Faith in firearms

Texans will not be parted from their guns

CHRIS WOOD March 22 1993

Faith in firearms

Texans will not be parted from their guns

CHRIS WOOD March 22 1993

Faith in firearms


Texans will not be parted from their guns


The dock Model 22, .40-calibre semiautomatic pistol, settles into the hand with lethal ease. In the darkened firing range, the three tiny luminous dots embedded on the gun’s sights for better night shooting line up on the blurred rectangle of white paper that is the target—the “intruder” for the purpose of this gun-class exercise. The shooter’s index finger contracts gently on the trigger and yellow flame spits from the gun’s muzzle. Recoil drives the shooter’s arms momentarily back into his shoulders; the percussive thud of the gun’s discharge penetrates even his thick ear-protectors. In a matter of seconds, the shooter empties the gun’s 15round magazine into the twitching paper target. “I love the way that it feels,” says suburban Dallas shooting instructor Harold Peeples of the dock. “It is made for my hand.” Peeples’s affection for his firearm is shared by millions of Americans—and nowhere more fervently than in Texas. The square-jawed

instructor’s semiautomatic pistol is only one of 68 million guns that the state’s 17 million residents are known to own, a breathtaking four weapons for each man, woman and child. That astounding private arsenal has been amassed under Texas laws that require only a valid state driver’s licence to purchase a gun. But enthusiasm for firepower is not universal in the Lone Star state. Dallas graphic designer Sandy Steadham, for one, says that she wishes for “a giant magnet to suck up all the guns in the country.” In fact, Steadham, who last 2 month placed the disturbing

1 image of a toddler gazing

2 down the barrel of a revolv| er on a gun-safety billboard, 2 says that American society 5 is in the grip of a costly and I futile domestic arms race. S “I buy a .38 and you get a Q .45,” she said. “I get a

semiautomatic and you buy an Uzi.” But last week, against the backdrop of a tense standoff between authorities and a heavily armed religious sect near Waco, lawmakers found growing public support for gun-law reform.

Not all the proposed changes pull in the same direction. In Congress, the support of President Bill Clinton has breathed new life into the so-called Brady Bill, which would oblige handgun buyers to wait five days before taking delivery of a weapon to allow time for background checks and to prevent impulse purchases. (In Canada, a 28-day waiting period and police background checks are required for all gun transactions, and special permits are required for handguns.) New Jersey, meanwhile, is poised this week to overturn a ban on most semiautomatic weapons, while Arizona’s governor proposed a bill limiting teenagers’ access to guns. In Texas, there are gun-related initiatives before the legislature in Austin, one aimed at banning assault-type rifles and another at permitting Texans to carry hidden handguns at will. They neatly reflected a new degree of tension along the deep divide that has long existed in American society over the treasured right to bear arms.

That right, enshrined in the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution, lay at

0 the heart of the Waco confrontation. The 5 standoff at a fortified compound belonging to

1 the Branch Davidian sect, an offshoot of the Seventh-Day Adventists, began on Feb. 28. At

5 the time, agents of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, £ Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) attempted to g search the sect’s compound for an arsenal that ë they suspected included assault weapons, explosives, hand grenade casings and at least one .50-calibre weapon capable of firing rounds designed to pierce light armor. Four agents

I was born and raised way out west

But the thing that I like ’bout living here best,

Ain’t the mountains or valleys,

The hats or the boots,

It’s having plenty of guns and something to shoot.

—Texas country singer Chris Wall

died when those inside the compound opened fire with at least some of those weapons; the others retreated to positions more than 200 m from the compound. But after achieving the release of 21 children and two elderly women in the days immediately following the botched raid, negotiations with self-styled prophet David Koresh, 33, and more than 100 followers bogged down.

The botched raid and its tense aftermath prompted a firestorm of criticism directed at the ATF, the U.S. agency responsible for enforcing federal gun laws. Armchair critics, who called in to radio talk shows or wrote to newspaper editors, questioned why the agency had used what one Dallas letter writer, Rod Downey, called “a Rambo-style assault on a religious group that had done no harm to anyone.” One spokesman for the militant anti-abortion organization Operation Rescue went even further: “It is time for Christians to rise up against the ATF,” Randall Terry declared. Other critics wondered aloud why the agency had not simply arrested Koresh during one of his regular absences from the sect’s compound.

