the streets because of the change in law—probably not many—but the potential alone alters the dynamics of everyday life. A Texas Monthly editor pricing a new Suburban was told by the salesman that the locked compartment in the console between the front seats was for the “heater.” For a moment he was puzzled. Didn’t the regular heater work? Then he got it. Heater, as in packing heat. We’re on the road to somewhere else.
At the state capitol, where the concealed-weapons bill has been debated in recent weeks, each side accuses the other of basing its case on emotion—and emotion is clearly winning the day. Evidence is largely anecdotal, reinforced by the media’s fascination with violence and the public’s inability to separate what they see in the movies or on their television screens from real life. Violent crime in Texas has been on a downward spiral for the past two years—the exception being juvenile crime—and yet the perception of violent crime has us near panic level. In the back alleys of our fears, we imagine coming face to face with armed and hostile strangers who will demand our purse and perhaps our life. And yet a recent study of shootings in Travis County shows that 94 percent of homicide victims knew the people who shot them. Arguments, not robberies, are the leading cause of assault-related shootings, followed by gang violence, drug trafficking, and drive-by shootings. Robbery is a distant fifth. The perception of fear is as powerful as fear itself, and the sensation is heightened by our frustration with government policies that seem to increasingly intrude on our lives without making them safer. But can an armed citizenry really deter violence? Nobody knows, but nearly everyone has an opinion.
Criminals have guns, say people who have experienced violence up close, so why shouldn’t the rest of us? That’s crazy, argue opponents: More guns equal more killings. Those who are pushing the bill point out that after Florida enacted its concealed-weapons law in 1987, the homicide rate had dropped 21 percent by 1992. But in its opposition to the bill, the Texas Police Chiefs Association uses the same statistics to show that between 1987 and 1990 violent crime in Florida actually increased 17.8 percent. Nationwide, there is no definitive correlation between concealed-carrying policies and the rate of either violent crime or firearm deaths. Statistically, it’s a wash. Fewer homicides? More violence? Is that really our choice? When the subject is guns or violence or death, it’s hard to be rational and impossible to be indifferent.
Curiously, both sides cite the October 1991 massacre at the Luby’s Cafeteria in Killeen as evidence in support of their positions. The bloodshed at Luby’s is the most deadly episode of peacetime gunfire in American history, and the most perplexing because it happened for no reason. A madman drove his truck through a plate-glass window of the crowded cafeteria during the lunch hour and, in an uninterrupted ten-minute killing spree, murdered 23 diners. If some of the innocents had been armed, say proponents of the concealed-weapons law, the gunman would have been cut down in the first few seconds, sparing the lives of most of the victims. Opponents claim that more guns would have meant even more deaths. Lieutenant Jim Fealy, who is in command of a high-crime area of East Austin, says, “I can picture people diving under tables and coming up with guns and seeing fifteen or twenty other people with guns and nobody knowing what was happening. It could have been an even larger disaster. ”
Most of the people who testified at a public hearing on the concealed-weapons bill conducted by the Senate Committee on Criminal Justice had first-hand knowledge of violence or the threat of violence. Julia Cooper of Richardson described how her seventeen-year-old son, Sean, was fatally shot by gang members and told the committee that the right-to-carry law sent the wrong message to young people—that guns are an acceptable way to resolve conflicts. Others told how guns had saved lives. Travis Neel, a retired gun dealer from Houston and a onetime U.S. Army combat infantryman—he led a machine-gun platoon up Heartbreak Ridge in Korea and took part in a parachute invasion of Beirut—described how he happened upon a gunfight between a Harris County deputy and three gang members. After Deputy Frank Flores used his patrol car to block a busy intersection on the west side of Houston, the gang members rolled out of their car and all three opened fire, hitting Flores five times. Neel, who was on his way to the shooting range, jumped out of his car a short distance from Flores and used his 9mm semiautomatic to engage the gang members in a firefight. As about thirty other motorists hunkered in their cars and watched in horror, fifty or sixty bullets were fired at close range. Amazingly, the only person hit was Flores, who because of Neel’s heroics not only lived but has since returned to duty.
Mikey Voorhees, a nurse at an El Paso elementary school and the mother of three, told how she frightened off eight drunk or drugged hoodlums merely by unsnapping the holster of her small .380 Llama. Tim Oxley, who teaches defensive firearms techniques at the Texas Smallarms Academy in Houston, described how his wife, Jan, a former pupil at the academy, grabbed a .45 automatic from their car trunk, assumed the “hard guard position,” and backed off a knife-wielding thug who had cornered the Oxleys and another couple in a shopping center parking lot.
