Hot Lead And Legislation
by Stoífan Faol
He moved along, crouched, dragging one foot with a shuffling sound. His great coat, given to him who knew how many years ago (he didn't) was a color you could not detect with a blackened hem reaching almost halfway up, and ventilated with random holes from wear and tear. It gave him the aspect of a walking tent with arms. His wild graying hair and beard made him appear to belong outside in the cold, and his odor was not to be underestimated. He wore baggy high-waters and brogans with heels worn almost flat on sock-less feet. Underneath the coat was a rugged Army surplus sweater that was still holding up, and a side-by-side 12-gauge shotgun. He had the gun secured with some cotton cord looped over his shoulder and tied to its stock. For his neighborhood of cardboard boxes and 4 mil plastic awnings he was among the better attired. A long time ago when he had a life like everybody else people used to call him Rolly. He didn't remember why, but when asked that's the name he gave; Rolly. Oh yeah, he got the gun from the state. A newly-elected state representative hammered through the legislature a law arming homeless people so they could defend themselves from violent criminals victimizing the homeless population, of which (of course) Rolly was a member. He'd sold his first two for money to buy liquor, but the government man got wise to this and said this gun was the last and if he expected to defend himself against violent offenders, Rolly'd best have it on him next time he came around to check. He never saw the guy since, but he wasn't taking any chances.
Rolly was on his way to a small park where in the mornings like today the sun shone down in a spot with benches and some grass. If he went there at night, the police would run him off. Now it was daylight he, and a bunch of other people he knew made their ways there to thaw out, and warm up their blood so to speak. They'd greet each other and get a sense they belonged somewhere. Sure enough, everyone was gathered there sitting on or around the bench out in the open on a spot of bright sunlight coming in between rows and rows of very tall buildings. It was somewhat miraculous any sunlight came through at all. Everyone there had their shotguns with them as well. They were the quintessential ragtag army. They all had sold their first couple of guns, too. They all had taken to carrying the one they finally kept just like Rolly did. These got heavy over the course of the day, so having them slung somehow was the only solution to that. They also made it difficult to get comfortable on a park bench, or sitting on the ground. Even the ladies carried them. Marge just poked hers into the shopping cart she pushed around in front of her all day, the double-barrel poking up like an impossible flagpole with no flag. She didn't really know how to use it. If any violent offenders came close to her she'd just try to run them over with her shopping cart. Once a guy tried to steal the gun from her, but she shoved her cart into his leg forcing him to back away, and she shoved it again. He backed away again. She looked at him like all she was going to do was keep on shoving, so he gave up. There she was trying to park her cart, the others yelling at her for making a shadow on the spot of sunlight. Old Eddy finally got up and helped her with it. She meant no harm.
Rolly came up and found him a spot in the sunlight. Nobody was saying much. They never did. There wasn't much to say anyway. Everyone sat with their faces pointed up to the sun their eyes squinted shut. Across the street was Gafas. He got his name for always wearing sunglasses. He liked it so he didn't smack anyone for calling him that. With him were five cacos. Gafas had long been aware of the morning gathering of the homeless community here. He had only recently been made aware of the fact they were now carrying government-issued shotguns. He resolved a few days before, in order to meet a shortfall in folding money, to descend upon these abombaos and take their guns. The day before he'd arranged for a buyer he could take the guns to immediately, so they wouldn't be caught carrying them around. With dew rags covering their faces they'd never be identified. Even if they were brought in, they'd just claim the cops were dumb for listening to obviously crazy people. The idea wasn't to jump on them there in the little park, though. No. When they all got up to leave, after the spot of sunlight vanished into the creeping shadows of nearby buildings, they'd walk like a homeless parade to the same alley that led them back to their cardboard neighborhood. In that narrow space the ones who even tried to pull a shotgun on them would have trouble with the long barrels and how close-up they'd be. They were smoking cigarettes and waiting on the corner, trying not to seem obvious.
