the government. Sometimes he'll just be sitting
there relaxing and will remember the look on the face of one of the men he killed. He had put a hole clear through the man's
stomach with a .357 magnum and he urges others not to view anyone they've shot. But it is not the bloody hole he remembers
all the time. Nor is it the look on the dead man's face, for his facial muscles relaxed after he died. It was the look
he had as he was dying.
"The look was...well, terrified," says Tomlin softly. "It was startled and of a man in terrible
contemplating the inexperienced people who are buying guns these days -- and he is a good observor of them having conducted
his class four times a week at Tamiami since just before the May riots -- he says that for many novices a gun provides "a
false sense of security." Most of his students have been middle-aged women who previously had been opposed to firearms
and don't really want to use them but want to know something about them just in case. Even after attending the three-to-four-hour
session, some students still don't believe they would actually pull a trigger on another person. Tomlin says that, "Someone
who has a gun might pull a scare tactic on a burglar and it might work, but if he doesn't have it in him to fire, he really
doesn't have any business with it."
That was one of many aspects of the gun I didn't think about too much when I bought one. I was among the
200 a day, the more than 6,000 who registered their firearms wiht the Dade Public Safety Department in the month of June;
one of many who did not dream that I would ever have to use it, and if I did, would find out if I could pull the trigger when
the time came. I did not consider what I was bargaining for when the gun became mine; of the multi-level process of getting
used to a gun and of the responsibility that comes with it. Little things -- like a hoster -- became additonal burdens I never
realized I would have to consider. I was a fine example of the new gun owner taking a shortcut to danger.
Four months ago a man flew into my garden apartment at 5:30 in the morning
with a screwdriver, lunged at me, hung me by my neck with his right arm, took the money in my sugar bowl with his left hand,
and a moment later started for his belt -- as if he were ready to take his pants off -- at which point I went mad.
Mad like a woman with the worst nightmare about to come true would go
mad. The clawing, the screaming; the thrashing about of a hundred-and-twenty-odd pounds of female.
He slugged me on my right jaw and then gave up. He ran. And I ran for
my gun; in a holster, in a paper bag. And I went out into the early light, naked, shot into a space between the trees.
He had turned the corner of the building already but more than five
long minutes had passed since my hollering and none of the neighbors from the nine other garden apartments within 30 feet
of my door had emerged. And so I figured the attacker might return, seeing that noone of my neighbors even stirred. And so
I shot, so he would know what he was coming back to.
In the moment that I pulled the trigger I felt a tremdous feeling of relief. The blast surprised me, which is supposedly good, I later learned, for if you anticipate
your own pulling of the trigger as you hold your weapon too tightly, there is a tendency to shake. Mostly, though, I was aware
I was in shock, and possessed an overwhelming urge to burst with rage, not just because of the intruder but because I had
a furious message for the whole uninvolved neighborhood.
Later, I would kill him over and over in my mind. For weeks, any sound I heard in that quiet back
apartment beside the old palm tree on Northeast 29th Terrace, near Bayshore Drive, would make me jump. On night two weeks
after the attack, I woke up standing with my gun firmly between my hands, arms outstretched, and pointed at the door. But
the intruding sound was only a paper rustling in the wind.
I was crazy. For a good six weeks after that Friday in late June I carried my .38 revolver wherever
I went. That was phase ten of owning a handgun for the first time. I kind of knew it was against the law. But after all, I'm
a nice person. I'm not a crimnal, I thought. I mean, I am very middle class. And there was a time, only a couple of years
ago, when I first saw a car sticker that said, "Help Fight Crime, Buy Guns," and I thought it was terrible. But
the gun I have is a good one, and it was offered for sale from a friend, and it was cheap, $100, and it was legal, and the
time was a couple of weeks after the May riots and also a couple of weeks before I needed it.
Or did I? I couldn't even get to it when I wanted it. And when I
did get to it and through the following weeks, I was a perfect example of someone who perhaps has no business with a gun.
I did all the wrong things. I had shot into the air. No good. If a bullet goes over a sidewalk, you're breaking the law.
It was also very stupid because a bullet could travel several blocks and still kill someone. In the wake of the incident,
when I didn't want to lug my gun in my satchel into an office building, I would keep it under the driver's seat of
my car. Another mistake since this is one place where, for certain -- along with over the visor, it is illegal to keep a firearm.
Carrying a concealed firearm is a third-degree felony punishable by one to five years.
And yet I was stubborn. I wanted it with me. Friends put up with its
presence -- most of the time. Maybe they knew I was going through a process, partly from the trauma of the assault. But I
realized it was also one of the phases of getting acclimated to possessing a pistol.
In time, my feelings about the gun changed; eventually I just stopped
carrying it around. The responsibility, I felt, was too heavy. At that phase of the new gun owner syndrome, I also noticed
that other people behave in a similar manner at various stages of getting used to guns for the first time.
The new handgun owner. At first he loves his weapon, or
has a kind of fascination for it, then he puts it away for a while. Sometimes if he shoots it, he is amazed that it works.
A Miami policeman gave me a bullet...
"In this town," he said, "you're pretty
much on your own."
Sometimes it is alike a security blanket. Sometimes it is a pain in the neck.
Sometimes it is awesome and fearsome, because really, he just might not be an expert in its use and always he wonders about
the second when he wants to get to it and is afraid he can't.
These are feelings shared by hundreds of new gun owners. Criminologists guess
that only 50 per cent of the guns bought here are registered. In a single week in late September, 1,145 guns -- shotguns,
rifles, and handguns -- were reported registered with the Public Safety Department, and these statistics are becoming normal
for the year.
July, 1980, gun registrations in the county doubled -- 5,480 compared to 2,612 in the same month last year. In June, 1980,
immediately after the late May riots, during which there was a five-day moratorium on gun sales, registrations hit a monthly
high for the year at 6,125 as compared to 3,174 the year before. So far about 40,000 guns have been registered in the county
in the last yer, up 12,000 over the number in the twelve months previous.
explanation for this widespread arming by mostly middle-class citizens is simple. They are afraid. By the end of September,
the number of homicides reported by the county medical examiner's office neared 400. Despite police noting that the average
middle-class person who stays at home in the evening is not likely to get involved in a street-or-drug-related shooting, people
here are concerned nevertheless by reports of homicdes over minor traffic accidents and other seemingly minor confrontations.
An advertisement by a bank in a newspaper recently offered free pocket ter gas sprays to new depositers of $500 or more.
A couple of months ago, a Miami policeman gave me a bullet after asking me if I had replaced the one I had
spent on the man who attacked me. I watched him open the black patent leather pouch on his belt, feel for another bullet,
and place it in the chamber of my .38 caliber revolver. "In this town," he said, "you're pretty much on
your own." Later on, I looked at the bullets. There were five regular bullets and the one the policeman gave me, a hollow-pointed
one that explodes on impact.
State Attorney Janet Reno didn't like that story. "It's
one thing to have the right to bear firearms," she says, " and to have freedom of speech, but another to cry fire
in a crowded theatre." However, she does believe more people are not only buying guns, but carrying them.
Assistant state attorneys in her office have noticed an upsurge in violent crimes involving firearms in the
county, particularly during recent months. "Unfortunately individuals who are not psychologicaly equipped to bear the
responsibility of owning and carrying firearms are doing just that and have used them to commit spontaneous acts of violence,"
says assistant state attorney Peter Outerbridge. "The domeestic situaton that formerly resulted perhaps, in a man striking
his wife, now ends up with him shooting her. Neighborhood disputes that used to be settled with fist fights are now being
settled at gunpoint. There are out-and-out gun battles.
Down the hall, another assistant state attorney is trying to decide
whether to put his range practice target -- with bullet holes filling the center -- on the door of his office or inside it.
In the late summer, he practiced at a range five times over about an eight week period. The attorney, at least, made some
attempt to practice.
owning a weapon has always been part of a family heritage, but for others now, it is the thing to do, a status symbol, a fad
-- and an obsession for even more.
You browse in the Tamiami Gun Shop, set in a shopping center, next to
a five-and-ten cent store and near a 24-hour Grand Union, on the Lord's day and the place is crowded like a supermarket
on Friday at 5:30 p.m. Salesmen are interrupted every five minutes. "Do you have any cannons? a voice inquires. You turn.
The questioner is a low-key, obviously well-heeled, conservatively dressed man in his early 30's. He is quite serious.
People go there to browse, buy and practice. There is a man with his 10-year-old son
and his 13-year-old daughter, there to practice shooting a .22 rifle. There are two middle-aged elementary school teachers
-- of math-and-science and of Spanish -- who live in Miami Shores. There is an insurance salesman, a bartender, a doctor,
an assistant state attorney, a housewife from Miami Beach, Cuban families, youths. You look at the feet down the row of shooting
booths in the range and see thongs, ankle straps, cowbody boots, jogging sneakers, clogs, see-through plastic Mary Janes,
wing-tips, mules, loafers.
