Shirley Starr has lived with fear for more than two years, ever since she looked into the eyes of a man she believes had just killed someone. In the summer of 1993, Starr, an active grandmother- type, worked as a bookkeeper for an El Cajon attorney. Their office was one of four businesses, including a barber shop, in a one-story building with a common parking lot in the rear. “On Wednesdays,” Starr recounts, “I’m normally in a hell of a hurry to get to my car to go to bingo. It was a little after five. When I exited the back door this particular day, there was a very unusual fellow in the alley. When he saw me, he ran back to a car two doors over from me and pretended to be trying to get into the passenger side with a key. It was where he could directly stare me down. It was just a fearsome, scary type of stare,
Thank God, the two girls from the baby shop came out to empty their trash, because I think he would have killed me.”
Starr says the man, white and in his early 30s, glared at her for nearly a minute. “It scared the daylights out of me, because I’d never had anyone quite do that. It was like, ‘I’m gonna get you.’ ”
That night Starr heard on the television news that the woman who owned the barber shop had been murdered that day, her throat slit. Starr called El Cajon police. A uniformed officer was waiting at her office in the morning to interview her. After making her statement about the man in the parking lot, she asked the officer if she could be in danger. When he said yes, she asked him to sign a note she’d prepared that stated she had witnessed a possible murder suspect. Starr thought the document would help when she applied for a permit to carry a concealed handgun, something she was now determined to do.
The officer told her to call his captain. According to Starr, when she met with the captain, he was clearly unhappy about the letter and refused to sign it.
“Two days later, in walked these cops who said, ‘Oh, well, we don’t think you girls have anything to worry about. No danger whatsoever. It was somebody she knew.’ So I looked at them and said, ‘Do you have him in custody?’ They said no. So I said, Hey, this guy’s free. He knows where I work, he knows the type of car I drive. If he has access to DMV records, he can find out where I live. So don’t bother me with your bullshit, that you're here for my protection. I have to protect myself, and I am carrying my gun.’ ” The officers told her she could go to jail if she carried a concealed weapon without a special permit.
Starr, following the advice of the officer who initially interviewed her, had begun to carry her snub-nose .38, unloaded, in one hand, and a strip-load (for fast loading) in the other. (It is legal to carry an unloaded gun.) And Starr was not unfamiliar with firearms. In her home state of Michigan, she had taken a gun-safety course before going hunting, and since then she’s been on firing ranges many times.
“Three days after the murder, the gals from the baby shop asked me if I had gotten off early the day before. I had, and they told me the guy was there again, leaning against my door, and ran away when they stared at him.
“I started calling every agency for a permit to carry a [concealed] gun.” She now thought of it as her lifesaver.
After asking a judge she knew for some help, Starr received a call from an El Cajon police lieutenant. According to Starr, he was nearly yelling into the phone. “ ‘You called the judge? You even called Duncan Hunter’s office?’ I told him I’d called every agency in town, and how did he know? He said, ‘I’m a homicide detective, I know everything.’ So I told him what he didn’t know, that the suspect had returned to the crime scene.” The lieutenant, she says, refused to believe her.
A friend told Starr that police detectives were asking around to see if she were paranoid enough to shoot someone. Her boss was also being pressured by the detectives he saw daily in the courthouse, she says. He asked her to stop packing the gun, because she’d probably shoot one of his clients. “I was the subject of their gossip about carrying the gun,” Starr says, still enraged by the recollection, “not about the solving of the murder.” She says she called the lieutenant and threatened to sue if the malicious talk continued.
Starr then took her problem to the National Rifle Association. They referred her to a local member who offers close-combat training courses and also to the sheriff’s permit department in Kearny Mesa to make formal application for a concealed-carry permit.
Staff in the permit office evidently felt that Starr merited special attention; they sent her to the sheriffs office’s legal counsel, Richard Pinckard. He gave her his business card, on the back of which he had hand-written “California Penal Code Sec. 12025.5.”
According to Starr, Pinckard told her,“ ‘I just want you to know that this penal code protects you, and that under the laws of man and nature you’re entitled to carry a concealed weapon.’ The penal code,” asserts Starr, “says that when you are in imminent danger, you have the right to protect yourself, over and above all other laws of the land, and that includes carrying a firearm.” She never did receive a concealed-carry permit but feels that Pinckard’s business card is sufficient.
As for who determines whether one’s life is in danger, Starr asserts that is “determined by you. I was told by this attorney for the sheriff that if you happened to get stopped by a cop, traffic violation, anything, you just put your hands on the steering wheel, and you tell him, ‘I am carrying a pistol.’ [Pinckard] said they may take it away from you, but if they do, you’ll get it back. You show him this card; you show him the penal code.”
When contacted recently, Pinckard said he couldn’t recall ever speaking with Shirley Starr and stated that Section 12025.5 of the penal code justifies carrying a concealed weapon without a permit only when a court has issued a restraining order against a specific person who may pose a threat to the carrier’s life or safety.
Nevertheless, Starr feels quite secure and usually carries a gun, especially because the man she thinks is a murderer has not been arrested. She is prepared to use her gun at any time. “No hesitation. No hesitation,” she says. “All six shots.”
Alex Sullivan is the man to whom the NRA referred Starr for a handgun defense course. At a beefy 6 4", the round-faced and unsmiling Sullivan, 44, could have stepped out of an episode of the old Bonanza show. He acknowledges, in fact, that he would have felt more at home in the Old West than in late-20th-century America, where predator hordes roam the range and too many citizens lack the skill or the will to protect themselves. Sullivan is the Angry White Male made flesh and blood.
He joined the NRA in 1972 and says he oversees grassroots activities and recruiting. “I fill in with my people whenever it gets the roughest or nobody else can handle it. Local guys like myself are much more fanatical than the D.C. leadership.”
Sullivan works as a self-employed plumber and a licensed firearms dealer. He prefers the latter, because he enjoys it and because it earns him more money. It’s “a childhood hobby that’s gotten out of control,” he says. He deals mostly in military surplus, where the profit margins are higher than on new guns.
In a holster inside his pants, behind his right hip, he (legally) packs a .45-caliber combat gun that he customized himself. It goes wherever he does. Those with a federal license to sell firearms almost automatically receive a CCW (carrying concealed weapon) permit from local authorities.
Sullivan often tries to assist others to obtain permits. “You need every parasitic license known to man,” he says. “It was so bad at one time you virtually had to jack your house up to bring it in.” Nevertheless, he admits that San Diego County has one of the more liberal CCW permit policies in the state but fears that could change with the recent election of the “anti-gun” Bill Kolender as sheriff.
