Gun Crazy - 0001

Photograph by Joseph Melancon

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. ”

Surveys show that in 98 percent of the cases in which guns are used for self-defense, no one is shot.
Surveys show that in 98 percent of the cases in which guns are used for self-defense, no one is shot.

Dan Winters

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.

The massacre at Luby's changed Suzanna Gratia's life forever.
The massacre at Luby’s changed Suzanna Gratia’s life forever.

Wyatt McSpadden

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.