As it happened every day the little spot of sunlight got smaller and smaller until it vanished completely. Reluctantly, and rather slowly, the group gathered themselves, rose, stretched, and set out in their homeless parade toward the customary alley on the way back. Gafas and his crew held back behind some cars until they were all completely in the alley, then they rushed up the block and turned into it taking the parade completely by surprise. Once a shotgun was wrested away from the hindmost person, one of Gafas's crew figured he'd hold it on the rest, make them hold up their hands, and his buddies could just go person to person and take the guns. But, Marge was having none of this, she wheeled her cart around and drove it straight at him. She was off to his side just a bit and he was looking the other way when she rammed him. The others in the back began raising a fuss. Rolly and Old Eddy heard it, turned around and saw the gang trying to hold the rest of them at bay, so they raised their guns. The guys just behind them saw what they were doing and pulled out their guns too as they turned around. Then they just let loose, some with both barrels at once, some one at a time. A loud, extended boom echoed up the alley in one direction and exploded out onto the street in the other. Old Eddy, who couldn't see too good anyway, figured he'd aim between the two guys in front of him and hit someone he could see there further on, but he didn't realize shotguns fire tiny pellets in a spread, and he caught the two fellows on the sides of their heads as the spray of pellets blasted out in front of them. He blew each of their ears plumb off, raking off the skin along their skulls. They flew along with the force of the blast which permanently stole their hearing in those ears.
Some of the homeless folks further back had turned and fired as well. One of them hit Marge as she tried to ram the guy with the gun one more time. That guy had fallen and fired off a charge as he fell hitting one of his own buddies. Two of the crew turned tail and ran. Gafas couldn't believe what he was seeing, and stood watching the whole thing till the last person fell, then he ran off. By the time it was over there were three of Gafas's crew, and four homeless people down. Each homeless person had two shells loaded and two in their pockets. Half of them managed to break down their guns and reload. They got their other two rounds off the results of which were uncertain at the time. It must've been no more than two minutes after the initial blast that the first cop cars rolled up to the alley entrance blocking it, blue lights blazing. They took cover on the far sides of their cars peering over the hoods trying to make out what was going on in the alley. That's where Rolly and Old Eddy found them when they walked back to the alley entrance. "It's over," Rolly told them. Old Eddy nodded assuringly. The cops had their service pistols out pointed at them. "Drop the guns," came their reply. "Why?" asked Rolly. "We're supposed to carry these." The cops were well aware of this and actually had no idea what they were supposed to do, seeing as how the guns had been used as intended by the powers that be. "We need to be sure of our own safety, if you wouldn't mind," one of the officers told him. "Well, alright then," Rolly said. He had to slip off one sleeve of his coat letting it dangle to remove the cotton cord loop from his shoulder. Then he laid his shotgun on the pavement. The cops looked at each other mildly shocked. Old Eddy did the same. Then the cops came around their cars and entered the alley on foot.
They could not believe what they saw. There lay seven people in their own individual pools of blood with a shopping cart standing in their midst, a shotgun barrel sticking up at its front like a flagless flagpole. The smell of burnt gunpowder filled the small alley. All the homeless that were down had a shotgun, but for this one large black lady. There were no guns found on the assailants, but for the one in the grasp of that one individual, which looked like the same model and type as the rest of the shotguns littering the pavement. There were five or six homeless guys standing around with shotguns under their arms gaping at the police wondering what they were going to do. What they were going to do the senior officer on scene decided only moments after entering what could only be called a friendly fire kill zone; pass it up to his supervisor. He went to his car, the lights still flashing, and called it in. "Sergeant, we have…." he paused to gather the right words somehow "…the scene of a recent gunfight. We have seven dead, and two wounded. Request an ambulance and pickup for the deceased with a shooting incident evidence team. We'll block off the area to preserve evidence." He then ordered one cop to put up the yellow crime scene ribbon at the alley's far end, ordered the remaining homeless guys out and to stand by his car, then ordered another cop to crime scene ribbon the entrance to the alley where they all stood. He had his on-scene cops, about four or five, begin canvassing the area for witnesses. Then, they waited, he being resolved to do nothing but not let wander off anyone there who either participated in the event, or at least saw it.