Far and away the most dramatic personal account came from Suzanna Gratia, a 35-year-old Lampasas County chiropractor, who was having lunch at the Luby’s in Killeen with her father and mother when the truck came crashing through the window. Ten minutes later, Al and Ursula Gratia were dead and Suzanna Gratia’s life was forever altered. Unlike most of the other witnesses, Gratia did not grow up with guns in her home. “I abhor hunting,” she said. Nor was she a member of the National Rifle Association (NRA) or any other pro-gun group, although since the massacre she has championed the pro-gun cause and allowed groups like the NRA and the Law Enforcement Alliance of America to pay her expenses so she can tell her story across the country. She has described the Luby’s horror to Congress, as well as state legislatures in Virginia, Hawaii, Missouri, Pennsylvania, and most recently, Texas. She begins by confessing that regardless of the law, she has carried a concealed weapon for years for self-protection, preferring to risk a fine and a possible jail sentence to the alternative. Her first handgun was a .357 magnum, which a patient who was an assistant district attorney in Harris County advised her never to be without. More recently, she has toted a .38 Smith and Wesson, which was the weapon she had with her the day she went to Luby’s.
Speaking in a measured, dispassionate voice to a hushed committee room, Gratia described the surreal shock of splintering glass, gunfire, and the screams of the dying and helpless. She and her parents dropped to the floor and used the table as a shield. She could see the man, later identified as George Hennard, moving about the room with no sense of urgency, killing more or less at random, calmly reloading. Every second and a half, another shot rang out. Gratia had about a similar massacre at a McDonald’s in California some years earlier and had imagined what she would do if trapped in that situation. She would kill the son of a bitch, without hesitation, without remorse. “By the time I realized what was happening at Luby’s, he had killed maybe six people,” she recalled. “I was fully, totally prepared to blow this guy away. I had good position with the table to prop my arm on and he was standing up with his back turned three-quarters in my direction. I reached back for my purse and that’s when I realized I’d taken the gun out and left it in the car. I had been afraid that if I got caught with a gun, I would lose my license to practice.” At that moment, her father tried to jump the killer, who turned suddenly and shot Al Gratia full in the chest. “As soon as I saw the wound,” Gratia told the committee, “I basically wrote him off as dead.” Another diner had lunged through a plate glass window, providing an escape route. Gratia tried to pull her mother to safety, but in the madness of the moment they were separated. Ursula Gratia had returned to her dying husband—they had celebrated their forty-seventh wedding anniversary two weeks before—and was kneeling with his head in her lap when Hennard walked over to her.
“He put the gun to her head, she put her head down, and he shot her,” Gratia told the committee, her voice as flat as the surface of the sea. “I’m not angry at this guy. I’m a very conservative person, but he was not a career criminal. He was someone who went nuts. You can’t be mad at a rabid dog. You destroy it, that’s all. I realize that a gun is not a guarantee that we will be protected, but it changes the odds.”
Near the end of her testimony, Gratia noticed that she didn’t have the full attention of one of the six committee members present. Senator Royce West of Dallas, the only member of the committee who strongly opposed the concealed-weapons bill, was shuffling papers and whispering to an aide. Gratia stopped and asked permission to demonstrate her point more graphically. As the senators turned apprehensively in their chairs, Gratia walked along one side of the table. She extended her arms as a shooter might do and clasped her hands so that her index fingers formed a gun barrel. “Let’s just imagine that we all go out to dinner tonight, and somebody walks through the door and decides that he’s out to commit suicide and wants to take as many people with him as he possibly can,” Gratia said in that same modulated voice. “He is totally in control. He’s not spraying bullets wildly; he’s just going from one person to the next and shooting them in the head.” She trained her fingers a few inches from the nose of one senator and said, “He simply points . . . and then he pulls the trigger. ” The senator blinked as an imaginary bullet tore through his brain. Gratia moved from senator to senator, pointing and pulling the trigger. When she came to West, who was obviously not impressed with the demonstration, he told her, “You don’t need to point at me.” Gratia apologized, then asked a rhetorical question: Right at this moment, Senator, don’t you wish that someone in this room had a concealed weapon and knew how to use it? Right at that moment, West probably wished he was home in bed.
Still, West was not convinced. A short time later, he was the only one of the six committee members who voted against sending the gun bill to the full Senate. A few weeks after that, the Senate passed the bill and sent it to the House, where it had strong support. Governor George Bush has promised to sign it into law. Polls show that Texans are about evenly divided on the question of concealed weapons. Most Texans, however, seem inclined to believe that the dire warnings of opponents like Royce West—who predicts we’re about to return to the days of the Wild, Wild West—are largely exaggerated.
