Living with murder

Following the Sandy Hook shooting, our Sunday Comics author remembers how his family were the victims of random gun violence and calls for the guns, the NRA lobbyists and the politicans who listen to them to go

I recently did my own admittedly lopsided examination of the American gun fetish in these pages.  The general availability of devices specifically engineered for murder distresses me greatly, but the Connecticut shootings bring back even more personal demons for me.  

On 23 April 2007, here in openDemocracy, I wrote about my own family’s first brush with this sort of random murder in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech killings.  It happened in 1966.  Just the basics of it are worth retelling:

"M.J. and Mary Gabour, their two sons, and William and Marguerite Lamport were headed up the steps from the 27th floor. They found the door barricaded by a desk.  Mark and Mike Gabour pushed the desk away and leaned in the door to see what was going on.  Suddenly Charlie rushed at them, spraying them with pellets from his sawed-off shotgun.  Mark died instantly.  Charlie fired down the stairway at least three more times. Marguerite Lamport was killed; Mary Gabour was critically wounded, as was her son Mike. They would lay where they fell for more than an hour."

--Marlee MacLeod, Charles Whitman: The Texas Tower Sniper   
 (account of University of Texas tower massacre, 1 August 1966)


I remember when the word came in. I was home from school for the summer, doing full-time manual labor at my family's small weekly newspaper in central Louisiana.  The white concrete was hot that day on Boeuf Trace, "Cattle Trail" in Cajun French, which was the name of our recently-paved street, running for a mile along palmetto-filled pastures.  We were home for an afternoon meal when the heavy old black telephone receiver began ringing metallically in the kitchen.  Maybe I sensed something, knew it wasn't one of my buds, because I did not rush the phone as usual.

My father took the call.  He was standing at first. I watched the pale, disbelieving look grow on his face as he slowly and carefully sat on the kitchen stool, the phone poised a few inches from his ear, stopping to stare at it every few seconds like it was something horrible, something foul.

He listened to the voice, grew paler. Held to the windowsill like he was dizzy. I stood a few feet away and watched silently. Not wanting to intrude. Something was happening here, something was being told to my father. Something bad.

I do not remember who was on the phone, who called us first. But the voice told my father that his sister Marguerite Gabour Lamport and his brother's son Mark Gabour were dead. His sister-in-law Mary Francis and our cousin Mike were critically wounded. His brother M.J. was tending them, but it was not known if they would survive.

Mike, a cadet at the United States Air Force Academy, lived but his legs had been weakened forever from the shotgun blasts.  His mother would be paralyzed from the neck down for the rest of her life.

They had been on a tour of the University of Texas bell tower.  Where my two vacationing young brothers had also been, exactly one week before, taken there by the same Lamports, who were all the family's favorite couple.

Only a few days later the cover of Time magazine held a heart-wrenching picture of our Uncle Bill walking in a trance alongside a stretcher that held Aunt Margie, her body covered by a bloody sheet.  Uncle Bill, himself spattered with his wife's blood, was still holding his wife's hand as the attendants carried her to the waiting hearse. I cried when I saw it. We all did.

Forty-six years ago our family was changed forever by a lunatic with many guns at his disposal.

We seldom speak of it these days.

We never speak of it.

And I must apologize to my father and to my extended family if they see this article and think I should not have brought it up again. But this connection needs to be remembered once more as part of the progression toward the removal of weapons from society.

Because the mass murder story got even deeper for us six years later.

Because New Orleans was the scene of a dual-event massacre exactly forty years ago.  On New Year's Eve 1972, Mark Essex, the “Howard Johnson sniper”, began randomly murdering police officers in a reign of terror that ended in a single afternoon a week later, on 7 January 1973.  Essex was gunned down on the 18th floor roof of the Howard Johnson hotel, while he tried to pick off strangers on the streets below.   As sharpshooters finally cornered him and a helicopter circled, he put up a last stand in a concrete bunker, but died in a literal hail of bullets.  When found, his body was reported to have some 200 gunshot wounds.

I bring this up not as a mark of my own City’s lost innocence, but because my cousin Mike, who had been shot in the Texas Tower, lost his brother, had his mother paralyzed and his own career as a pilot ended, was staying in the same Howard Johnson Hotel that day, visiting the States for the first time since he was finally released from medical care, a year after the first shooting.  