There are overalls and designer blue jeans. There are are double-knit
pants. There are jogging shorts and tennis whites. There is the smell of perfume, deodorant soap and sweat. There is the flash
of polished pink or red fingernails or of gold bangles. There are calloused, sun-browned hands.
there is the routine. Tomlin, also a range master at Tamiami, watches it from his glass booth and from inside a bullet-proof
vest. Although some people are very low key, those with the "wild west cowboys" routine are not.
There are the ones who stand in a range booth, looking at their targets for a moment, then with one arm supporting
a .44 magnum with the topside of the barrel resting on their shoulders and aimed at the range master, pause. Then they look
first one way, then another, "to see who's watching them," says Tomlin, and then they shoot.
Inside the range the Dodge City bit seems a bit drawn-out and foolish. But on the streets it is another matter
entirely. By late September, at least 24 citizens who had been threatened by criminals had killed their assailants or those
who threatened their property in some way. And this figure does not include incidents that go unreported in the newspaper,
said one assistant state attorney, simply because there may only be an injury and not a killing involved. A lot of people
are shooting each other in the streets and in their homes and businesses. "Nice people." People who work for a living,
who have houses and investments in Dade, who would otherwise not think of harming someone.
the intentional shootings in self-defense are only a part of the increased bloodshed brought on by the increased and rapid
move to arms. Accidental shootings take their own toll of victims.
Many have forgotten
the death of three-year-old Augustine Bazin who was accidentally shot in the head last summer with the .38 caliber semi-automatic
found by a playmate under a doormat in a Lake Worth nursery. And many have forgotten three-year-old Jessica Archie who was
shot accidentally in the forehead with a sawed off rifle by her six-year-old brother. And that some three weeks later a .30
caliber rifle accidentally discharged when a 17-year-old South Dade youth accidentally shot and killed his 16-year-old brother.
A Hialeah legislator accidentally shot himself in the finger last December while taking ammunition out of his gun. The former
Miami policeman said he was more "embarrassed" than anything. Recently a woman in a Cutler Ridge supermarket was
carrying a handgun inher purse and accidentally shot herself in the head. The gun went off when the purse fell to the floor.
Even at the Tamiami Gun Shop, relatively uncrowded on a late Sunday afternoon in September, a Star9mm automatic
pistol misfired. A bullet had jammed, a samesman tapped at it with a gun-cleaning brush and the pistol went off.
"This is the first day of your life," another salesman hollered over to the salesman named Hector,
who had tapped at the bullet. You were born today."
"The element of surprise is the best
thing you've got. Don't warn him (the
intruder in your home) in any way..."
And yet the number of new gun owners who seek instruction represents a small fraction,
perhaps ten per cent, of the drove of people buying guns.
The collective ignorance is shocking. Many do not know any of the dangers
and laws taught at the gun range. They don't know, for example, that you cannot shoot someone just for prowling outside
your house and that a screened-in porch and a garage are not part of the inside of your house, according to Tomlin. The laws
can be this specific and confusing at the same time. It is legal to keep a handgun in the glove compartment of your car but
that is also a concealed place, yet it is illegal to carry a concealed weapon. And then, it is legal to be transporting a
gun, say from the glove compartment of your car to a gun range or shop, or from your home to your car, says Tomlin. The lines
are fine. He also tells his class the laws say nothing about how many bullets you can shoot in defense of your life. Empty
the gun, he advises.
The class is more than informational. It is laced with Tomlin's
seasoned thoughts and opinions and the law with regard to the use of a handgun. Some mare more sense than others. Nearly all
"A dead man," Tomlin repeats to a Monday evening class of ten women and
eight men, "tells no stories and he cannot harm you. But if he's wounded, leave him wounded."
But, he says, "You don't want to have to warn the person. If you fire a warning shot you may need
that bullet. The element of surprise is the best thing you've got. Don't warn him (the intruder in your home) in any
way, shape or form."
"Anybody who has broken into your home who should not be there,
a stranger," says Tomlin, "should be considered an immediate threat and you should shoot to kill. In the past I
have killed. It's something I think about each and every day of my life. I hope none of you ever have to."