Rolly and Old Eddy along with their other homeless companions, now disarmed, stood by the cop car wordless. Of course, there wasn't much to say. After about a ten-minute wait an unmarked car with a blue light on its dash pulled up and out stepped four serious looking men. One had a very ornate cop uniform on, the other three wore dark suits. Behind them rolled up three ambulances with lights flashing but no sirens. Behind them was a police van, presumably with the crime scene investigation team. The man in the ornate uniform, a high-ranking police officer by the looks of him, noticed no one was cuffed. He found the senior officer on scene and pulled him aside for a hushed chat. That cop came back to Rolly and Old Eddy, and the rest of the homeless community gathered there, and divided them up to fit in the three police cars that were there. All the loose shotguns were loaded into the trunk of one car. This caravan, with the homeless unarrested and uncuffed, drove back to the police precinct house. The homeless were treated to a free shower in the basement. Their clothes were hosed down. They were issued blankets until they dried, and two police officers dressed for office work came down carrying two cardboard racks of coffee in styrofoam cups which they passed around to the grateful homeless guys there. The only women folk that had been with them were dead on the street, as they tended to bunch up together at the rear of the parade, and so met with the most furious part of the battle. The homeless men were sad about this and began to talk among themselves about losing their friends this way. Some of them had actually accidentally, or incidentally, shot the poor ladies. The authorities would figure out which it was, they were certain.
Meanwhile, up at City Hall, the mayor's office was in an uproar. Over the course of the hour which followed the incident, it had filled up with city councilmen, the city attorney, the district attorney, the police chief, the deputy mayor and the press secretary (of course). The mayor was on the phone to the governor's office, trying to listen and waving his hand for the room to quieten down at the same time. In the hallway outside the mayor's office's anteroom press were beginning to gather, each one hoping to be the first one there to get a story before the press procedure commenced. They were all too late, but were determined to stay put until told to move to the press briefing room. Photos of the harried mayor, or city fathers, with the mayor's office door in the background, made good front page. Pictures of the press secretary at his podium behind a line of local TV microphones did not. "Whose fault was this?" was quickly on its way to becoming the state motto. There was a whole line of people from top to bottom who needed to prepare a public statement right now, with no information from which to prepare one. The entire chain of command awaited the findings of the people in the van. Interviews would be conducted at the precinct house, but all these had to be corroborated by the physical evidence, or else corrections to initial statements would have to be ginned-up accompanied by an increasing aura of disorientation; something no one wanted pinned on them.
There's not much in the way of ballistics with shotgun blasts. There's a lot of physical evidence, but no real matching slugs with guns, or plotting trajectories. There's a lot of "it looks like". It was pretty clear pretty fast after taking the on-scene evidence and matching it up to the homeless guy interviews. Petty criminals had decided to steal the homeless folks' shotguns. The homeless folks responded by using the shotguns on them. The blow-by-blow had to be worked out. Traces of powder on the guy's hand who stole the shotgun and pointed it, only to be run over by Marge's shopping cart, would be discovered at the postmortem examination. Since the guys in front didn't see what started it all, and the ones who did were all dead, the story would have to be pieced together, but it would pose no real mystery. Anyway, that didn't matter to the politicians. All they cared about was; will the facts provide any wiggle room, or in the case of the opposition something condemnatory beyond question? Television news was already tracking down the guy whose idea it was initially to arm the homeless to protect themselves. As in all inner-city violence situations advocacy groups were warming up their engines should their terrain be implicated in any way. When the news finally went out on the wire, even the National Organization For Firearms (NOFF) called in their press secretary to work out possible responses should the need arise. No one was going to let this one get past them. There was too much at stake.
The governor and the mayor both agreed the most prudent thing to do was to land this whole thing into someone else's lap and let him (or her) answer questions about it. A judge would be perfect. That state still practiced the unsavory habit of electing judges, however, so no judge would be eager to oblige them. An inquest might be the thing, but that could become political from the outset and only intensify as it progressed. Perhaps what charges would be brought could dictate a course of action, only there wasn't anyone charged with anything yet. The assailants were unidentified. If witnesses had seen whomever it was, swift justice might serve to slake the thirst of the inquirers. For now, a holding pattern was in order. The wait for the investigation to tell us what happened approach would be employed. Both men briefed their press secretaries. Statements were drawn up. The press was notified of the time. They knew the place. Meanwhile, the officers canvasing the neighborhood came up empty-handed. Sure, plenty of people had seen Gafas and his crew assembled out there like a pack of wolves eying a herd of sheep. But, nobody trusted city government, and in that neighborhood nobody trusted the cops. It was more certain that Gafas would show up at their door with a gun than wind up in jail for a long time. Even if there was a sincere attempt to convict
him, he'd still be out and about until that time. No one wanted to be the witness that disappeared. Gafas, on the other hand, was more than a little scared at how it all worked out. He thought it was such a disaster the authorities would be moving heaven and earth trying to find him. He couldn't be more wrong.