He had been living in Amsterdam for almost five years, finding a new life for himself, selling motorcycles and tours of Europe to visitors.  He had shipped a bike back to the States so that he could drive around to visit his remaining family, and me, for the turn of the New Year 1972-3.  And by horrific coincidence he had been in New Orleans as Mark Essex, another madman, began again raining death on innocent people from above.  

Mike was not wounded physically in New Orleans.  He now lives a happy and fulfilling life in Australia.  He is a good man, undoubtedly better and stronger than me.  I admire him greatly.

* * *

And so, here we are again.  After Columbine and Colorado, after the mosque and the mall.  The horror has now been brought to a screaming peak by the slaughter of some twenty innocent lambs.  Even the Washington DC lobbyist pack of NRA gun-jackals is trying desperately to distance itself from its own policies, its own adamant stand that mortality is caused by trigger-pullers rather than triggers.  They are hoping that by the time of a press conference scheduled for the end of this week they can come up with suitable political metaphors that will remove the children’s blood from their hands.

The bad guys are temporarily in disarray.  And in hiding.  NBC’s weekly “Meet the Press” program invited all 31 pro-gun US Senators to come on this past Sunday’s show and defend their stand.  There were no takers.

Barrack Obama, now no longer worried about re-election, stood at the children’s memorial and finally, finally indicated to this nation that he intends to do something to curb the bloodshed.  

His emotional call for morality will not come into play with the National Rifle Association.

But money will.  

The retail giant Dick’s Sporting Goods has announced that it is dropping military-style weapons from its inventory nationwide, though Wal-Mart says it will hold fast to what it now sells.  Assault rifles and heart-covered polyester panties.  

After the California teacher’s investment group threatened the withdrawal of a $500 million fund, the ever-heartfelt Cerberus Capital Management sent out a press release that it is liquidating its stake in the Freedom Group, which controls Remington, Bushmaster (the weapon of choice in the Connecticut slayings) and many other arms manufacturers.  

And on THU 19 DEC the Associated Press reported that: “Shares in publicly traded gun makers were dropping for a third straight day... down more than ten percent since Thursday.  Shares of the Smith & Wesson Holding Company... are down 19.3 percent from their Thursday close.”

Time to bring ‘em down, even it is only by their economic coat tails.

* * *

All this said, guns are not foreign to me.  My father had two shotguns in his closet.  The 12-gauge was his and the .410 bolt-action was for the three sons to use hunting.  For food.  Dad also had an ancient Walther PPK pistol, a souvenir he brought back from WWII.  He still has all three in a closet somewhere, untouched for over four decades.

I myself am also guilty of association with weapons.  I took my hunting experience, and as a semi-conscientious and unwilling draftee, I became the highest-scoring company target practice sharpshooter in my company when finally assigned to be a clerk in the 2nd and then the 7th Infantry Divisions of the US Army.  Besides basic M-16 use, the Army trained me to shoot a massive 50-caliber machine gun and to throw fragmentary grenades.  Lots of ack-ack and boom, exciting even for an elderly 23-year-old.  Veteran sergeants instructed me on the launching of small shoulder-fired rockets by test shots into a junkyard range full of VW vans.  As a side note, the Volkswagen I eventually blew up during that instruction closely reminded me of a particular van I myself had owned, a vehicle that had tortured me for two years with its cranky transmission.   I admit that it was a conscious pleasure to get mechanical revenge for the many busted knuckles I had received in its repair.  

But luckily I have never been faced with the necessity of aiming a weapon at another human being, much less shooting them.

After that day in Texas forty-six years ago, my family thought the carnage was over.  Such an event would never happen again.  There was one bit of bad seed and that was it.  We never even thought of the gun connection as we dealt with the pain, the depression, the recurring nightmares.  We were naive.

Now, having so long ago touched the fringe of mortality, of having only barely breathed the bloody air from afar, it is suddenly all real for me again.  Watching children like my young cousin Mark, and the well-meaning good people protecting them, die horribly brings it all back like it was just yesterday.  Sensing rich futures spinning from lifeless bodies into a void that cannot be filled makes my gut wrench.

Guns did this.  Again.  An aberrant human used them, indeed, but guns killed all these people.  A half-century of misuse is enough to prove that case to even the most arcanely-principled Republican.

And now it is time they go.  The guns.  The politicans.
About the author

Jim Gabour is a film producer, writer and director, whose work focuses primarily on music and the diversity of cultures. His New Orleans novel Unimportant People is available via Kindle.