Sullivan believes that anyone who lives in an urban area and does not carry a gun is singularly foolish. He lives with his mother in a modest, older home in North Park, an area he describes as “extremely dangerous. You need a gun just to get in and out of the house at night. That is, unless you want to die or get hurt real bad. I choose not to do so.”
There is, he says, a county probation office in North Park. “Twice a week they let out the jailbirds from downtown, and they spread out through the neighborhood like cockroaches, leaving a path of destruction in their wake. One path goes to El Cajon Boulevard. It’s like a war zone twice a week. Then they go to the bank and cash their jail checks and go south and leave another path of destruction. All lower forms of life.”
The cockroaches have also found their way to his door. One night, while Sullivan was “studying the Bible and reading Guns & Ammo, ” someone knocked. “When I opened the door, the guy tried to shoulder his way in, and I could see a few of his buddies in the shadows. He said he wanted to use the phone to call 911.' I told him to go down the street to Taco Bell, and he said he didn’t have a dime. ‘You don’t need a dime to call 911,’ I told him. So then he flips up his sweatshirt like they do in the joint, so I could see there was no weapon down there. But I saw all these prison gang tattoos. It looked like Aryan Brotherhood. I told him to forget it, he wasn’t coming in. He tried to force the door, and I pulled out my .45.”
Sullivan says the would-be intruder started to reach for “a .25 on a .32 frame” in his back pocket but retreated after looking down the barrel of the larger weapon. The Old West in North Park.
Any suggestion that criminals are best left to the police draws a patient but weary lecture, as if he’s speaking to someone who’s been locked away in some utopia. “You’re on your own. All law enforcement officers will tell you that. They can’t protect you. You have to protect yourself.”
Most beat cops, Sullivan claims, are in favor of concealed-carry for citizens, but the police brass, for “political reasons,” are not. The desire of many appointed and elected police officials to make it a felony to carry concealed without a permit is “very elitist and smacks of totalitarian government.”
In principle, Sullivan agrees that standardized background checks to determine good character should be made for those applying for CCW permits, “but you can never trust the government to keep things within parameters." They’ll twist standards for their own purposes. He names a few celebrities and wants to know why they are allowed to own machine guns while he cannot.
Sullivan says that in the past few years about 80 percent of all first-time handgun buyers have been women. He adds that in North Park at least, elderly women are most at risk of being attacked. Many, he claims, carry a gun, sans permit, in their purses. (He suggests they’d be better served by carrying in a hip or shoulder holster.) “I once explained to an old lady that carrying concealed was illegal. Her response was, ‘They don’t frisk old broads.’"
Sullivan’s 79-year-old mother, a retired San Diego schoolteacher, has lived in North Park for 60 years. She sadly recalls bygone days when people could walk the streets of the neighborhood without being molested. Now, just retrieving the newspaper from the lawn on early Sunday mornings is an adventure, with drug dealers, prostitutes, and their johns still trolling about. Mrs. Sullivan notes that some civic-minded folk have plans to plant trees to help attract shoppers to North Park. But “there’s no point in planting trees unless you clean up the streets of human debris.”
She does speak highly of a police sergeant who was recently assigned to the area and whose tough tactics have improved matters considerably. Alex jumps in to state that the new sergeant had “cracked down and really put the screws to the criminal elements in the area, and it’s made a hell of a difference, but it’s not perfect, and he can’t make it perfect."
He tells how his mother has long owned a .38-caliber Lady Smith, a revolver specifically marketed to women, but wanted something with more stopping power. “Hey, Mom, tell him what your favorite dress gun is.”
Mrs. Sullivan chuckles and says it’s a .357 Magnum, a power handgun with a strong recoil. Alex gave it to her for Christmas and trained her in its use. She seldom travels alone outside the house, but when she does she’ll take it along. “It’s illegal, but she carries it anyway,” her son says.
Two weeks after she’d received the gun, someone tried to pry open the Sullivans’ door when Alex wasn’t home. As he tells it. Mom met them at the door, shoved the gun in their faces, and they took off running. “And they haven’t been back,” says Mrs. Sullivan.
Alex Sullivan often eats in a North Park restaurant where Some of the customers and employees have purchased firearms from him. He doesn’t solicit business, he says. “They find out I’m a gun dealer, and they come to me.”
“Jim” (who requested anonymity, as did many of those interviewed who carry concealed) lives in the South Bay, where he owns a machine shop, but he occasionally comes to the North Park cafe to meet with friends. He is middle-aged and mild mannered and has been carrying concealed for several years. He can’t understand why it should be illegal to carry a firearm concealed.
“It’s a misdemeanor, I guess. And it shouldn’t be. We’re just regular people. Ordinary people. Union people. Some who work at Rohr. A couple of girls. They all just don’t want to be fucked with. We’d never use it for anything dishonest, immoral, or illegal.” But, he says, “Things have been getting worse.”
Jim’s carry-weapon of choice is a .25 caliber, which fits snugly in his coat pocket. He’s not concerned that some might think a .25 lacks sufficient stopping power.
“If you shoot someone with a .25 in the face area or the heart, it’s gonna get their attention real quick.” His voice is soft, almost regretful. “You aim for the face before you pull the trigger.
“I’ll take it out of my pocket as a last resort. It’s a defensive thing. If someone has made the choice to do something violent to me, then they’ve made the choice. When you really need a gun, nothing else will do."
Alex Sullivan agrees and mentions that only 2 percent of criminal attacks are completed when an intended victim is armed. He further states that in only a tiny percentage of cases does the victim actually have to fire the weapon to deter the attack. Both sides of the gun issue are heavily armed with statistics.
“Frank” bought the North Park restaurant three years ago. So far he's been robbed at gunpoint only once, compared to eight times in seven years at a Los Angeles restaurant he used to own. San Diego, he thinks, is safer than L.A.; but more and more, he says, he’s getting a lot of people who eat and run without paying the check. “But that’s the least of my worries. For five bucks, I’m not going to shoot somebody.”
Because many among his clientele are elderly, Frank worries about the purse snatchers who roam North Park. One regular who had her purse grabbed outside his restaurant didn’t come back for six weeks. His main concern for himself is when he takes his receipts to the bank. He never opens the car door before carefully scanning the area.
“I don’t want to be set up. But I don’t consider myself a John Wayne type. I don’t want to shoot it out.” Still, he always carries a Colt .45 when making deposits. “But I won’t grab for my gun just to save the money. The chances are, I’m going to lose, because he’s ready and I’m not. The idea of carrying a gun, though, it makes you feel safer. If I could get a permit, I would take it. But I don’t think I have a chance. I don’t have any connections."
Urban renewal in the area doesn’t offer much hope. The criminals are not renewed, he says, and shrugs. He doesn’t know the answer. He votes Republican but doesn’t know if they have the answer. “We’re losing the battle,” he says. Meanwhile, the Colt under his jacket is at least a partial answer to his fear of assault.
“The abusing part is more important than the money part. In other words, you take my money, and that’s one thing. I understand your motives. You got it and you go. But when you start beating me up, too — and that seems to be often the case — then that’s another story.”
Frank sighs and spreads his hands. “I would never look for a gunfight. I would rather walk away. But if you corner me, I would do it. Yes, I would.”
“Alicia,” an immigrant from Guatemala, is a waitress at the restaurant. She is not too eager to talk but does so as a favor to Alex, from whom she purchased a gun and received training. She lives only a few blocks from the restaurant. One night, while her husband was at work, a man tried to force open her apartment door. At the same time, she was receiving calls with silence on the other end of the receiver. “I was scared. So I got a handgun. Five years ago I wouldn’t do it, because I was always afraid of guns.”
She went to the range with Alex. He taught her that a gun was a tool. “Now I am not afraid of the gun anymore. I’m comfortable with it. Before, every little noise scared me. Now I’m not scared. I feel secure.” Alex says she sometimes carries concealed; Alicia says she doesn’t.
The cook, “Carlos,” admits to carrying concealed — a Glock pistol, an expensive Austrian import. “I open the place in the morning. Somebody tries to rob me, I protect myself.” Carlos says that before he armed himself, he was robbed three times. “But I don’t care about money. It’s my life I am afraid to lose.”
In a business section near Frank’s restaurant, many shop owners carry concealed without permits, Alex says. One locksmith is cautious about speaking, noncommittal. Outside the shop Alex says, “All of them carry, but none of them admit it.”
Across the street, an appliance store is tended by a Japanese man in his 30s. Alex asks him if he’s applied for his CCW permit yet. The shop owner says he intended to apply before Kolender was elected but let it go because Kolender is supposed to be anti-gun. He’d like at least to carry an unconcealed handgun, but Alex tells him that’s allowed only if it’s unloaded.
“If you call 911, they take 15 minutes to come by,” says the store owner. “They’ll come by only to send my body to the coroner.” He says he’ll continue to carry concealed. “It’s my life against a fine.”
Alex declares, “Everyone is so scared around here they don’t give a flying fuck what the police say.”
The owner of a small gift shop doesn’t want his name used; he believes some of his customers are anti-gun. He tells of a video store clerk up the street who was shot because he didn’t have enough money in the till to satisfy a robber. A common urban tale, tiresome unless it’s close enough to you to smell the gunpowder.
“There’s a lot of people out there just hanging around and needing money. People with nothing to lose. They don’t care if they’re dead or alive. They need something, and they don’t care how they get it.” The shop owner says a neighborhood cop told him to buy a gun and use it if threatened. Alex rolls his eyes when the owner states that he never carries it outside his store.
“I told Christine Kehoe [District Three city council representative] there has to be more money to spend on police,” the shopkeeper relates. “She asked if it wouldn’t be better if the money were spent on libraries and parks.” He interrupts himself with a peculiar, elongated laugh that bounces around the walls of his tiny store. He says he told Kehoe that people would be too fearful to use the parks until the crime was reined in.
“At one point in my life I was a liberal,” again the rippled laughter, the joke on himself, “but gun control is nothing but a sop for people who don’t understand the situation.”
American urban areas seem to have about them the stench of the final, deathbed decades of Rome, when desperate bands of robbers and terrorists roamed the doomed empire, grabbing what they could. The contemporary calls for unity, for community, seem ultimately futile. It’s hard to foster unity when you’re afraid to walk out the door without scanning for danger, when the social contract is fractured and everyone is a potential enemy.
Politicians and other cheerleaders have puffed a drop in the number of violent crimes over the past few years. Realists argue this merely reflects a temporary dip in the number of teenagers, a segment of the population that will shortly spike upward, bring in its wake a quantum increase in street felonies.
In the 1960s there were, nationwide, more than three police officers for every violent crime. In the ’90s these figures have reversed: about 3.5 violent crimes for every cop.
The types of homicides being committed now say a lot about our descent into a Hobbesian reality. It may be perversely comforting to believe that most murders are committed by someone known to the victim. This is true, but much less so now than in the decades right after World War I.
A murder committed by a friend or relative is much more likely to be solved than one committed by a stranger. When an arrest is made for murder, that is called a “clearance.” In 1965 the national clearance rate for homicide was 91 percent. In the last two years the clearance rate dropped to 65.5 percent and about 5 percent less in most large cities. According to the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG), the homicide clearance rate was 79 percent in San Diego in 1984. Just ten years later it was only 57 percent. One logical conclusion is that there are more “stranger murders” than ever before.
In a recent Atlantic article, “The Crisis of Public Order," Adam Walinsky argues that to achieve the security we enjoyed in the 1960s, we’d need about 5 million new police officers. Realizing that figure is too absurd to even consider, he suggests an initial increase of 500,000 at a cost of nearly S30 billion. It’s curious that alarmed liberal folks are calling for a police-saturated society. But perhaps the presumed chaotic alternative is even less appealing. But a half-million new cops? Forget it. Whites don’t want all the guns in the hands of the feds, and minorities don’t want them concentrated in the hands of the Fuhrmans.
It’s a long way from North Park’s flat, proletarian streets to the upscale, rolling hills of Rancho Bernardo. One would imagine this to be a relatively safe part of San Diego, where predators would be quickly spotted and monitored by the police or by a vigilant Neighborhood Watch group. But Charlie Misak, who lives in a condo with a terrific view of the surrounding valley, isn’t about to take any foolish chances.
He acknowledges that criminal assaults are more likely to occur in less-affluent areas, but “it still can happen here, and I have to be prepared for it. My car could be carjacked here as well as any other place.”
Misak, a fit and athletic 47, owns a small business in Rancho Bernardo. He has no permit to carry a concealed weapon but does so anyway. And he doesn’t mind giving his real name, because “it’s a statement that it’s my right. And I feel more secure with it. It’s one of my constitutional rights — the right to bear arms. I feel that as long as I’m a responsible citizen with the correct training, I don’t see a problem. I mean, I’m not going to shoot somebody.”
Of course, the whole idea of carrying is that someday you may indeed have to shoot someone. What would he do if a robber stuck a gun in his face?
“I would size up the situation,” he responds. “If I felt it wasn’t safe to defend myself, I’d give him the money, of course. The first thing to learn is to always try to avoid confrontation. You don’t want to pull out a gun to see who can shoot fastest. I’d hand him the money and when he ran, I wouldn’t shoot him in the back. If he’s fleeing he’s not a threat to me. Probably the only time I’d shoot the guy is if he shot at me first. I’d want to be dead right that I did the right thing.”