An officer with the city's gang task force saw the reports on TV, which included the deaths of three suspected gang members. That evening and the next day he took a look around to see which gang was missing three people all of a sudden. Though Gafas wasn't officially in a gang, he was on this cop's radar who had taken the time to familiarize himself with Gafas and his cronies. There weren't that many, so losing three of them would be a spectacular loss. It would stick out dramatically. And, so it was three of Gafas's buddies were nowhere to be found. He located Gafas, trapping him in the men's room of a neighborhood bar, and asked him where his three friends were. Gafas said he didn't know. He said he hadn't seen them for a couple of days, and besides, they weren't his friends. "Why are you asking me?" The cop knew he'd say that, and decided to head down to the coroner's office and take a look at the bodies himself. The refrigerator drawers were pulled out and the sheets drawn back from the faces of all three bodies one at a time, and this officer recognized each one in turn. He then went back to see Gafas at his home, which was actually his mother's house. Gafas was not happy about that and didn't allow him inside, but spoke to him on the porch. Gafas's girlfriend, however, peeked through the curtains of the front room and could hear the conversation. Though their voices were muffled, she heard well enough that the cop thought her boyfriend had something to do with the 8th Street Alley Massacre, which is what it was now being called on TV. She had noticed her boyfriend was seriously bothered by something and was very jumpy. He'd almost panic when anyone came to the door, and was truly upset when at last this cop showed up.
Putting two and two together she confronted her boyfriend about it later that night. He denied it at first, but she scoffed at him for lying to her. He insisted he wasn't lying. This she took as a further insult. He, realizing she wasn't going to buy it, and he was likely to lose her over this, decided to play the tough hombre and tell her what happened; how they were going to steal the guns, but not hurt anybody, how he had the guns sold for some nice cash, how the homeless people went crazy and started shooting up everything in sight, and how he stood there through it all even though two of his gang fled. Then, he left. So, the actual shooting he had nothing to do with, as far as he saw it. She agreed, of course, and consoled him that he'd done the right thing. However, the gang task force cop knew it was him and his friends and had no intention of letting up on the guy. He didn't feel especially beholden to the chain of command over his pay grade. The whole gang thing had been a political football all along, so this new wrinkle didn't bother him as such. He had a slight concern that until now gang bangers had no interest in the homeless, and he was secure in asserting they had nothing to do with the violence being used on them. If what he thought happened did happen, then the fact they had easy to take weapons on them making them a target for gang bangers meant the homeless were a target for pretty much any criminal type needing guns, or stolen merchandise to sell. Mostly, though, he just wanted to know what happened. His job was a lot like following a story that was unfolding, and missing a chapter such as this one could make him lose the thread of the story altogether.
So, this police officer late that same afternoon brought Gafas in to the station and put him in an interrogation room. He let him sit in there for an hour and a half. To kill the time as he stewed in there, the officer caught up on some paperwork. The time for him flew by. The time for Gafas ticked by second-by-second. When the officer at last opened the door, Gafas was more than a little perturbed. He was in no mood to cooperate. He was convinced he was not responsible for the turn of events which caused the shooting, so he had no guilt on his mind for this officer to lean on. He folded his arms across his chest and simply refused to speak. Instead, he tilted his head back slightly and stared down his nose at the officer hoping to convey a certain contempt for him and whatever he thought he was doing. Not having anything else to go on, and no evidence against the guy, the officer eventually let him go. Gafas went straight from the precinct house to another girl's house who was not his girlfriend, as far as his girlfriend thought. He stayed there all night through the next day, then made it home in the late afternoon. His girlfriend was in the kitchen sitting with his mother. They were apparently fretting and worried about where he might be. He told them to stop riding him. He was a grown man and if he wanted to stay out all night he was going to stay out all night. His mother surrendered in the face of his stubbornness and began to set about her daily housekeeping. His girlfriend, however, was not impressed. But, she didn't say anything. She just stopped making a scene about it.