The concealed-weapons bill is not the end of civilization as we know it. Even if it does become law, NRA research coordinator Paul Blackman estimates that fewer than one in twenty Texans will choose to carry guns. That’s probably not far from the number of people who carry right now. Relaxed gun laws could mean more heat-of-the-moment shootings on freeways or in public meetings, but you can make a case that those disposed to gunplay are probably packing already. The only thing we know for sure is that laws prohibiting the carrying of concealed weapons have made lawbreakers out of otherwise honest and peaceable citizens. In other states where concealed-weapons laws have passed, there has been no dramatic increase in the sale of firearms, nor do people appear to be arming themselves now that they have the opportunity. In the seven and a half years since Florida enacted its concealed-weapons law, that state has issued 266,710 concealed- weapons permits, which means that 2 percent of Floridians have the legal option to pack heat. How many actually pack is anybody’s guess. Since Arizona passed a concealed-weapons law about a year ago—Arizonans have always had the right to carry guns in plain view—21,000 residents have been granted permits. Even so, there is no indication that people in Arizona are strapping on holsters or slapping 9 millimeters on the dashboard.
But that’s not the point, proponents say. Law-abiding citizens should be able to do what criminals already do, carry a gun without everyone knowing it. Senator Jerry Patterson, who introduced the bill in the Senate, makes a convincing argument that the Texas constitution of 1876 allows the Legislature to regulate but not prohibit the wearing of firearms. “We’re just asking the Legislature to approve doing what the Constitution already says we have the right to do,” Patterson said. If carrying a gun, there are two advantages to having it concealed, say those who feel the need to pack. It doesn’t make other people nervous or belligerent, and it keeps would-be attackers guessing.
Of course, it also keeps the police guessing. Under the new law, police officers would be forced to treat people as though everyone were armed, a precaution that many police academies teach anyway. A complicated job gets even more complicated when a cop walks onto a scene not knowing who the good guys are and who the bad are, and it gets crazy when you factor in the possibility that everyone may be packing. “In the heat of the moment,” says Lieutenant Fealy, “you don’t have time to do an in-depth investigation to see who is licensed to carry. ” Austin homicide and robbery lieutenant David Parkinson says, “A lot of good citizens are going to resent being treated as bad guys. There will be an increase in complaints against the police, and there will be more internal affairs investigations of police officers for pulling firearms on citizens.”
No debate over legislation in recent memory has been more divisive or emotional within the ranks of the police community. It goes to the core of police culture, posing a fundamental conflict for those who are sworn to defend the public but are also obliged to defend themselves and other cops. Most police associations are either neutral or opposed. “Putting more guns on the street is not an effective way to fight crime,” says Farmers Branch police chief Jim Fawcett, the legislative chairman of the Texas Police Chiefs Association, whose members are almost unanimously opposed to the bill. “This legislation won’t scare the criminal element, who put very little value on human life. If anything, it might make them shoot someone they wouldn’t have before.” Austin police chief Elizabeth Watson believes that the bill is an admission that we’ve lost the battle against crime. “The bill basically says, ‘It’s lawless out there, let’s just give up and let everyone have a gun.’ The freedom with which people can buy guns is one reason there is so much violent crime, and the handgun is disproportionately the weapon of choice.” Sergeant Doug Elder, who is the president of the Houston Police Officers’ Association, says, “As a citizen, I can see that some people have become so frightened that they feel a need to be armed, but as a police officer, I think this bill is potentially disastrous. People are going to wind up doing things they wouldn’t have done if they were unarmed.” Elder has serious doubts that criminals will be deterred by the possibility that their victims may be armed, and so do many other police officers. “When you confront a criminal with a gun, you limit them to two choices—shoot or run, fight or flight,” says Lieutenant Parkinson. “Hopefully, they will submit, but God knows how many variables you have in that situation. ” One variable is that criminals are likely to be toting not just one gun but an arsenal. A friend who is a federal agent and doesn’t want to be quoted by name told me that twenty years ago his only firearm was a five-shot .38. “Today I carry a nine millimeter with two extra clips, a shotgun, and an M-16,” he told me. Nevertheless, he supports the concealed-weapons law without reservation. “People have become sitting ducks for armed thugs,” he says. “It’s time we gave honest, law-abiding citizens a chance to shoot back.”
City police officers tend to be more critical of the bill than those who work in rural areas, where the response time to emergency calls can be thirty minutes or more. The 254 members of the Sheriffs Association of Texas are about evenly split. Tarrant County sheriff David
Williams is among those who strongly support the right of law-abiding citizens to arm themselves. “There is a moment in all life-threatening situations where you’ve got a split second to swing the battle in your favor,” he says. “A carjacker appears outside at the window with a gun, and a mother with a baby in a car seat has to decide if she’s going to give up her car and baby or respond with her own measure of force. You can do a lot in that split second to either save a life or lose it. ”
Maybe because they see violence up close and often, police officers worry about their families more than most. “I already have a gun, so I’m not worried about protecting myself,” says Frank Latham, the chief of police in Hewitt, who backs the concealed-weapons bill. “But my wife works nights as a nurse, and my seventy-five-year-old mother is the manager of a retail store that sometimes closes late. They need to be able to protect themselves.” C. P. Williamson, a patrolman with the village police in the Houston suburb of Bunker Hill, told me, “If they were honest about it, a lot of policemen would admit that their wives and families carry pistols.” Finally, there is the moral consideration. Though the purpose of a handgun is defensive, owning one assumes that you are ready to kill. “It’s a moral decision you better come to before three o’clock in the morning, when you’re scared to death,” warns Lieutenant Parkinson. A permit to carry is not a permit to kill or even to shoot. It is still illegal to fire at a criminal except in limited circumstances, basically when you believe that your life or someone else’s life is in imminent danger. In the heat of the moment, it is not easy to decide what constitutes imminent danger. If you pull the trigger, you are legally and morally responsible. Whether or not a shooting is justified, the law will view the shooter with suspicion and ask a lot of questions. You may be detained or arrested. You may be sued, your life may have been spared, but it has also been altered, maybe permanently. On the upside, statistics show that in 98 percent of the cases in which firearms were used in self-defense, no one was shot.
Even if the alarmists are correct and we are regressing to the days of the Wild West, hope should not be abandoned. One researcher, David Kopel of the Independence Institute in Golden, Colorado, says that a study of nineteenth-century mining towns indicates that homicide was almost completely confined to single young transient intoxicated males who shot each other in saloon disturbances. Meanwhile, the per capita robbery rate was 7 percent of that in modern New York City, and the burglary rate was 5 percent. Apparently the Old West wasn’t as wild as our imaginations have led us to believe. More than likely, the New West won’t be either.
BY ROBERT DRAPER
ON A SATURDAY AFTERNOON IN HOUSTON, IN TWO BUILDINGS separated by some fifteen miles of roadway—and by ethical distinctions that are harder to measure—more guns are sold than perhaps anywhere else in the United States. Both locations are overrun with buyers, and each will do thousands of dollars of weapons-related business by days end. As the two cater to somewhat different markets, they are not competitors in the strict sense of the word. Yet in the framework of Texas’ concealed-weapons debate, and also the national debate over gun control, they are severely at odds over what responsibilities they should shoulder.
On the west side of the city sits the Katy Freeway location of Carter’s Country, a gargantuan 12,000-square-foot structure that, despite the antlers on the walls and artillery lining the shelves, exudes the apple-cheeked ambience of a Foley’s cookware department. The sales staff is helpful and wholesomely groomed; the stock is graciously displayed; the customers hold their children’s hands and browse at an unhurried pace. Guns, of course, can be bought here, ranging from a $149 .38-caliber police revolver to a heavily modified deer rifle going for upward of $4,000. But a shopper can also stroll into Carter’s Country and walk out with camping gear, hunting licenses, deer feeders, raccoon traps, snake chaps, and taped wildlife calls. It’s a one-stop megashop conceived by Bill Carter, Sr., whose four Houston stores have made him the nation’s leading independent gun dealer, though there are a number of things he won’t sell—imported assault rifles and “cop-killer” bullets, for example. The veteran gun merchant is unusually outspoken about his industry’s ethics, or lack thereof. “The Second Amendment gives us a wonderful freedom,” Carter says. “To protect that freedom, we must be safe and responsible in all ways. But the black market believes that the Second Amendment gives them the freedom to be unsafe and irresponsible.”
By the “black market,” Carter means the activity that takes place, on this particular day, in the Astroarena, where the Texas Weapon Collectors Association (TWCA) is holding one of the thirty gun shows it promotes each year across the state. Within this cavernous atmosphere, thousands of people weave elbow to elbow among the hundreds of tables set up by federally licensed wholesalers and unlicensed private sellers who pay the TWCA around $50 to peddle their wares. Some sellers don’t even bother with tables—they simply hang signs around their necks advertising what’s available. “No waiting period or paperwork here,” a sign at one table promises. Haggling is common, even expected. There’s no adornment, no goody-goody pretense.
As in the Katy Freeway outlet of Carter’s Country, the shoppers who pay $5 to step inside the Astroarena can buy plenty of things that don’t shoot bullets. But some of the non-firearm merchandise is decidedly hard-core: laser scopes, booby traps, Israeli gas masks, crossbows, Chinese sabers, U.S. marshal badges, Nazi helmets, bumper stickers that read “First Lincoln, Then Kennedy, Now Clinton?” Many of the guns are standard fare, but just as many are elaborately deadly: There are rifles of the Russian-sniper, Chinese-paratrooper, and Egyptian-assault variety, as well as parts for AK-47’s and Uzis. Correspondingly, visitors to the gun show range from earnest-looking yuppie couples to swaggering sportsmen and pale, wild-eyed types who stalk about with an exotic rifle slung over each shoulder and a revolver tucked halfway down the front of their jeans.
