Gun Control

Vigilantes or ‘Good Guy with a Gun’ Folk Heroes?

“You don’t look too bad, here’s another”

Bernhard Goetz

In 1981, teenagers attacked and injured Bernhard Goetz on a New York subway station. Afterward, Goetz applied for a gun permit.

On December 22, 1984, Goetz, a 37-year-old white male, carrying an unlicensed .38 caliber revolver, boarded a Manhattan train. Four black teenagers, Troy Canty, Barry Allen, Darrell Cabey, and James Ramseur, approached Goetz asking for five dollars. Goetz refused, and Canty said, “Give me your money.” Assuming that he would be victim to another mugging, Goetz said, “You all can have it.” Goetz stood up and fired his pistol, wounding the three unarmed teenagers. Goetz confronted the fourth uninjured teenager, 18-year-old Darrell Cabey, and said, “You don’t look too bad; here’s another.” Goetz shot Cabey in the back, severing his spinal cord, paralyzing him, and causing permanent brain damage. Goetz fled the scene when the train reached the next stop and left New York for Concord, New Hampshire.

Eight days after the shooting, Goetz surrendered to police. Bernhard Goetz became known as the ‘Subway Vigilante’ in the press. He became a folk hero to some New Yorkers fed up with street crime and believed that the shootings were justified. The media reported that entertainer Joan Rivers sent Goetz a telegram offering to pay his bail. The telegram was signed “love and kisses.”

At his 1987 trial, Goetz’s defense team argued that the teens were attempting to rob him and that Goetz acted in self-defense. Prosecutors said that the four teens were only panhandling. After an eight-week trial that made national news headlines, Goetz was found not guilty of attempted murder and assault charges by the predominantly white Manhattan jury. He was found guilty of possessing an illegal firearm and sentenced to eight and a half months in jail. In 1996, a Bronx civil jury awarded Cabey $43 million in damages. Goetz declared bankruptcy. Over the years, Goetz has commented on his own and other controversial shootings. After his trial, Goetz publicly called for civilians to arm themselves against street criminals. Goetz also told a reporter that Cabey’s mother should have aborted him.

Referring to the trial of George Zimmerman, a neighborhood-watch captain in a gated community in Sanford, Florida, who claimed self-defense after killing Trayvon Martin, a teenager who had no criminal record or history of violent behavior, Goetz said,

“I’m surprised the same thing is happening 30 years later. It’s a different place, but the prosecution is the same.”

Bernhard Goetz

Like Goetz, Zimmerman criticized the parents of his victim. “They didn’t raise their son right. He attacked a complete stranger and attempted to kill him.” Zimmerman also has his admirers. So many admirers that Zimmerman created a website that included a PayPal link for those followers who wanted to support Zimmerman financially.

Commenting on the Kyle Rittenhouse shootings, Goetz said, “Someone has already hit you with a skateboard, and Someone else is pointing a gun at you, and they are shouting that they are going to kill you. You also have a gun; wouldn’t you start pointing your gun at them?” Just as fellow entertainer Joan Rivers offered financial support to Goetz, actor Ricky Schroder offered to help post bail for Rittenhouse. “He wasn’t there to stop the protests,” Schroder said. “He was there to defend property from chaos.” Right wing commentator Dinesh D’Souza said to Newsweek,

“Think about the male population of Kenosha, where were they? Cowering in their homes while all these people were burning things and setting things on fire and attacking people. So Kyle Rittenhouse was one of the few guys who had the guts to get out there when no one else did.”

Dinesh D’Souza

The Goetz case continues to echo today.

On February 23 of 2020, 25-year-old Ahmad Arbery was shot and killed by Travis McMichael while Arbery was jogging in Brunswick, Georgia. Local authorities asserted that McMichaels had acted in self-defense until a cell phone video of the killing was made public. Like Goetz, Zimmerman, and Rittenhouse, the McMichaels had supporters. A Facebook group called ‘Christians Against Google’ changed their page name to ‘Justice for Gregory and Travis Michael.” Civil Rights activist Reverend Al Sharpton recalled,

“One of the cases that I fought in New York in ’84, I believe, was the Bernhard Goetz case where a man became a hero for shooting four black kids on the subway for asking him for $5. So this whole celebration of, “We’ll take the law in our hand,” when it is a black suspect is throughout American history. And here we have it again in Brunswick, Georgia.”

Al Sharpton

For most, Goetz, Zimmerman, Rittenhouse, and McMichael are vigilantes, but to others, they are “good guy with a gun” folk heroes.


Thanks and a tip of the hat to for the image.
Photo via Good Free Photos

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