Later that night, at that same bar where the officer found Gafas two nights before, she and he were drinking. He went into the alley out back to smoke a pipe with one of the ones who survived the incident. That guy's girlfriend and Gafas's stayed at the table to talk girl talk. That guy's girlfriend mentioned that a girlfriend of hers saw Gafas at this other girl's house and how he'd stayed until the next day; that she'd seen him go in and seen him come out. No! Yes. No! "Yes, girlfriend." Gafas's girlfriend was livid, but was good at not showing it. They went home. The next day while Gafas was away, she dropped a dime on him. She called the gang task force officer and told him Gafas had told her he was there at the shooting and about the attempted gun theft. This corroborated the homeless guys' story. The officer told his watch commander, who told the detectives handling the investigation who then obtained an arrest warrant for her boyfriend. The wheels of City Hall cranked up once more. The mayor's press secretary ginned-up a we have our man statement. The press was notified of a press conference regarding the case. They announced they'd made an arrest. The problem was, other than attempting to steal from the homeless folks, Gafas didn't actually do anything more than just watch the mayhem as it unfolded in the alley. Actually, aside from the one member who initially took the one shotgun away from one of the ladies and was attempting to point it to intimidate the rest to steal their guns when Bertha hit him with her grocery cart, none of Gafas's so-called gang had done anything, either. In fact, there really wasn't a who to arrest. This time when the detectives handling the case had Gafas in the interrogation room, he did talk. He told them the whole story. There was nowhere in it he needed to lie.
This began to slowly dawn on the detectives. There was no evidence of any return fire. There were no bullet holes, or shell casings at the scene. All of the dead were from shotgun wounds. No one was hit by projectiles from any other weapons. No theft had actually occurred. Gafas hadn't done anything. There was no reason to hold him, but a warrant had already been issued and executed so an arraignment had to happen. It was obvious to the detectives things had gone sideways. The only question was for how long? All they could do was attend the arraignment and tell the judge the warrant was a mistake and they had no evidence to charge Gafas. This, of course, would then open the department up to a false arrest action. They brought this to the captain of detectives, who by the way had been in close communication with the police chief's office for two days. That office, naturally, was in close touch with the mayor's office. The mayor's office (in turn) was in close contact with the governor's office. The word that kept coming up in the conversations was "results." The captain didn't think this was the sort of result they meant. What all the officers all over the precinct were trying really hard not to say out loud was, "Whose idea was it to arm homeless people with shotguns?" To say this out loud was to be the first to step onto a battlefield empty-handed and clueless. Obviously, this was a political football of epic proportions. Working from the bottom toward the top the wise move was to keep the ball moving, and out of your hands. Of course, the ones on top were praying something might happen that would resolve it close to the bottom, and nowhere near them.
The immediate decision needing to be made was what to do with the homeless guys and their shotguns. Unless told otherwise, they'd have to be released, their shotguns returned to them. There was great hesitancy to do this, but no legal reason why it couldn't be done. In fact, as the law read at that moment, if they didn't they'd be violating these poor homeless guys' rights. This is in fact what the captain of detectives told his supervisor, feeling happy he wasn't the one going to the chief with this. Of course, this was the last thing the captain's supervisor wanted to hear, and when he told the chief it was obvious the chief didn't want to hear it either. Yet, there was literally nothing they could do. It was entirely out of their hands. Even the mayor was powerless to do anything but expect, demand, wheedle, cajole that something be done to avoid this sort of thing from ever happening again; obviously a duty of government. This did give the mayor somewhat of an offense to present to the governor where everyone up to this point was working on the defensive. Between the mayor and governor it, of course, would be parsed in terms of party politics, that is when no one else was in hearing range. But, even at the top no one was certain what the political outcome would be if they released the homeless guys with their shotguns. The homeless guys didn't mind. They were inside sitting in chairs. They were being fed. Their clothes were clean, as were they. Still, they were rather sorrowful as they had lost a handful of friends that day. Certainly, nothing would ever be done about that, but to provide them with a spot in the pauper's section of the municipal cemetery. They would have wound up there anyway. Besides they were also enjoying the break from having to lug those heavy shotguns around everywhere they went. It was a great relief to at long last take a nap and not worry if someone was going to take your shotgun away from you and shoot you with it while you slept.