If Carter’s Country conjures up the image of a discreet, well-heeled department store, the Astroarena show suggests a freeform bazaar, the flea-marketing of firearms. Both images, however, test one’s comfort level with the right to bear arms. The conflict between Bill Carter and the gun show operators reveals that even within the industry, there’s plenty of unease over rights and wrongs—and plenty of frayed moral edges where the gun-selling pie is sliced.
ALTHOUGH THE GAUNT AND MUSTACHIOED BILL CARTER favors cowboy duds—string tie, ostrich boots, a deer-skin vest—he describes himself in the mythic terms of the everyday American dreamer whose faith in God, family, and hard work has elevated him to prosperity. It’s not a hard sell. Raised among the farms and the mills of North Carolina, Carter hung around hunters from early childhood and grew up in the presence of firearms. “My lifetime ambition was to be a gun dealer,” he told me in his Katy Freeway office, which is so crammed with antlers and tusks that upon entering it takes a series of nimble movements to keep from being impaled. “From the day I first got to shoot a rifle, I was smitten.” He bought a .22 rifle at age eleven—with paper route money, naturally.
After stints in the National Guard and the Marine Corps, Carter became a merchant seaman, a job that brought him frequently to Houston, where opportunities seemed plentiful. He and his wife relocated there in 1959, and he took a job as an ironworker on skyscrapers. The pay—$5 an hour—was excellent, enabling him to buy a nice tract home; but what he really enjoyed doing was custom-designing rifles he hand-tooled from wood he got from the Pacific Northwest. He tested the customized firearms at a shooting range on the northeast edge of the city, and only a few months after he moved to town, the owner of the range offered to sell him the place for $15,000 down. Carter scraped together the money. By day he continued his ironwork while his wife worked the range; in the evenings he took over so that she could return to her job as an emergency room nurse at Hermann Hospital.
“We serviced all the rifles that had been sold in the gun stores downtown,” Carter recalls. “We would see a lot of mistakes the retailers were making: mismatched scopes and mounts, the work of good people who just didn’t know the business.” In time, it occurred to him that he could beat the competition with his expertise and a little more display space than his ten-by-ten metal shack afforded. In 1968 a developer bought the range for twice what Carter paid for it, and Carter used the money to buy 33 acres in Spring, just outside the city limits. On that site he built the first Carter’s Country. Six years later came the Katy Freeway store, followed by a Pasadena outlet in 1980 and a fourth store in 1984 on the southwest side of Houston.
Today Bill Carter’s chain is a Goliath among Texas gun dealers, engaging in nearly 400,000 business transactions annually. In addition to the four stores, he owns commercial-hunting ranches in West Texas (near Van Horn), in the Hill Country (near Hunt), and along the border (near Laredo). Carter and his employees also test firearms on those properties—so it’s no surprise that he has significant clout when it comes to shaping weapons manufacturers’ product-development plans. “A lot of the companies up northeast don’t know the terrain they’re marketing to,” he explains, “and a lot of ’em have never seen a rattlesnake.”
It’s interesting, then, to see a gun merchant of Carter’s stature take positions that seem calculated to offend Second Amendment purists. He refused to sell the first Glock handgun, believing it to be too complicated and therefore unsafe for the average consumer. He refused to sell the first imported assault rifle and later encouraged Houston newspapers not to accept assault-weapon ads. The National Rifle Association (NRA) has vocalized its displeasure with Carter, which hardly bothers him. “The NRA isn’t a firearms lobby—it’s a membership lobby,” he says. “I happen to be an NRA lifetime member, but I think they got too radical. They missed the boat on cop-killer bullets. Who really needs those kinds of products? What we have to do in the firearms business is have a conscience. We’ve got to be safe and we’ve got to be responsible.” Beneath Carter’s moralizing lies a practical concern: If the industry doesn’t police itself, the government will. “A lot of gun dealers picked up our philosophy when they saw the Brady bill pass,” he says, referring to the controversial 1993 federal law requiring up to a five-day waiting period so that local law enforcement can review a gun purchaser’s criminal and mental history. “Now, the assault-gun legislation wasn’t completely harmless to us, since it removed the homeowner’s defense weapon of choice—the high-capacity semiautomatic, which we had been selling. But that was mainly a feel-good bill compared to Brady, which has just saddled a lot of good people with a lot of crappy paperwork and really hasn’t accomplished a thing. It has hurt business, and it has lost us part of our freedom.”
That freedom has been curtailed because, Carter says, “the Second Amendment has been abused, unfortunately.” The abusers, he insists, aren’t well-known dealers; rather, they’re gun show merchants who sell whatever they can to whoever wants it. “People talk about buying guns in back alleys,” says Carter, “but that’s not where criminals get their weapons. They don’t have to! They just look at a billboard or a newspaper and see when the next gun show is, and they just go right in. Anything goes. No paperwork. You see obvious criminals buy weapons. It’ll make the hair stand on the back of your neck.”