ATF spokesmen countered that their operation had been well planned, and they blamed its failure on a telephone call that the agency claimed had tipped off the sect members just minutes before the assault was unleashed. Spokesmen for the FBI, meanwhile, appeared annoyed when reporters suggested that authorities had lost control of the standoff. “We have sufficient firepower, if we choose, to

completely neutralize this situation at any moment,” special agent Ricks said on March 9. But he and other FBI spokesmen stressed repeatedly that they did not plan to assault the sect’s compound a second time.

The potent combination of firearms and fireand-brimstone faith has fuelled previous violent standoffs in the United States. Several small groups of adherents of the fiercely anti-

Semitic Christian Identity religious sect fought pitched gun battles with authorities in Arkansas and North Dakota between 1983 and 1985, killing four law officers and three sect members, including a child. In January, 1988, a 13day standoff between authorities and a tiny group of excommunicated Mormons in Marion, Utah, ended with a corrections officer dead. Still, a lone gunman inflicted the worst carnage

in Texas’s violent history in October, 1991. Unemployed sailor George Hennard, whose motive remains unknown, crashed his truck into a Luby’s restaurant in Killeen, Tex., 75 km southwest of Waco, and shot 23 terrified diners before turning his gun on himself.

One of the survivors of that attack is now among the most persuasive voices arguing that Texan gun laws should be relaxed even further. On the afternoon that Hennard’s truck crashed through the front window of Luby’s, chiropractor Dr. Suzanna Gratia was dining there with her parents. Her father died in an attempt to rush the gunman; her mother was the last to be killed before Hennard’s suicide.

Gratia, 33, blames her inability to intervene that day on her decision, several months earlier, to stop illegally carrying a concealed Smith and Wesson .38-calibre Airweight that she practised firing regularly at a local shooting range. “I had made the idiotic decision to take my gun out of my purse,” she told Maclean’s, “because I had become concerned about losing my chiropractic licence.” If she had persisted in carrying her gun in defiance of state law, Gratia is convinced, “I would have blown that guy away.” Now, she hopes to see quick passage of a measure proposed by Fort Worth Republican state representative William Carter: it would allow her to carry a concealed handgun legally on completion of a 15-hour training course.

Houston lawyer Harold Dutton, a Democrat who is also a state representative, considers

that proposal “a terrible idea.” Dutton prefers the measure that he has been trying to win legislative approval for since 1989. It would prohibit Texans from owning any of about a dozen different types of semiautomatic rifles, including the Soviet-designed AK-47 and the Israeli Uzi. In Dutton’s view, such militarystyle weapons have no legitimate recreational use, “unless you were attacked by a herd of deer that all had .38s.”

The massacre at Killeen and the Waco firelight may have changed the political climate since Dutton first proposed a ban on assault rifles. Then, critics labelled him unpatriotic and even “anti-Christ,” he recalls. After the ATF’s failed raid on Koresh’s compound, however, Dutton received encouragement from Texas Gov. Ann Richards, a Democrat who owns guns and says that she enjoys hunting. She told reporters: “It is time to recognize that these [assault] weapons are not something that fits into the good old Texan view of gun ownership.” But in a state steeped in the mythology of the gun-toting frontier, where disputes were settled man-to-man with the famous .45-calibre, single-action Army Colt—“the gun that won the West”—there is powerful resistance to any measure that would part Texans from the weapons that they currently own. Even Dutton acknowledges, “You could probably more successfully take away their wives and kids and dogs, before you’d take away their guns.”

At the Bullet Trap firing range in the north

Dallas suburb of Plano, seven Texans made their leanings plain last week by putting down $80 for Peeples’s three-hour introduction to handguns. “Í wish I didn’t have to be here,” said a married woman in her mid-40s who identified herself only as Kathleen. “But in a violent society, I'm afraid. I think I have to be here.” Joseph McCreary, a grandfatherly manufacturing executive, said that he and his wife, Wanda, decided to attend the course after “we were robbed twice and we had an attempted robbery two weeks ago.” For her part, student court reporter Gail Elkins took evident delight in unleashing the roar of a .357 revolver at the range’s paper targets. “My Dad always said, ‘If you’re going to shoot, shoot to kill,' ” she observed, grinning. “I will shoot to kill.”

So would instructor and store manager Peeples. In his weekly classes, he offers his students clear-cut views on what he considers to be their inalienable right to use deadly force to protect themselves against violence that often seems to overwhelm the established forces of law in this country. It is a right that many Americans plainly feel is more necessary now than at any time since it was entrenched in their Constitution in 1791. But with some citizens able to amass arsenals that challenge even the agency mandated to keep private arms in check, it is a right that is increasingly likely to face new limits.

CHRIS WOOD in Dallas