If Matthew Shepard had a gun, he would be alive today.
As a new and very sad MTV teledrama reminds us, the 21-year-old University of Wyoming student was pistol-whipped, tied to a rural fence and left to die on October 7, 1998. Anatomy of a Hate Crime depicts Shepard as an amiable scholar and his murderers as local delinquents who killed him in a robbery aggravated by scorn for Shepard’s homosexuality.
A half-hour talk show that follows the TV movie presents numerous arguments for hate-crimes legislation. But neither the film nor the discussion even hints at the obvious: If Shepard were armed, he could have warded off his assailants. Instead, he nearly froze in an open field and died five days later of his injuries and exposure.
Thankfully, there is no MTV telepic mourning a gay man named Tom. As the National Journal’s Jonathan Rauch reported, Tom (who withheld his surname) and a male friend were walking through a dodgy part of San Jose, California when a gang of 20 thugs began taunting them.
“Hey, you f***ing faggots!” one of them yelled. “When we’re done with you, they’ll never find your bodies.” Tom and his pal ran for their lives, with the hoodlums in hot pursuit. Tom dug into his backpack and yanked out a semi-automatic handgun. He stood beneath a streetlight brandishing his weapon. His tormentors quickly retreated.
“There’s no question in my mind,” Tom believes, “that my friend and I would have been at least very seriously beaten, and maybe killed.”
Of course, gays are not the only Americans who would benefit from being armed. James Byrd, the black man fatally dragged by three truck-driving white supremacists, still might walk the streets of Jasper, Texas, had he carried a gun in June 1998. Had Yankel Rosenbaum packed a pistol in August 1991, the rabbinical student might have neutralized a mob of black thugs that yelled “Kill the Jew” and “Heil Hitler” before Lemrick Nelson stepped forward and fatally stabbed him in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights district. Personal firearms likewise might have saved one or more of Hillside Strangler Angelo Buono’s nine female victims or any of the 36 women who serial killer Ted Bundy is suspected of having murdered.
“The largest and fastest-growing group of purchasers of small handguns, cheap handguns, are single women, most of them minorities,” National Rifle Association President Charlton Heston told me January 15, shortly after he received a lifetime achievement award from Manhattan’s Congress of Racial Equality. Heston spoke of women who return home to rough neighborhoods after working late hours. “Of course they want a gun in their purse when they get off the bus at 4:00 o’clock in the morning.”
John R. Lott Jr., Yale Law School researcher and author of More Guns, Less Crime, argues that if every state had a right-to-carry law, armed potential victims could have prevented 1,500 murders and 4,000 rapes between 1992 and 1998. Merely displaying guns deters some 1.96 million violent crimes annually, Lott estimates.
Nonetheless, fashionable politicians and pundits prefer to fight lethal bigotry with hate-crimes laws. Although attractive on their surface, such measures create their own problems.
First, “hate crime” is a truism. What exactly is a love crime?
Second, suppose a racist spots a mixed couple and yells, “Die, nigger!” before severely assaulting a black husband and his white wife. Imagine further that the accused is convicted and receives 20 years in jail for his attempted murder of a man of color while only getting 15 years for nearly slaying his bride. Now pretend you’re the trial judge. Try to tell the woman’s enraged relatives why she nearly was killed at a discount.
Third, and most worrisome, hate-crimes laws are an unreliable deterrent against anyone so consumed with venom as to attack another for his sexuality, race, religion, or sex. If such statutes magically shielded at-risk minorities from violence, they would be worthwhile. Alas, they are no defense at all.
Far more promising is the adoption of state-level right-to-carry rules that would permit sane, law-abiding citizens to keep and bear handguns. Such a practical application of the Second Amendment would help racial, sexual and religious minorities — and even straight, white, Christian males — to protect themselves from those who would turn bias into bloodshed. In this sense, Matthew Shepard, James Byrd, and Yankel Rosenbaum sadly demonstrate something too often true. People don’t save people. Guns save people.