But what gives Carter’s neck a pain is that many of the gun show merchants don’t have to pay attention to gun regulations, because the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms only has jurisdiction over federally licensed dealers. Private sellers aren’t exempt by law, Carter complains, “but they’re exempt by enforcement.”
Carter says that he knows several gun show merchants who are respectable, but that “the bad guys are too embedded.” Until either the shows’ promoters exert a sense of moral responsibility or the government turns more of a regulatory eye on the shows, Carter fears that crime will increase while the rights of gun owners and gun sellers will diminish. “I’ve been in this business for thirty-five years,” he says, “and until the gun shows cropped up, there wasn’t a major outlet for criminals that I was aware of. And what bothers me most about this is that this irresponsible activity is just going to pave the way for more gun-control legislation. And it’s only going to be enforced on us.”
AS IT HAPPENS, ONE OBJECT OF Bill Carter’s scorn has a great deal more in common with him than with, say, Brady bill champion Sarah Brady. Mike Morris, the San Antonio-based director of the Texas Weapon Collectors Association, promoted his first gun show in 1966, the same year Carter hired his first full-time non-family employee at the rifle range. Like Carter’s Country, the TWCA is a family-owned-and-operated business, despite Morris’ status as the biggest of the half-dozen or so gun show promoters in the state. Like Carter, Morris is a lifetime NRA member who supports the concealed-handgun bill—though, like Carter, he’s doubtful that it will bring gun merchants much extra business and worries that it will open the door to further gun-registration efforts. And, like Carter, Morris is a lifelong gun hobbyist who fulfilled his entrepreneurial dream—which is why Carter’s carping strikes him as more than a little bit hypocritical.
“All that talk about responsibility is a cop-out,” Morris declares. “Bill Carter doesn’t give a hoot about his industry’s image as long as his pockets are lined. If he’s so concerned about image, then why isn’t he screaming bloody murder about the guns you see advertised in the classifieds in every major newspaper in Texas? Why does he spend all his time ranting and raving about gun shows? Because we’ve put a big dent in his business. In our shows, there are thousands of merchants competing for the same dollar. In his store, there’s only Bill Carter, selling firearms at higher prices.” To Morris, Carter’s Country is nothing more than a giant business that seeks to crush the gun shows. He scoffs at Carter’s contention that criminals flock to the shows: “What criminal will go through the gauntlet of policemen who stand at our front door and buy a gun from a merchant, who is required to write down every name and address and check identification, when that criminal can just go break into someone’s house and steal a gun?” But no uniformed officer was standing at the door when I entered the Astroarena. And Morris admits he doesn’t have any way of knowing the number of wholesalers at his shows beyond the amount of table space he receives payment for; since he doesn’t collect a commission, he also doesn’t know how many transactions take place. Do the merchants carefully examine a customer’s identification? Do they record every sale? Because Morris usually stands near the front entrance, he can’t be certain. And the gun show merchants don’t have to fill out Brady forms if they say they’re merely, as Morris puts it, “liquidating a private collection.” It’s therefore hard to imagine why a criminal would bother breaking into a home to steal a gun when, with a fake ID or a few persuasive words, he can pick up an arsenal at a gun show.
In his own defense, Morris points out that he is “the only gun show promoter to put a sign on the front door saying that no one under twenty-one is allowed inside unless accompanied by their parent. ” Morris says he does this to discourage gang members, adding, “We’re also the only gun show promoter to have a dress code. If anyone shows up at our door wearing gang clothes, like baggy pants or his cap on backward, I’ll tell him, ‘Sorry, son, we can’t let you in dressed like that.’” So there are limits to the freedom of his entrepreneurial conscience—just as there are limits to Carter’s business ethics. Though Carter won’t advertise domestic assault rifles, for example, he isn’t above selling them. Occasionally, he says, a customer will ask for the Colt AR-15, which was commonly used in Vietnam, and he’ll obligingly fulfill the order without a lecture. “But our customers aren’t really interested in assault rifles,” he quickly adds.
In the end, Bill Carter and Mike Morris aren’t philosophically that far apart. Both would prefer that gun control mean self-control. But their differing versions of how much self-control should be exercised is, finally, the best explanation for why the control is out of their hands.
“I SHOT TO KILL”
BY DAVID MCCORMICK
ONE NIGHT IN THE FALL OF 1989, WE AWOKE TO THE shattering of a huge plate-glass window in our record store in the Deep Ellum neighborhood of Dallas. My wife, Deannah, and I bounded out of the bed—our bedroom was in the back of the store—and I grabbed the shotgun propped up in a corner of the room as I ran to the bedroom door. The door was shut, so we had no way of knowing where in the store the intruders were. I pumped a shell into the chamber. If you’ve ever heard the sound of a pump-action shotgun, you know it is distinct.