As do most relatively competent leaders, the governor had a hotshot attorney on his staff whose sole job it was to tell him if he was about to do something illegal, stupid, or both. After an appropriate amount of time had passed, and the recommended amount of people had been harangued and commanded by phone, this attorney then broached the subject with the governor of what to do with the homeless guys. "Someone's going to have to make a decision. It's quickly looking like the state may have liability in this thing." It was at this moment the idea struck the governor of making the homeless guys look heroic; the standard celebrate the heroism distraction technique. How would they sue the state if the state celebrated them as heroes in the fight for law and order? The governor was always proud when he thought of these ideas, and this time was no different. He had the mayor on the phone, so he said, "We're going to have to give those people an award for such heroism in the fight for law and order, Albert." With a silent "hoo boy" the mayor rolled his eyes. "That's a marvelous idea, Howard, simply marvelous." He sounded suitably enthusiastic. "Then I'll leave that for you to handle old boy. By the way, Max here says we should release those homeless guys."
"And give the guns back?"
"And give the guns back Max?"
"Yes, sir. The guns will have to be returned."
"Yes, Albert. Give them back their guns and let them go."
"Whatever you say, Howard."
"Fine. Fine, Albert. Let me know if you need anything."
"Thank-you Howard. I'll do that. Good-bye."
"Good-bye Al," the governor replied in a singsong voice which bothered the mayor a great deal. "These guys have no idea what it takes to run a city," he muttered to himself. He called the police chief. "Let the homeless guys go and give them back their guns." The chief was not surprised. "Are you sure?" He sounded quite disturbed but the mayor was beginning to lose his patience with this whole thing. "Mike. Just get it done." The chief hung up the phone, then called the precinct captain. The precinct captain did just as he was told. Rolly and Old Eddy were a little disappointed. They were beginning to like life in the precinct house. It was much better than life inside a cardboard box. But, as they say, all good things must come to an end. Rolly was even given a cane to help him with his bum foot, but almost as fast as they found themselves wrapped in blankets drinking coffee at the cop station, they were back on the street, lugging their shotguns around. From the gang task force cop up to the mayor, they were done with the incident. The governor's office, however, had the task of keeping control of any brouhaha which might stir itself up in the legislature. "The opposing party must not be allowed to gain traction with this. We must make this look like a win for our policy." There was some fuss stirred up. The opposing party did their best to get traction out of what had to have been a colossal blunder; arming homeless people with shotguns. And, even with the governor's masterful handling of the press, and the NOFF's highly-professional information campaign, the public apparently had had enough of law enforcement as an individual's hobby, wishing the job be returned to the police department where it belonged. The law was repealed and the homeless guys had to turn in their guns. Although, several guns seemed to have gotten lost not long after this announcement was made.
One day, several months later, Rolly and Old Eddy were walking back from the spot of sunlight. Just past where that fateful alley emptied onto a street at its far end they happened to see Gafas leaning on a lamp post on the corner right in front of them. Rolly walked up to him, his back being turned, raised his cane high above his head and brought it down full square on the top of Gafas's head. Gafas fell to the ground bleeding from a scalp wound. While he was down there Old Eddy got a couple of good kicks in, then Rolly holding his cane by the end swung it like a golf club hitting Gafas right in the face with the crook. "There," he said. "That's for Bertha." Then he and Old Eddy walked off to their cardboard neighborhood. Gafas was found by a passerby unconscious and bleeding, who punched in 911 on a cell phone. An ambulance came and carted him away. He came to in a hospital bed with a severe concussion, a broken nose and contusions on his head and face with no idea how they got there. The gang task force officer came by to question him to see if it was gang-related, but got nowhere with his inquiry.