Half the class have their own guns. On this evening most of their weapons are out of sight, although a young
mod-looking couple have their "his and hers" models, respectively, a 14-shot Browning automatic pistol and a .38
snub (two inch) nose, lying on the floor.
A nine-millimeter automatic is the minimum needed "to kill,"
Tomlin counsels, although it is not recommended to the inexperienced user because it is well-known for jamming. Most weapons
are well-designed, he notes, but there are several things that will cause a weapon to malfunction. A .38 caliber revolver
is by far the most popular weapon right now for protection, it is larger than a nine-mm but is "more effective, will
do more damage to the body," he says. "The .357 magnum has a tremendous kick. The Clint Eastwood special, the .44
magnum, is not recommended for personal protection. It is more powerful than a .45. It is a miniature cannon. A shotgun is
not recommended for personal protection. It will put a hole in someone big enough to put your arm
through. If the weapon is not shot properly it could dislocate your shoulder. The
damage it does is devastating. You turn on the lights and you've killed the couch, windows and doors. For a week or two
you will walk around with a putty knife scraping the victim off the walls."
and near-misses notwithstanding, everyone seems to have strong opinions about the recent arming.
about time," says a homicide detective who asks not to be quoted by name. "It's about time people started taking
an interest in themselves. We could use the help."
"I think it's decent," says Terry Overly, a retired public
safety officer, who believes many of his friends in the county police agree. "I think it's a definite deterrent to
burglaries. I think it's the greatest deterent if those jerks start to realize that these people are armed to the hilt.
I think it's great."
Ralph Ratner, in the criminal justice program at Miami-Dade Community
College and a part-time gun salesman at Tamiami Gun Range, brought his family up with guns. Each of his daughters, 22, and
26, have their own guns. He gave his wife a Colt .38 Diamondback and he owns a Colt .45 government model, a .357 Smith and
Wesson model 19, a Ruger Security Six .357 magnum and a few others. His wife, he says, is a very good shot and prefers his
.45 which is, as Ratner says, "not your everyday woman's gun." So handguns and rifels in the Ratner home have
always been a "family affair."
"The buying of a
gun is a simple
answer to a complex problem.
It's like taking a pill or putting on a
Ratner has given instruction in gun use and the crimes associated with guns for 15 years. "About
a year ago," he reflects, "if you told anyone you owned a gun, you were stigmatized. Immediately you were considered
peculiar. Now you look around and what do you see? Everybody owns a gun. More and more people are accepting the fact that
in Dade county we're unprotected and we cannot fault the police on this. The consensus among the people seems to be the
only way I'm going to survive is if I own a gun. If they're going to own a gun, I'm going to own a gun. It's
There are alternative protections to buying guns. There are tear gas
propellants, but they present problems: If you spray your assailant and the wind is blowing the wrong way and you're in
too much of a hurry to check, you could get a face full of gas yourself. And some propellants have no effect on someone who
is thoroughly intoxicated, according to Ratner. Then there are "stun guns" which can totally immobilize an attacker
with 50,000 volts, says Tomlin, but the batteries last only 15 minutes.
Other means of
self-defense are available but they take more effort than simply laying money on a counter.
have a lot of reservations about someone walking into a gun store and buyng a gun and having no training in its use,"
says Howard Rasmussen, director of the Southeast Florida Institute of Criminal Justice. The former public safety officer who
also collects guns says he would "personally like to see a law that requires anyone who owns a weapon or who buys a weapon
be required to learn safety of the weapon, care and clearning, how to shoot it, and well, most importantly of all, the legal
ramifications. What is the law?" Mandatory training, he says, must be statewide.
not an advocate of disarming the public," Rasmussen maintains. "But I think if the public should have weapons, it
should be able to pass a test. I consider owning a weapon the same privilege as driving a car."
He notes that the Bad Guys may be leery for a while, a short time, if they think all the Good Guys are armed
and ready to fight them off. But only temporarily.
"I wish the people going out and buying these guns would join Citizens
Crime Watch, get involved with their neighborhoods, call the police department for a security survey of their homes.
"It's amazing the number of women driving around the county with their windows rolled down and their
cars unlocked. It's simple logic when you're driving around to lock up.
people would organize themselves and go down to their city and county commissions and ask for more police. With more police
visibility, actual crime will go down, although reported crime will go up. All these people should go down and demand adequate
resources for law enforcement. That would help.
"The buying of a gun is a simple answer to a complex problem,"
he says. "It's like taking a pill or putting on a bandaid."
1980 Danielle Flood