My wife banged on the door. We were hoping these noises would frighten the intruders away, and we listened intently for any sound in the store.
I remember that as I stood there, completely naked, taking in Deannah’s frightened expression—which probably mirrored my own—I realized I wasn’t prepared for what was happening. Not only were we underdressed for the occasion, but we didn’t even have a phone in our bedroom. We couldn’t call the police for help. But we did have a burglar alarm in the store, and then it dawned on us that if someone had come in, the motion detectors would have set off the alarm. It must have been drunken revelers cruising down Commerce Street. They had probably thrown a rock through the window just for the hell of it. God knows it wouldn’t have been the first time that happened in Deep Ellum, the center of nightlife in Dallas.
Just outside our bedroom door we had six-foot-tall folding wooden partitions that separated our bedroom from our small store. After pulling on some shorts and shoes, I stepped out into the store to survey the damage. Glass was everywhere. The window they had broken was about five feet wide by eight feet tall. I was furious at the mess they had made. But when I looked over at the rack closest to the broken window and noticed several rows of compact discs were missing from the shelves, I felt violated. I know it sounds clichéd. We hear burglary victims say it all the time in the news. Mainly, I think it means feeling helpless: Someone had actually come into my place—while I was there—and taken my property. Suddenly I saw with frightening clarity just how vulnerable we were. It doesn’t just happen to the guy down the street.
After that night, I slept in pajamas and kept a pair of shoes next to the bed. I also began leaving our bedroom door open. The only reason we had slept with it shut in the first place was to keep our two cats from setting off the motion detectors in the middle of the night. And what a joke the motion detectors had turned out to be. We also bought a cordless phone. I repositioned the partitions outside our bedroom door to leave a crack a few inches wide so I could see most of our storefront. And I began keeping a shell pumped in the chamber of my shotgun. After all, the sound of pumping a shotgun might tell the bad guys you’re armed, but it also tells them where you are. If I ever had another unwelcome guest in the middle of the night, I wanted to make sure I had every advantage.
I also thought a great deal about how I would handle the situation if it happened again. I didn’t want to be forced into making split-second life-or-death decisions. I thought about trying to capture the intruder. Maybe I’d yell out, “Freeze or I’ll blow your f—ing head off!” But then what? Do you really shoot? Or do you let him get away? What if he does freeze? Now you have to worry about his buddies waiting for him in the getaway car. Are they willing to come to their comrade’s rescue? And what if there is more than one intruder? A neighbor had seen two people fleeing our store, and a third person had been driving the getaway car. The more I thought about it, the possibilities were limitless.
My wife was alone all day in the store because to make ends meet, I had to continue my job working at a large electronics company. So my biggest fear became—and I think this is probably the most common fear that anyone would have—what if the burglar got away and came back intent on doing more than just stealing my property?
With as much thought as I gave to this issue, I never really decided how I would handle the situation if I was confronted with it again. But I did know one thing for certain. I would be better prepared than I was the first time.
WHEN WE FIRST MOVED TO DEEP ELLUM, WE DIDN’T own a gun. But after hearing some of the crime stories our neighbors had to tell, I felt I needed a way to defend us. Even after I got the gun, we argued over it. My wife didn’t like the idea of having one in her house. But after the burglary, she resigned herself to the fact that she would never persuade me to get rid of it now.
I was raised in a family that owned many guns. My great-great-grandfather homesteaded on some land about sixty miles south of Fort Worth back in 1870. My family still owns about two hundred acres there. My dad used to take my brother and me hunting out there all the time. He taught us to handle guns carefully and with respect. It didn’t bother me in the least to have a loaded gun in my house. In fact, I slept a lot better knowing it was there. But little did we know that our peace of mind would soon be rattled once more. Three weeks after the first burglary, we were hit again. This time we weren’t home. We had left for only twenty minutes. It was around midnight. When we returned home, the police were already there and our alarm, which had actually worked this time, was wailing loudly. It was obvious that the burglars had struck minutes after we’d left and had probably been watching us. The break-in was identical to the first burglary. They threw a large rock at the window that had been broken out the first time. But I had replaced that window with laminated glass; although it cracked into a million pieces, it stayed intact. The burglars just moved to the next window.
I told the police that it must have been the same people. They agreed—it’s common, they told me, for burglars to hit the same place a second time. Then a man drove up and identified himself as a police officer. He was off duty and had been on his way to Adair’s Saloon just down the street when he noticed two suspicious-looking men in front of our store. He turned around in an alley to drive by again, but it was too late. Our alarm was already going off, and he could see our shattered windows. He also saw a car taking off with three occupants.
He chased the car down Oakland Avenue near Fair Park. Although he didn’t actually see the people in the car commit the crime, he felt certain they had. It was obvious they were running from something. He got their license number before losing them. The police suspected that the criminals were using a stolen car: If that was the case, the license number probably wouldn’t be of much use.