Misak joined the NRA only two years ago, when the Brady Bill passed Congress. At that time he owned one gun; now he has eight. Increasing his firepower was another way to make a statement, as well as being a kind of investment in case more restrictive gun laws were passed.
For that reason, some of his weapons are unregistered. He purchases them in Arizona, where he has a driver’s license and business interests. The Brady Bill’s 15-day waiting period is a joke, he says. He (or a criminal) could jump on a plane to Phoenix and buy a gun privately, from a classified ad, or at a gun show, put it in the luggage, and fly back to California. The answer isn’t for Arizona to become more restrictive, he says, but for California to get into line with Arizona, Florida, Texas, and a dozen or so other states that in recent years have loosened their concealed-carry laws.
In Arizona, unlike California, a person applying for a CCW permit need not give a reason for wanting to carry; the only people barred are those who have committed a felony in the past ten years. The permit, says Misak, costs $50, plus an additional $137 for a mandatory gun-use training course. Even if (California should emulate Arizona, he doubts there would be droves of people applying for a permit or negative consequences resulting. There won’t be “a Wild West-shootout type of situation. Every state that did it, it’s been the opposite of that.”
He’d much prefer to be able to carry legally but doubts he could get a permit. “I’d like not to break the law. If it was a felony, I wouldn’t carry at all; but seeing it’s a misdemeanor, I choose to, because I think it’s for my own welfare.”
Misak carries either a 9mm Clock or a five-shot revolver, “because of the size and weight.” When he jogs his five miles each night, he carries one or the other in a fanny pack. For daytime carry, he owns something called a Conceal-lt, a five-inch wraparound affair of rubberized Velcro, with several pouches for pistol carry, a sort of shooting-man’s cummerbund. It’s worn around the torso; one shirt button is left open for quick access.
An entire apparel and accessory industry is built around concealed-carry: specially constructed purses and women’s blouses, briefcases, jackets, knapsacks, and fanny packs. One may also buy an AutoVault, which bolts under a car seat and can be used to carry a gun or other valuables.
Misak started carrying concealed only in the past three years “because of the crime rate. There’s so much crime out there, and we’re so vulnerable to it. The police department is really just a reactive unit.” He knows a lot about police procedures and firearms laws because he was a Phoenix cop from 1973 to ’76 and before that did a brief stint with the Michigan State Police.
If more citizens were armed, people trained in the proper use of guns, he believes, many public tragedies could be avoided. In certain hostage situations, for instance, “if somebody had a weapon in there, they might have been able to end that thing. It may never happen, but we didn’t think the thing down in San Ysidro would ever happen either. If I’m sitting in a restaurant, I want to be able to defend myself and hopefully to defend the other people there.”
It may be that a fair number of local beat cops concur. Don Kinney was a San Diego police officer for 17 years.
He retired in 1992 and for the past year has owned a military surplus store (no gun sales) in El Cajon. A few months ago, his shop was held up. He chased the culprit to a parking lot, yanked him off his motorcycle, and held him at gunpoint until police arrived. As a former police officer in San Diego, Kinney says, he has an automatic right to carry concealed.
Most rank-and-file officers, he claims, are in favor of making it easier for citizens to carry concealed. “A cop knows he doesn’t protect the city. For the most part, anymore, he responds to crimes.”
In contrast, police organizations, which are generally controlled by the top ranks, oppose liberalizing the concealed-carry laws. The San Diego County Police Chiefs and Sheriffs Association, currently headed by Chula Vista’s chief of police, goes further. They’re pushing to change concealed-carry violations from misdemeanor to felony offenses.
Kinney believes he knows why police higher-ups are at odds with their troops on this issue. It’s a matter of obeisance to their anti-gun powers-that-be. Speaking of the current sheriff, he says, “When Kolender was [San Diego police] chief, he served at the pleasure of the city manager, and I’m sure he reflected the thoughts of the city manager.”
Doug Oliver is a beat cop and firearms instructor for the La Mesa Police Department. He’s an enthusiastic NRA member and makes no secret of his support for their position on concealed-carry and other controversial firearms issues. “He’s quite a rebel,” his wife says. “He’s been on the force for 23 years, and he’s still a patrolman."
Oliver also teaches a combat-shooting course at Grossmont College for those seeking a two-year degree “in what used to be called criminology. The politically correct term now is 'administration of justice.’ I still say criminology because I’m an old fart.”
The police, he states, do the best they can but really cannot protect people. “You can say that the San Diego police have, say, 2000 cops, but how many are patrolling the street at any one time? Like, two or three hundred? Not that many cops are out there. We can’t be there all the time.” Response time in La Mesa, he says, is very fast, “maybe a minute and a half. But a lot can happen in a minute and a half. When you’re at the ATM and some guy comes up behind you, the cop isn’t there.
“But I still believe there are more good people out there than bad. I’d rather have a whole bunch of these good people armed, because if I get in trouble I’ll call for help from my buddies, but it’s going to take a couple of minutes for them to get there. If there’s a couple of armed citizens there who can come to my aid. I’m safer. I’d feel safer.”
In his years on the force, Oliver has made only one arrest for concealed-carry that was not subsidiary to some more serious charge. And that case was a minor violation, an individual riding his bicycle at night, without lights. The rider, a security guard coming home from work, admitted that he had a gun in the bike bag; his employer didn’t want him to leave it at work. “I had to arrest him,” Oliver says, but he doesn’t believe the district attorney ever filed charges.
According to Oliver, just as there are some aspiring police officers who should find another line of work, there are also some citizens who should never carry a firearm. “One of the first things I tell people when I teach my classes — I tell them, you’re going to have to look at a person face to face and shoot them and kill them. Can you live with that? If you can’t, get out of this class right now. Don’t even bother. If you can’t live with that, never carry a gun for defensive purposes.”
One armed citizen who says he’s thought it all through is “Warren.” To shoot someone would be “a last step,” but if his life was in danger, he’d do it “without hesitation.” His philosophy is, “Don’t ever shoot someone just once. You don’t want him getting back up.”
He’s had guns pointed at him, triggers pulled. Years ago in the Midwest, he was shot in the leg while trying to prevent a robbery. Five years ago he disarmed a gun-toting mugger in downtown San Diego. “People tell me I’m brave, I’m a hero. Bullshit! I’m the most scared son of a bitch in the crowd. Maybe you’re braver than I am, and you’ll just raise your hands and trust him not to kill you. I’m terrified. And I can’t trust him [not to shoot]. Rather than trust him, I took the gun away from him.”
