Thirty years ago today the inviolate right to self-defense and the battle over firearm civil liberties were joined in one of the unlikeliest of battle zones -- New York City. Riding a southbound express train in lower Manhattan, a slight of build navy contractor rode that subway car into gun lore history -- his name was Bernard Goetz dubbed -- "the subway gunman" -- defending himself and every other scared New Yorker to ride the underground. (Ironically, at the time Mr. Goetz's naval contract was to protect all of humanity by creating a safeguard against terrorists stealing nuclear weapons.)
In a scene eerily reminiscent of Charles Bronson in the Hollywood hit "Death Wish" four punks threatened and attempted to rob their victim, but enclosed within that graffiti encrusted rail car the "hare turned around and bit the hound" he fired his Smith and Wesson 5 shot 38-caliber revolver into his would-be muggers. The bumper stickers were everywhere in NYC - "Ride with Bernie -- he Goetz 'em"! The crime rate in the dangerous subways plunged dramatically -- so much so the authorities even held back the numbers -- the truth hurt too much.
Bernie Goetz wasn't caught immediately. It was a brief hiatus allowing the incident to grow into an international media sensation. During a White House press conference in early January Sam Donaldson asked President Reagan his position on the "Goetz shooting." The next day a young NRA political director held a news conference at the Park Terrace Hotel on 7th Avenue with Roy Innis, National Chairman of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and State Senator Chris Mega from Brooklyn declaring, "A government which cannot protect its citizens has no right denying them the means to protect themselves"! The famed journalist Murray Kempton asked if he was urging vigilantism? His retort, "when will Mayor Koch provide the same level of protection to the citizens who ride the subways and pay their taxes that he enjoys surrounded by a phalanx of New York's finest, oh with guns at the ready"? It was a good question then and an even better one today - thirty years later!
New York City leaders have maintained that same hypocritical, elitist, racist, and demonstrably counter-productive licensing posture then extant under Ed Koch. Mayors Dinkins, Giuliani, Bloomberg and now DiBlasio enforce indignity upon outrage sacrificing the essential human right of self-defense, even life and property. The mealy mouthed subterfuge that the police will protect you -- (tragically they can't always protect themselves witness the assassinations of two cops in Brooklyn on Saturday), is an excuse that costs lives, civilian lives as those of us in the rest of America know all too well. The issue is never the gun (despite politicians blather) but really, "In whose hands are the guns"?
Looking back, it was a defining moment for the emerging gun rights movement led by the National Rifle Association -- and I know because I was that young NRA spokesman. The era prior had been about eliminating the right to even own a handgun; now the debate would be transformed into the lawful ability to carry one. The following year Florida passed the first modern "shall issue" statute mandating the issuance of a carry license if the applicant met certain basic standards. No longer could Palm Beach, Broward and Dade Counties Florida prevent their citizens from having the same self-defense rights as other Floridians.
Forty-two states in this country with 72% of the population are now "shall issue" states the inverse of 1984! New York is not one of them. Thirty years is too long to be "allowed" to enforce ones legal and unalienable human rights. It's time for Congress to enact an intelligent, well designed, National Carry Law so none of us has to fear being in the wrong place at the wrong time without the means to lawfully protect ourselves as Bernie Goetz discovered thirty years ago today.