Once again, it looked as though our intruders were going to get away scot-free. I was mad as hell. Not only would I have to replace the broken window I’d just spent $300 on, but now I would have to replace the one next to it. Also, they took a lot more merchandise this time. When I replaced the two windows, I decided to use Lexan plastic instead of laminated glass. Although the Lexan cost more money, the glass company assured me I would never have to replace the windows again. The stuff is almost bulletproof, they told me. By the time we had replaced our windows and stolen merchandise, the two break-ins had cost us about $2,500. Fortunately, we had an understanding landlord who worked with us on our rent for a few months, so we didn’t have to come up with the money all at once.
The night after the second burglary, I decided what I hadn’t been able to decide after the first burglary. If I was ever there during another break-in, I would not hesitate to use my gun. And I would shoot to kill. Here I am working two jobs, struggling to make our business a success, and these people come in and take what we’ve worked hard for so they can go to a pawnshop and sell it for a nickel on the dollar. If they came back to my place, I decided, they’d get what they deserved.
A few days later, the detective assigned to my case called. The getaway car hadn’t been reported stolen. It belonged to a man with a long list of previous convictions, including burglary. The man confessed to the crimes but refused to rat on his two partners. He eventually went to prison for his part in the burglaries. Although it was comforting to know that some justice had been served, I still worried about his two partners. I warned Deannah again that the next time there would definitely be gunfire.
Seven months later, Deannah was sitting up in bed watching television—it was about two in the morning—and she heard someone tapping on the window. “Someone is breaking in,” she whispered, shaking me hard.
Before I had time to respond, I heard glass shattering. Deannah didn’t want to see someone die, no matter what they were doing. She knew I had been serious about my threats. Although I’d warned her that if this happened again she was to stay back, she ran to the door and began screaming. I yelled at her to get back in the room. She did, and then I went out, around the partition, and leveled my shotgun. The burglar had broken one of our door windows, crossed the twenty feet to our CD racks, and scooped up a handful of discs. When my wife screamed, he froze—clearly surprised that someone was there—but when he saw me come out from behind the partition, he made a frantic dash for the door. I was about 25 feet away, and I squeezed off one shot just before he got to the door. It didn’t slow him down—he ducked through the broken window of the door and dove headfirst into the waiting getaway car. I moved closer to the door and took another shot as the car sped away. I would later learn that my second shot had pelted their car.
While my wife telephoned the police, I noticed eight compact discs lying on the sidewalk outside the broken door. I went out and began picking them up. What I found got me very excited. Out of eight CDs, seven contained shotgun pellets. If the criminal had been carrying them, he had to have sustained some injury. I told my wife to have the 911 operator start checking the hospitals because he would surely need treatment. I couldn’t believe I’d actually gotten the bastard. And, I must say, it felt good. But that feeling quickly went away when, just moments after the police arrived, their radios became very active: They had stopped a car going the wrong way on a one-way street nearby, and one of the passengers was a gunshot victim. The way it sounded, I thought he was dead.
I learned a few minutes later that he was just wounded. I was relieved that I hadn’t killed him, but—with the exception of Deannah—I was the only one who felt that way. As word spread around our tiny urban community, I became something of a hero. People came from all over Deep Ellum to congratulate me.
As for the burglars, the driver of the car had previous convictions for breaking and entering and was sentenced to ten years. They had had three young ladies with them, along for a joyride. The police released them without filing any charges. I was surprised to learn that the man I had shot, who was in his early twenties, did not have a record. He received six years’ probation. (I like to think that what happened helped him turn his life around. After all, he must have realized he came perilously close to being killed for a few bucks’ worth of CDs. I know that for the past four years, with the exception of a minor probation violation, he has managed to stay out of trouble.)
Shortly after the third break-in, we took in a stray mixed-Labrador puppy, who grew into a beautiful watchdog. For the last three years we were in business, he turned out to be a far better deterrent than my burglar alarm or my shotgun. We were never broken into again.
Although statistics show that violent crime in our society is actually decreasing, the perception by most people is that they are more likely than ever to become a victim. Why? Perhaps it’s because of the randomness of so much of today’s violent crimes. Whatever the reason, people are scared, and more and more of them are arming themselves and choosing to fight back.
I would use deadly force to defend myself or my wife. But when it comes to the defense of property, one needs to think hard about the consequences. I know I was prepared to pull the trigger that night. Otherwise, I would have hesitated. But my life wasn’t threatened. I was angry that someone was trying to take what I had worked hard for. Still, it has been five years since that night, and I continue to brood about what I did and why. I get chills thinking of the moment when the police radio reported a gunshot victim who I thought was dead. Now I know I’m not prepared to use deadly force to protect my property again. I’m the one who would have to live with the memory of someone bleeding to death by my hand, and that is just not worth it.