Warren is in his mid-40s, retired from the insurance business, and trying his hand at writing novels. He lives in a comfortable home in what appears to be a quiet neighborhood in Escondido. Then again, a recent survey named Escondido number one in the county for rising crime rates. To hear Warren tell it, it’s a little Sarajevo.
He and his wife go for a walk every evening, mainly to discuss the progress of his writing. “We’ve been accosted, confronted, and jumped ten times now in four and a half years.”
Warren describes himself as “a former asshole who grew up on the street.” He still speaks its language. “I’m a belligerent son of a bitch; and if it’s my right to do something, I’m going to do it. And it’s my right to walk these streets.”
The incident that prompted him to carry concealed was when men he characterizes as “three illegals” surrounded him and his wife on one of their nocturnal strolls. He says he bluffed his way out of that one by walking up to one of them and loudly introducing himself.
On another occasion, four white kids drove by, “drunk and bad-ass,” and yelled out an obscenity. “And I said, ‘Fuck you,’ and that pissed them off.” The kids drove by again, promising to kill him, but nothing further developed. Warren was able to keep his gun holstered but ready.
Warren’s potential assailants come in all hues. The most harrowing experience involved “a black guy who came across the street near the 7-Eleven, who pulled out a knife and said, ‘I’m looking for donations.’ I made Betty [his wife] go behind me and said, 'I’m not giving donations.’ And I pulled out my .357 Magnum. Do you have any idea how fast that guy ran?
“He had a knife on me. I wouldn’t be stupid enough to pull my weapon unless I could justify it — that the man gave me reason to believe I was being attacked.”
Warren has taken a hand-gun-safety course at Miramar College but has never bothered to apply for a CCW permit. There’s no chance he’d obtain one, since he’s been on probation since 1990 for DUI. He says he is attempting to become a federal firearms dealer, which, he believes, will make it easier to get the permit.
California’s strange laws regarding concealed-carry strike him as amusing. “Now the funny thing is that if I take my knife and put it in my back pocket, and I have a .38 under my shirt, and I get stopped — the knife is a felony. I can go to prison.”
He's not in the NRA and has not especially pondered the social implications of concealed-carry. He just doesn’t want to be a victim. “If there’s a point in time when you got three little assholes standing in front of you with knives or broken bottles, and they want your money and they’re willing to cut you, fuck that.
“I don’t care about liberalism. I wish nobody had handguns, but the people we got to worry about don’t give a shit what laws you pass. They’re going to get it anyway. They don’t care about going to prison. They don’t care what they do to you.
“All I ask of you and everybody else is — don’t fuck with me. Leave me alone. I don’t even want to exchange bad words. But if you want to attack me, I’d rather see you dead than me hurt.”
Warren fires one parting shot. “A liberal is an asshole who’s never been robbed."
“Chip” has been a law officer of one kind or another in San Diego County for many years. Currently he’s a special investigator for the district attorney’s office. He’s not an NRA ideologue but has devoted some thought to crime and gun issues.
Warren was correct in stating that carrying a loaded firearm concealed without a permit, on your person or in your vehicle, is a misdemeanor. And that concealment of other weapons — knives of certain lengths, brass knuckles, billy clubs, blackjacks, nunchakus, and the like — is a felony.
This peculiarity in the CCW laws, Chip believes, has its origin in the Depression years, when “honest citizens all carried a Smith & Wesson, while the thugs used blackjacks and brass knuckles.” Things haven’t changed all that much, he thinks. The crooks often use guns now, but not usually the classy stuff. “I don’t see people out there on the streets with assault weapons, killing people. They use stolen double-barrel shotguns or guns they cut the barrels off or little throw-away .22s. This is all nonsense about assault weapons, because those are expensive weapons.”
As for the issue of carrying weapons to ward off crime. Chip says the police brass and their organizations “do not really speak for the multitudes of police, at least those I see on the street. We’re in these neighborhoods every day. I walk those streets at night, but I’m armed. The streets are not safe.
“We have lawyers and judges and important people who are opposed to guns, but when something happens to them, they’re saying, ‘Where do I get a gun?’ ”
The likelihood of an otherwise law-abiding citizen being arrested only for concealed-carry is very small, according to Chip. When it happens it’s almost always in connection with another violation. “How would I come in contact with you? [Only] if you were speeding or arrested for drunk driving or involved in a bar disturbance. A person could be carrying a gun and talking to me, and I would never know it.”
He adds, though, that if a cop fears for his safety, such as when confronting known gang members, he has the right to do a pat-down. It seems likely, then, that those arrested for a CCW violation alone are probably gang members.
Most cops, says Chip, feel that when citizens shoot crooks “they should get a medal for it.” But he is concerned that many who are carrying concealed have not thought it through or are ill-trained. Battered women often ask him about obtaining a gun for protection, he says, noting that the courts are much more lenient with a woman who shoots someone and claims self-defense than they are with a male in the same circumstance.
“My concern is not people with guns. Look, if you want to carry a gun, fine, but realize the responsibility. We want you to get trained with it and to understand it, to think about if you would really use it, to pull it out and take another human being's life. And if you don’t think you could do that, you probably shouldn’t get a gun.”
Approximately 38,000 concealed-carry permits have been issued in California. In the late ’80s, a state NRA official estimated that a quarter-million to a half-million Californians carry concealed at least some of the time, which would mean that most do so illegally.
Sometimes they get caught. In 1994 the San Diego Police Department made 570 arrests for carrying a firearm concealed. Of these, 424 charges were filed. According to a spokesperson for the San Diego City Attorney, the majority of these arrests were made as a result of the individuals being stopped by an officer for some other reason: being a known gang member, sale of narcotics, creating a public disturbance, and, most of all, vehicle code violations. Generally, more than 85 percent of the CCW charges filed are as misdemeanors; felony prosecution usually applies only if a person shows a prior felony conviction.
In 1994 San Diego County sheriffs deputies made 248 CCW violation arrests. In 103 of these cases, the firearms violation was the most serious charge.
The classification system used by most local law enforcement ranks a CCW offense as more serious than either disturbing the peace or driving under the influence, but only if packing the rod on one’s person. Carrying it in a vehicle is still more serious than creating a public ruckus but less serious than DUI. According to the city attorney’s office, the “standard disposition” for first-time CCW offenders who plead guilty is 30 days in jail, three years’ probation, and destruction of the weapon.
However, Joseph Gaidula, an East County attorney who handles gun-related referrals from the NRA, says that in his 25 years of practice he knows of no one who has served time for a first CCW offense, with the exception of previously convicted felons. He also concurs that it’s unlikely that someone would be stopped and busted for concealed-carry alone.
