Rockford made the national news again in late May, when the wire services ran shocking headlines about a pregnant shoplifter gunned down by police at a local Wal-Mart. Talk radio buzzed with angry debates between those who congratulated the police on a job well done and those who couldn’t understand how officers could possibly shoot (much less kill) a pregnant woman, even one who had drawn a gun on them. Once an autopsy showed that Laura Gassaway was not pregnant, however, the pro-life interest in the case apparently dissipated. Still, questions remained, not the least of which was why the two veteran cops who fired 23 shots at Gassaway from as close as four feet only managed to hit her 11 times, while the 33-year-old woman wounded three Wal-Mart employees with only four shots—while under fire, no less.
Noticeably absent from both local and national coverage of the Wal-Mart shootout were the calls for more extensive gun-control laws that follow every school shooting. That’s because Illinois has fairly strict gun laws; since 1968, anyone purchasing a gun or ammunition has been required to show a Firearm Owner’s Identification (FOID) card. As with all such legislation, the FOID Card Act is represented as protecting law-abiding citizens (“It is hereby declared as a matter of legislative determination that in order to promote and protect the health, safety and welfare of the public . . . “) and restricting the rights of felons:
it is necessary … to provide a system of identifying persons who are not qualified to acquire or possess firearms and firearm ammunition within the State of Illinois. . . , thereby establishing a practical and workable system by which law enforcement authorities will be afforded an opportunity to identify those persons who are prohibited . . . from acquiring or possessing firearms and firearm ammunition.
Of course, those who are “not qualified” to own guns or ammo (because of conviction of a felony, addiction to narcotics, institutionalization for mental problems, mental retardation, illegal-alien status, or conviction of battery, assault, or violation of an order of protection) aren’t required to carry a card or be registered in a central database; only those who are qualified are. Laura Gassaway was once issued a FOID card, which was revoked in 1991 for reasons that state authorities won’t divulge. The gun that Gassaway used had been purchased legally while its owner was living in Texas. The owner’s ex-boyfriend stole it and sold it to Gassaway; charged with unlawful use of a weapon by a felon and unlawful sale or transfer of a firearm, he was released on $3,500 bond. (Notably, he wasn’t charged with theft.) Unfortunately, once the BATF traced the gun back to her, the owner was charged by police because she hadn’t applied for a FOID card when she moved to Rockford. She was released on $1,000 bond, which seems remarkably high until we remember that, in the eyes of the state, the real problem isn’t the theft of guns or their illegal use, but the simple fact of gun ownership by civilians. (The FOID Act makes exceptions for U.S. marshals, members of the Armed Forces and National Guard, federal employees required to carry guns as part of their duties, and law-enforcement officers “of this or any other jurisdiction . . . “)
Laura Gassaway appears to have been an unsavory character; she had a record of assault and battery going back at least seven years. But a case could be made that Illinois’ gun-control laws contributed to the shootout at Wal-Mart. Growing up in Michigan, I often visited the sporting-goods aisle (right next to the toy section) at Meijer’s, where boxes of ammo sat on open shelves next to a locked ease containing shotguns and .22 caliber rifles. On a trip home over Memorial Day, I noted that the ammo still sits on an open shelf, though the locked case has been moved behind a counter at the end of the aisle. You don’t need a FOID card to buy ammo in Michigan; the event that led to the shootout—Wal-Mart employees refusing to sell ammunition to Gassaway—would not have happened.
But if Gassaway had been able to buy bullets, wouldn’t a greater tragedy have occurred? Perhaps —and perhaps not. The Wal-Mart shooting ma} simply have been (as local environmental consultant Luther Landon described it) “suicide by police.” We’ll never know. What we do know is that, on at least six occasions since 1994, Laura Gassaway could have been placed in prison, and the shootout could thus have been avoided. Four of those times, she received probation, and twice —in November 2000, when she was up on aggravated battery charges, and in July l994, when she was charged with petty theft and illegal possession of a firearm—the cases were dismissed. If the representatives of the state really wished “to promote and protect the health, safety and welfare of the public” —or even just to protect Laura Gassaway from herself —they had plenty of opportunity to do it before she wounded three Wal-Mart employees and took 11 slugs. Requiring law-abiding citizens to hold a FOID card didn’t prevent this tragedy; vigorously enforcing criminal laws might have.
I don’t often praise Wal-Mart—in fact, I’ve never done so before—but for years, the chain has courageously resisted pressure to stop selling shotguns, hunting rifles, and ammo. In the wake of the Gassaway shooting, however, Wal-Mart’s manager of community affairs for the Upper Midwest, John Bisio, seems to have succumbed to a fatalistic view of the relationship between guns and free will. As he told the Rockford Register Star, “‘[W]e did our job . . . She didn’t leave our store. She didn’t leave our store with ammunition. We did the right thing. I can’t emphasize that enough, when you think about what very well could have happened had this not been contained.'” “That’s right,” my wife remarked. “She might have shot three people.”
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