woody zimmermann 120Several years ago an ex-marine fought off muggers who cornered him at night on an Atlanta street. Thomas Autry was walking home from his table-waiting job around 11 PM, when five people got out of a car and chased him. The attackers – armed with a shotgun, a pistol, and brass knuckles – clearly intended robbing and possibly harming the former marine cook who was a veteran of the 1991 Gulf War.

“My first instinct was to run, but they cornered me, so I had no other choice than to defend myself,” said Mr. Autry, who evidently hadn’t heard that police advise surrendering to armed thieves. He kicked the shotgun away from one teenager and stabbed two with his pocketknife when they jumped on him. The attackers fled, but police found them at a nearby hospital. Amy Martin, 17, had died of her wounds and Christopher Daniel, 17, was in critical condition. Mr. Daniel and three others – a 16-year-old (name withheld) and 17-year-olds Kendall Barksdale and Christopher Hayes – were charged with aggravated assault and armed robbery. Police did not charge Mr. Autry, who “had acted in fear for his life.”

Mr. Autry is not culpable. He was not the one who waylaid a stranger with evil intent. But he told reporters he wasn’t a hero. “The heroes are the ones fighting over there every day for our country and not getting any respect,” he said, adding that the incident “…wasn’t admirable. It was either fight or flight. I tried the flight, but they caught me. If I could rewind it back and not have it come out the way it did, I would. But I can’t.” Mr. Autry sustained minor injuries.

A late-night call announcing your child’s death is what every parent fears but can’t really prepare for. Miss Martin’s family will never be the same. I’m sorry for the loss of a young person’s life, but Miss Martin undertook an unwise action that had fatal consequences. She shouldn’t have done that. If there is a more useless way to die than in an attempt to mug someone, I’d like to know what it is.

Those foolish Atlanta teens sought an easy mark in the dark of night. Instead they found a marine who could look down the barrel of a gun and give hand-to-hand combat. They became statistics instead of creating one. But Mr. Autry’s future was still cloudy. A lawsuit by the family of the girl he killed defending himself had precedent. (At this writing I have been unable to learn if such a lawsuit was brought against Mr. Autry.)

In 1984, Bernard Goetz shot four young blacks who accosted him on a New York subway train. The youths claimed they had merely “asked” Mr. Goetz for $5, but he said he fired defensively after one boy brandished a sharpened screwdriver. No one died, but Darrell Cabey was paralyzed when one of Goetz’s bullets struck him in the spine. (The “panhandlers” said Mr. Goetz shot Cabey again after he had wounded all of them.)

“The Subway Vigilante” surrendered several days later. He beat the attempted murder charge, but got 8-1/2 months in prison for gun-possession. In 1996 Darrell Cabey sued Mr. Goetz and won a $43 million judgment. The jury – academically interpreting events of twelve years earlier – found that the defendant had acted recklessly and deliberately inflicted emotional distress on the plaintiff. As Mr. Goetz had limited means, the court attached 10% of his wages for twenty years. The face-amount of the award was largely symbolic.

In 1993 a Jamaican named Colin Ferguson shot twenty-five people (killing six) on a Long Island Railroad car before being subdued by passengers when he tried to reload. Ferguson admitted racial hatred. (All of his victims were white.) After refusing the insanity defense he was convicted for all six murders and sentenced to 200 years in prison.

Later, I reflected on the remarkable fact that no one in that crowded car was armed and able to deal with the killer. Then a terrible thought came to me: suppose some passenger was armed, but had not acted for fear of legal repercussions, waiting until he was personally threatened to use his weapon. We’ll never know if that happened. New York doesn’t really approve of self-defense.

In 1995, an “enraged” young man at a Northern Virginia convenience store beat a diminutive female store clerk senseless while customers watched but did nothing. At the time, I wrote a piece in which I imagined a bystander’s thoughts:

“This guy is nuts. He’s probably armed, too. Jeez, I’ve got to get home for supper and my kid’s little league game. If I intervene I could get stabbed or even shot. That would mean a trip to the hospital, no ballgame, and no supper tonight – maybe never, if I end up dead. On the other hand, if I clobber him with a can of beans I might end up like Bernard Goetz. I’m sorry about this, but it’s not my problem…”

Commentators who raged about apathetic bystanders must have missed the Vigilante case. The customers’ reticence was distasteful but understandable.

Yet the times might be a-changin’. In 2002 three students subdued a Nigerian student after he shot and killed two faculty members and a student (and wounded three others) at the Appalachian School of Law in Grundy, Virginia. A small but telling fact – included by only six of the 100+ papers reporting the story – was that two of the three students who “tackled” the gunman (the Washington Post’s vague wording) were armed. Hearing the shots, they ran to their cars for weapons, then returned to disarm the killer.

Police understood the facts, and Tracy Bridges – one of the students who stopped the gunman – represented the event correctly to over 100 newsmen. But most of the public never knew about the armed students. It was a media conspiracy of silence. The 2.5 million crimes a year foiled by armed citizens are “an inconvenient truth” rarely uttered by the media. Research shows that criminals fear the “armed mark” far more than they fear police intervention. (As in the Appalachian incident, most foiled crimes involve no shooting.)

Seven states (California, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Maryland and Delaware) issue limited numbers of weapon-permits to its citizens. All others will issue a permit to any citizen not disqualified by a criminal record or mental deficiency, or will let citizens carry a weapon without a permit (Alaska, Vermont, Arizona and Wyoming). Prior to 2017, the District of Columbia required citizens to give a “good reason” to obtain permission to carry a concealed weapon. But a decision by the District Court for DC struck down that vague requirement and made DC a shall-issue city.
Gun-opponents try to twist the data, but the stubborn fact is that right-to-carry laws reduce crime. (Criminals want easy pickings, not the OK Corral.) Ten states with the lowest crime rates all have right-to-carry laws. Hysterical predictions of Dodge City at every street-corner – long a media staple – have so obviously not occurred that anti-gun activists have stopped making them.

Over the last thirty years the national firearm death rate has actually declined, while 22 states have passed right-to-carry laws and firearm ownership has more than doubled. No increase in gun-related accidents is indicated in states that have passed right-to-carry laws.

Even the perverse milieu of mass shootings shows the salutary effect of right-to-carry laws. The recent venue of choice for such events is schools. Why? Because disturbed would-be killers see that a school offers a guaranteed pool of unarmed victims, whereas you might get blown away by some pistol-packin’ grandma if you start blasting at the mall. There are encouraging signs that school officials are finally recognizing that schools must be protected by more than “gun free zone” signs posted outside.

Thomas Autry didn’t have a firearm, but he was armed with something more important – an attitude of resistance. He wouldn’t let himself be victimized. When push came to shove, his assailants got more than they bargained for. An aroused, resistant citizenry is the greatest defense against tyranny – including the tyranny of crime.