Typical cases of concealed-carry, Gaidula says, are “the guys who go out target shooting, out to Boulevard, or way the hell out someplace, have a couple beers, put the guns in the car, and a gun is [still] loaded. They get stopped for DUI, there’s a search, they’re charged with gun possession in addition to DUI, and there is no [plea bargain]. They plead guilty or go to trial, and the gun is ordered destroyed.” However, in contradiction to the sheriff s legal counsel, Gaidula says he has successfully defended people tried for carrying concealed who were able to prove that death threats had been made against them, even if no restraining order existed.
The actual penalty for a first-time CCW violation, says Gaidula, is almost always a fine of from $100 to $300. His clients usually weep far more over the lost gun than the fine. “If you know gun people, the worst thing you can do is destroy their gun. Gun people are crazy.” Despite his relationship with the NRA, he says he turns down some cases. “There are a bunch of people out there who shouldn’t have guns. It scares me.”
Another who is frightened by all those gun-toting citizens is Susan Pollock. She believes the secure feeling engendered by intimacy with a firearm is often illusory and dangerous. “It’s the criminal who could overwhelm the other person and take the gun away.” Pollock, like the NRA troops, grinds her own set of axes. She is San Diego director of Handgun Control, Inc., the bête noire of the gun lobby.
“The main thing is, if everyone arms himself around here, we have the potential of being a battlefield. I think we have to pull together as a society and say, ‘Let’s make this a safe place.’ Carrying guns on the street, there’s a potential for a bloodbath. If someone looks at someone the wrong way and everyone is armed, there’s going to be people killed by mistake. I don’t want to entrust the health of my community to a bunch of armed people. What kind of way is that to live? We need to trust our police force. Otherwise, you end up with a vigilante mentality, and that worries me a lot.”
Some who have had close encounters of the criminal kind or know someone who has are pushed toward gun-carry. Others react differently. Mike Brandt, an actor at the Old Globe, was the roommate of John Lentz, who was killed in Balboa Park in 1994 by a drive-by shooter. Brandt was always against handguns, but the murder of his friend galvanized him to volunteer time to Handgun Control.
He doesn’t put much stock in handguns as effective defensive tools. “If John had a handgun, it wouldn’t have mattered. What I'd like to see, in a dream world, is to get rid of all handguns, because nobody hunts with a handgun. It makes you one of two things, either a killer or a casualty."
Mary Ann McDonough is an anti-gun activist who was formerly a lifetime member of the NRA. She publicly renounced her membership after her 15-year-old daughter died in a gun accident.
“If she had been living in Japan, in Ireland, in Greece, in the three places that I visit all the time, she’d be alive today, because you just don’t have this access to weapons that we have here. I think it’s really rather insane that people have such liberal access to weapons. If you look at how many children are killed here, by gratuitous gun accidents, it’s appalling.”
McDonough thinks that if the nation’s founders saw what was happening today, they’d write the Second Amendment differently, “something like Switzerland, where it would be carefully controlled.”
She also alluded to the spreading gap between those with the world’s goods and those without, and to massive immigration. The resulting social and ethnic clatter suggests the meltdown of the social contract into a Hobbesian nightmare of each against all. If it is indeed coming to that, then, as always, each will defend his space and that of close kin with rocks, swords, guns, whatever comes to hand. The fear of violence is aboriginal, but pandemic mayhem almost always accompanies social dissolution; media editorials and government decrees urging peace sound as wind through the ruins. As the sky falls, Chicken Little packs a rod.
The anti-gun folks realize that America has a tradition of the gun, but they think it’s time we changed that tradition. This seems, though, to confuse traditions with fads. A tradition creates and is created by the character of a people, and the United States is one of the few countries founded and settled, not by massed armies, but by individuals with guns. From Davy Crockett to Dirty Harry, the armed and righteous individual is an object of admiration, a self-defining slice of the American soul. Even less-than-righteous individuals like Billy the Kid and Bonnie and Clyde have a respected place in the American psychic pantheon. Perhaps we are — all of us, armed or pacifist, crazy or not — the Gun People.
'Ray,” 36, is certainly a gun person. He carries his .357 Magnum or .45 most of the time, although never to work. He declines to state what type work he does or even whe-Ore on his person he packs his piece but is otherwise eager to discuss the matter. As with many others who carry concealed, it was personal experience with crime that convinced him.
“A lot of people look upon concealed-carry like it’s a paranoid thing. It’s not. In the times we live, it’s almost a necessity.” He admires the social customs of the 19th Century, when everyone carried a weapon and there was less crime and more respect.
Twelve years ago in Oklahoma, Ray was robbed at gunpoint by a 17-year-old. “It was scary. Scary. l sweated, and it was a cold night. They caught him not too far away, and I was still shaking. But if they’d have given that little punk to me, I would have kicked his butt, because he scared the livin' bejesus out of me. You have someone stick a gun in your back — he can have everything he wants, but there’s no turning back once he pulls that trigger.”
Ray purchased a handgun right after this incident, but it wasn’t until he moved to San Diego that he began to carry. “But I decided to get back into electronics, which I trained for in the military, and started going to a night school downtown. At that time my car was broken down, so I took the bus. Once, going from my apartment on 51st Street to El Cajon Boulevard, I came upon a gentleman who had just been mugged and stabbed. They’d left him on the side of the road. That’s what really prompted me to start carrying. I'd get out of class at 10:00 at night and wouldn’t make it home until 11:00.”
Ray believes his hidden weapon twice saved him from being a victim. “I always put [the gun] in my book bag, and when I go to school I always keep my book bag with me. I was sitting at a bus stop near the school one night and two Hispanic gentlemen came down the hill from the Hillcrest area, and as they approached me — I was smoking at that time — one of the gentlemen came to my front and the other stayed on the sidewalk behind me, and the one in front asks me for a cigarette. I told him, no, I don’t have any cigarettes, and I put out the one I was smoking.
“Then I stood up with my book bag in hand, and the guy behind me came up and said, 'I want your cigarettes.’ I told him. The only thing you’re gonna get from me’ — well, that’s when I pulled it out and laid it on the book bag. ‘That’s the only thing you’re gonna get from me.’ And they backed off and walked away.
“Another time I was coming from a store, and a black gentleman approached me and, again, asked me for a cigarette. I was walking down El Cajon Boulevard, about 15 feet from where I’d seen the other guy stabbed. So I tell the guy I don’t have any cigarettes, and I keep going, and he keeps going with me, asking for cigarettes. So then I put my hand inside my coat. I didn’t have to pull it. He saw and went on his way."
Ray once went through the paperwork necessary to get a permit but balked at paying the nonrefundable $110 application fee, especially because he felt, during a preliminary interview, that he was going to be turned down. He’d wondered where the money was going, since he was buying the permit “as an insurance policy, being put in that position by some animal roaming loose on the street. If it’s not gonna help me, then I’ll keep my money, and I’ll pay my misdemeanor fine” if he’s caught carrying.
