Goetz: The public has to carry guns in New York

Bernhard Goetz
Bernhard Goetz (courtesy Time Magazine)

Garrett Graff: A couple of days before Christmas in New York City in 1984, 37-year-old Bernhard Goetz was going to meet friends for a drink. He got on the subway and entered a sparsely crowded car on the number two train. After a while, Goetz noticed a group of teenagers looking in his direction. There were two on his left and two on his right. The boys were headed to an arcade, but they didn’t have any money. So one of them, smiling, asked Goetz for five dollars… 

[Bernhard Goetz: I said, “I’ll give you $5.” / I just started firing. / I wanted to kill those guys. I wanted to maim those guys. I wanted to make them suffer in every way I could.]

Garrett Graff: Goetz shot each teenager one at a time with a .38 caliber gun. Then he said he stood over one boy and shot him again in the back, for good measure. 

[Bernhard Goetz: I went to him a second time and I said, “You seem to be doing all right. Here’s another.”]

Garrett Graff: Goetz then fled into the subway tunnels. He would not be seen by police for days. 

[Clip from Eyewitness News: The shooting of four would-be robbers on a #2 subway train Saturday has increased police presence in the subways and a search for a vigilante is underway.] 

Garrett Graff: The boys all survived, but Darrell Cabey, who was shot in the spine, would be permanently paralyzed. While the injured teens recovered in the hospital, their past criminal records were exposed in the news. The media’s verdict quickly was clear: the boys, all of whom were Black, had posed a threat. Meanwhile, police handed out fliers featuring a sketch of the alleged shooter: a slender, blonde, white man with large wire-rimmed glasses. They also set up a tip line. But to their surprise, instead of leads they received hundreds of calls from supporters of the unknown suspect. Fellow New Yorkers who could relate to being victimized on the city streets and on the subway…

[Clip via Eyewitness News: If he was being robbed. Hey. He had to do what he had to do. Self-defense. Simple as that. / If it was self-defense I think he did the right thing. It’s about time someone stood up for himself. / If that’s the case, I think they should let the man — try him — and let him go free.]

Garrett Graff: The story gripped the city and eventually the nation. The media gave Goetz nicknames like “the Subway Vigilante” and compared him to Charles Bronson in the 1974 movie Death Wish in which Bronson’s character shoots muggers on the subway. Days later, on New Year’s Eve, Goetz turned himself in to police in New Hampshire. In a taped confession, he showed no sign of remorse. He painstakingly went through every detail about the shooting he could remember and tried to explain his actions:

[Bernhard Goetz: I was a monster. I don’t deny it. But I wasn’t a monster until several years ago in New York.]

Garrett Graff: Goetz told police he’d been mugged and beaten a few years earlier. After the attack, he applied for a permit to carry a firearm in New York and was denied. The rejection was infuriating because he felt he’d shown sufficient need for protection. (He often carried expensive equipment and large sums of cash with him for his work repairing electronics). And so he went and bought a gun anyway, and he started to carry it daily, without a license. On the recording, Goetz looks and sounds exasperated as he tries to explain himself… 

[Bernhard Goetz: And you cannot understand it because how can people like you be familiar with violence?]

Garrett Graff: It was important to Goetz to be brutally honest… even if it made him look like a cold-blooded killer. He would likely be judged by a jury of fellow New Yorkers… Average people who rode the subways every day like him… And who might understand why he had feared for his life and preemptively acted in self-defense:

[Bernhard Goetz: The city tells these people the rules are you can not carry a gun, and you cannot kill a person, but you can do anything else. And you terrorize the public. The public has to carry guns in New York.]

— Team Trace in How the NRA Forged Its Scorched-Earth Strategy

One Response

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *