Drop the gun, and nobody gets hurt

Dan Rodricks
Baltimore Sun (TNS)

Roman Welzant, who claimed to have been tormented for years by neighborhood teenagers, shot two of them one winter night in 1980 as they threw snowballs at his house in Eastwood, just over the city line in Baltimore County. Welzant, who was 68 at the time, killed one of the teens and seriously wounded the other.

Six months later, a jury in Towson felt sorry for Welzant and found him not guilty of second-degree murder. But 18-year-old Albert Kahl was dead over snowballs, and his mother cried out in the courtroom: “You all have Albert’s blood on your hands. Mr. Welzant, you’re a killer.”

Having attended the trial, I said then and say now: Remove the gun from the scenario, no one would have died and Welzant would not have had blood on his hands. There should have been a penalty for juveniles harassing an elder, but the penalty should not have been an extrajudicial killing.

MORE:Too quick to pull the trigger? America's culture of fear

MORE:Red Lion to ride to remember Kain Heiland, other deaths

Melissa Ladd, chapter leader with Maryland Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, gets a hug from Maryland Gov. Wes Moore, Jan. 31 2023, in Annapolis. (Paul W. Gillespie/Capital Gazette/The Baltimore Sun/TNS)

A decade later, in a similar case, Nathaniel Hurt went on trial in Baltimore for fatally shooting a 13-year-old boy.

Hurt was a retired steelworker who lived on North Avenue and, like Welzant, frequently complained about kids making mischief. His defense attorney, one of Baltimore’s better known “TV lawyers,” claimed Hurt had been “terrorized” by teens.

A city jury rejected self-defense claims and found Hurt guilty of involuntary manslaughter in the death of Vernon Lee Holmes Jr. Testimony showed that the boy had been struck by a bullet that Hurt fired from his .357 Magnum to scare away kids who, he claimed, had vandalized his car. Hurt shot at the kids from a second-story fire escape. He spent 13 months in prison.

It’s always the gun. In all cases of Americans taking the law into their own hands — or impulsively reacting to some perceived threat — the gun is the common denominator in the tragedy that results.

Take the gun away, and no one gets hurt, no one dies.

There are three current cases — in Kansas, New York and Texas — where young people were shot, one of them fatally, by men with guns who apparently felt threatened or aggrieved. No crimes were being committed by the victims; the only thing they did wrong was get a little mixed up about where they were or where they were going.

In the Kansas case, 16-year-old Ralph Yarl showed up at the wrong address and the 84-year-old homeowner shot him at the front door; the man with the gun has been charged with first-degree assault. In rural New York, 20-year-old Kaylin Gillis died when a homeowner fired at a car turning around in his driveway. And in Texas, a 25-year-old guy shot and wounded two cheerleaders in a parking lot after one of them tried to get into his car thinking it was her own.

You can say, as many have while Ralph Yarl, who is Black, recovers from being shot, that some of these shootings are about race, and I have no doubt about that. The most acute fear for many white Americans is a racial fear, and racial fear fires up the perception of threat.

But race is not the only factor. The “stand your ground” laws in 30 states have emboldened people to deploy a gun to keep strangers off their lawns and driveways. The conservative Supreme Court has put more guns in more hands, sending a clear message that Americans have a constitutional right to arm themselves, even if they have no interest in being part of “a well regulated Militia … necessary to the security of a free State,” as the Second Amendment stipulates.

There are an estimated 400 million guns in civilian hands across the country, and with them comes the highest rate of gun deaths — from homicides, suicides and accidents — among any comparable, high-income nation.

And it’s not like all those guns are locked away in vaults. The Supreme Court has guaranteed that just about anyone who legally owns a handgun can carry one out of the house; they no longer need, as they once did in Maryland, to prove to the State Police that they have a good reason to carry it with them.

As I reported in this space last week, one consequence will be thousands more people carrying handguns in Maryland. Logic says that’s bound to cause more pain, and data backs it up. Analysis by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and a study by the RAND Corp. show that states with the most guns and the most liberal gun laws have the most gun deaths.

The National Safety Council now places the likelihood of death by gun ahead of death by motor vehicle. Gunfire is now the leading cause of death among children 18 or younger. Studies of FBI data have shown that guns are far more likely to be used in homicides and suicides than in self-defense.

Despite this knowledge, we live with the threat of mass shootings and the risk that someone somewhere is going to take offense at something, or perceive a threat, and start firing.

None of this changes unless more people get rid of their guns, unless more Americans decide, based on logic and facts, that owning a gun is not worth the risk its presence automatically creates. That’s not something you can legislate or settle in court. It only happens when more Americans, one by one, decide to go the other way — away from all this madness.