Ray sounds like another angry white male. But he isn’t. He’s black. But he is pissed. And he is thoroughly disgusted with the local media and what he perceives as their anti-gun bias. “They’re not going to use a story about the little old lady who saved her own life with a gun. That’s not interesting. But if a scumbag uses a firearm, that’s all over the networks.”
He lives with his wife and teenaged son on a City Heights street lined with well-maintained stucco houses. The anti-gun stance of some black leaders has, he says, misrepresented the views of most in the minority community.
“Everyone I’ve talked to, we feel the same way about crime. We do understand that, in this country, the justice system has not been always fair in applying to everyone. In some states, if you’re a black man and you kill a black man, you get three years; you kill a white man you get life. It’s not dealt evenly. It should be blind, like the lady of justice is.”
Nevertheless, Ray recently switched party loyalties. He prefers the Republicans because of their stance against gun control and their position on welfare, which he feels is another link in the chain of slavery.
His family target-shoots and hunts together. He’s taught his son the rules of gun safety and believes that this familiarity with weapons has deglamorized firearms in his eyes. The idea, backed by statistics, that those who own guns are more likely to be killed by one he dismisses as irrelevant. “If you never own a car, you’re not likely to have an accident with one."
As for building bridges to help alleviate social problems, he’s all in favor of that. “But we must address the issue of those who don’t want to be part of our society. We can’t be vulnerable to those people. Should my wife be vulnerable to some animal who gets a second chance and comes over here to rape? It’s just not fair. Or that I have to be vulnerable to a Johnaton George? This guy should never have been able to enter society again. If they give him a second chance, then why can’t I have the right to protect myself against him the first time?”
In Ray’s particular case, his fears are backed by other data that indicate a black male is four times more likely to have a gun used against him as on his white counterparts, and he is eight times more likely to be murdered. He would, he says, use a gun only if “it’s a matter of my life, my wife’s life, my child, my family.”
But he worries about it. He says he’d sue the family of any kid who broke into his home that he’d have to shoot — for putting him through the trauma. “I never killed anyone, I never want to, and I don’t know how I would deal with it mentally. There’s no way under the sun, until it actually happens, to know how you’re going to deal with the first time you take a human life.”
Ray’s wife says she knows more than a dozen people who sometimes carry a firearm without a permit. Jim, the South Bay guy with the .25, is acquainted with about eight. It’s hard to say if the NRA’s 1988 estimate was in the ballpark, but since crime remains the primary worry of Americans, the number of those carrying concealed might be significant.
It’s likely that many illegal carriers have been turned down for a permit. Others, like Ray, might believe their chances of obtaining one are small, so are unwilling to shell out the nonrefundable fee.
In some counties, like Riverside, each local police department approves or denies CCW permits, using varying standards of qualification. One sheriff in Northern California garnered significant press by granting carry permits to almost all comers. Other counties operate as San Diego does: Local police departments refer all carry inquiries to the sheriffs office, which is the sole issuer. Ironically, this policy was promoted by Sheriff Bill Kolender when he was police chief of San Diego. He persuaded the other police departments in the county to transfer CCW approval to the sheriff. (A spokesperson for the sheriff s office says there may still be a few cases where a police chief may issue or obtain a CCW permit for a friend.)
Actually, Kolender probably didn’t have to do much persuading. The cops were likely happy to shed the burden. “Concealed-carry has no positive side for a police chief," says Steve Helsley, the Sacramento lobbyist for the NRA. “It only has a downside because of the heat that comes with it, political heat. Traditionally, sheriffs have used [the power to issue CCW permits] for political kinds of favors, and so it made sense that the chiefs got it out of their hair and gave it to someone who could use it politically. There was a big positive side for the sheriff, particularly in the days before the media found out why and how they did it. Now that positive is diminishing for sheriffs. It’s a hot potato."
San Francisco attorney Don Kates believes the issue is still largely political in most of the state. A few years ago he successfully sued the sheriff of Los Angeles County on behalf of several individuals who had been denied CCW permits and were incensed by press reports of Hollywood celebs getting the permit virtually for the asking.
The “important people,” says Kates, the wealthy, the prominent, the famous, have no trouble getting permits. “The general proposition is, if you’re a nobody, nobody cares about your life. But if you’re important and you get killed, and if you were denied a permit, the sheriff could be in trouble.”
Some gun people think Kolender’s election will make it tougher than ever to get a permit. Alex Sullivan believes that “probably only Kolender’s buddies will be able to get them — the liberal political elite.”
Steve Helsley disagrees. He says that San Diego’s issuance policy, depoliticized under ex-sheriff Jim Roche and very fair in comparison to other jurisdictions, is still in place and will likely remain so. Although he calls Kolender “a poster boy for Handgun Control,” he points out that “the system is working, nobody’s complaining, why rock the boat?”
June Stuart is the civilian employee who runs the CCW permit-issuance office for the sheriffs department. She says the current CCW policy guidelines have evolved over a period of 20 years and that Kolender has not changed in any way those that are in place. “His reputation,” Stuart comments, “is that he’s someone who does not like guns [in the hands of civilians], so that’s gotten around, and the NRA has picked up on that a little bit. But effectively he has not changed [the guidelines of] either Jim Roche or John Duffy,” Stuart knows this conflicts with the perception on the street, and she prefers it that way. She believes it helps to keep the application rate down.
Some 300 to 500 people a year make application for permits in San Diego County, paying a $110 nonrefundable fee for background checks. The state and county each get about 40 percent of that, the federal government the other 20 percent. In San Diego County, about 2500 CCW permits are active at any one time.
A concealed-carry permit is actually a state license issued by the county. The requirements to obtain one are proof of residence in the county, a valid reason to want one, and a good moral character. Interpretation of the two latter items must of necessity be subjective. “It’s up to the locals to determine what that means,” admits Stuart. Still, she states that only a small number of applicants are rejected.
The application procedure has two phases. First is a screening process, before an applicant pays the fee. At this stage, those whom an examiner thinks have little chance are so told. (This is apparently where Ray was tossed out.) But only about 10 percent are screened out at this point, according to Stuart. After a full personal-background check, an additional 10 percent are denied. Any sort of criminal record, even being on probation for DUI, means instant rejection.
This would mean that about 80 percent of all applicants get their permit, a figure likely to be greeted with some skepticism by many who carry illegally. Stuart offers a reason for the high approval rate. “The people who need them come and ask for them, and the ones that are questionable don’t.” She adds that she’d like to keep the policy “low profile.”
The problem with these statistics is that they are impossible for any outside source to verify. In California’s other counties, the press can examine the complete records, including the number of applications and denials and the specific reasons given by an applicant for wanting to carry. This access was gained as a result of a statewide lawsuit (CBS vs. Block) in the late 1980s. However, the San Diego Tribune sued the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department at about the same time (to find out to whom Sheriff John Duffy was issuing CCW permits) and won a much more limited access to records than applies elsewhere in the state. The sheriffs department follows the ruling that came down in the Tribune case, not the much broader one of CBS vs. Block. Stuart acknowledged that San Diego is less open in the matter of CCW-file access than are other California jurisdictions.
The names of law enforcement officers (federal agents who want to carry off-duty must obtain a local permit) do not appear in the files; they are “protected.” So too are the names of judges, who, for some reason, are classified for this purpose as “law enforcement officers.”
All applicants, says Stuart, are treated equally; a citizen without clout has as much chance of getting a permit as does an elected official. Character-reference letters can be useful in helping Stuart come to a decision. If one is an ex-police officer, that “helps with the moral character aspect,” says Stuart.
Applicants in certain occupations almost automatically get the boot. For example, cab drivers. They often apply, but the permit department just as often denies on the grounds that a passenger has the right not to be in an enclosed area with a firearm. For the same reason, real estate agents who want to carry while showing homes to prospective buyers are themselves shown to the door.
When asked to classify the CCW applicants her office sees, June Stuart produced this ranking. Most applications (and most approvals) are from federal cops wishing to carry off-duty and from judges; next are business owners and professional people. The third category in terms of approval rates includes private investigators and security guards. On the bottom floor, those least likely to get permits, are folks with “no business reason,” who simply want to carry a piece for personal protection.
A perusal of the thick, bound file of successful applicants does suggest that most are either cops (names deleted from the copies) and judges, and business and professional people. An antique dealer, a property manager, a publisher, doctors and lawyers, and a fair sprinkling of psychologists and psychiatrists, perhaps to defend themselves against their failed cases.
Most applicants had checked a box requesting that no further personal information be released, although some (“a few naive people,” says Stuart) didn’t seem to care. Most also checked the box that would require Stuart’s office to notify them if someone did request more information about their application.
In any case, except for the security guards, who usually came recommended by their employers, there was hardly a wage earner in the lot.
Stuart’s explanation for the over-representation of business people is that they often have to handle a lot of money or have expensive equipment. “If they’re placed in harm’s way, we’d consider that good cause.”
It would seem that some working stiff who takes a bus each day to get to his job in a high-crime area is not considered to be in harm’s way, although he’s more likely to be assaulted than a La Jolla florist. June Stuart smiles graciously. “As Jim Roche put it, ‘Mere fear for one’s safety is not a reason to be issued a concealed-carry permit.' "
Unfortunately, it appears that the de facto standard is respectability, defined by money and standing in the community. That applicants handle money in their professions can’t be an explanation of why they have such a high approval rate, since the law allows the use of a gun only in defense of one’s life, not one’s money or property. If the theory is that the affluent and propertied are more likely to be robbed and thus harmed, that would be hotly disputed by the commoners treading through the cockroach streets. June Stuart is honest enough to say she hasn’t an answer to this apparent contradiction.
The fortunate applicants who pass muster take a written test, followed by a visit to a pistol range, where they must place 15 of 20 shots inside a target. Even so, they can’t carry their piece just anywhere. Stuart says that while there was only one incident she could recall in which a permit-holder abused his privilege (by shooting someone in a Coronado bar fight), the most common cause for revocation is when a legal carrier is caught and arrested trying to board a plane.
If June Stuart’s representation is accurate, those frightened North Park shop owners would seem to have a good chance to get their permits. Charlie Misak, the ex-cop, also seems a lock. But Warren and Ray can forget it, as can Alicia and Carlos, the restaurant workers.
So can “Gladys,” one of a growing number of women who leave their homes heeled. She’s 35, a single mom, street-smart, and tough. She carries concealed most of the time but never considered applying for a permit. She believes — apparently correctly — that “it would just be a waste of time.”
Years ago a cop friend taught her the art of combat shooting, and she has no trouble handling her .357 Magnum, “a real sweet gun.” She’ll sometimes carry it in her purse; other times, if she’s wearing “something baggy and loose,” it’s in a shoulder holster.
Gladys tells of a gun-toting friend who was driving in downtown San Diego seven years ago when “a guy came up and stuck a knife in her face. She pulled the gun and put it in his nose and drove away. And the guy just stood there, like, ‘Ohh, God!’ “
A couple of years ago she had a night job in a truck yard, where she carried the weapon openly. “I wanted it to be visible. There were a lot of people coming through there. That’s why I carried it. You know, a single female out in a truck yard in the middle of the night.”
Gladys now works in a South Bay hospital to support herself and her five-year-old daughter. “I know how to use it,” she says of her weapon. “I’m not careless with it. If my life depended on it, or if my child’s life depended on it, I would shoot to kill.” There’s little doubt she would. She’s been on her own since she was 17 and years ago was running with an outlaw motorcycle gang. While she was drinking in an East County bar, a biker from a rival club shot one of her friends. Without hesitation, she relates, she yanked out her piece and fired at the assailant, then took off. “He took down my friend, so I took him down,” she says. Later she found out that she had only superficially wounded the assailant.
That was almost 20 years ago, and since then, she says, she’s been clean: no drinking, no drugs, nothing to impair her judgment. “If I’m going to carry a gun, I have to be in control and alert. I have it with me so I don’t have to live in fear of crime. I know it doesn’t make me invulnerable, but I don’t like living in fear. I don’t want to worry if that guy on the other side of the parking lot is going to chase me down. The hell with that. If that guy wants to chase me down, let him try. That’s my attitude.”
Gladys realizes that not everyone shares her attitude. She has friends, she says, who are more frightened by guns than by crime. “I know women who, if they carried a gun, they’d end up getting shot with their own gun. They just don’t have what it takes to back it up.”
Earlier this month, the state Assembly passed the so-called Citizens Self-Defense Act, AB 638, which would allow all Californians without felony convictions to carry concealed. Assemblyman Pete Knight, the Palmdale Republican who sponsored the bill, gave it only a “50-50 chance” of getting by its next hurdle, the state Senate. Should the bill become law, there could be many more people with heavy iron in their purses or under their shirts. Susan Pollock of Handgun Control doesn’t like the idea that “when I go grocery shopping, the man or woman next to me is armed.”
If so, she should avoid the stores where Gladys shops. She is always armed, at market or mall. Asked how she would feel, browsing the vegetable aisles, if she knew that most of her fellow shoppers were carrying guns, Gladys’s reply comes back like a shot. “It would make me feel that I’d better be carrying mine."
— Bob Owens