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September 29, 2008

Road Rage

On August 5 in Pembroke Pines, Florida, a quiet morning erupted in tragedy when Special Agent Donald Pettit was shot and killed in the parking lot of a post office by James Patrick Wonder. Pettit, who was employed by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, was traveling along a Florida highway with his 12-year-old daughter when an incident of road rage led to a needless death.

For miles, Pettit and Wonder participated in an aggressive game of “chicken,” cutting off each other’s cars, slamming on brakes, and cursing heavily. When Wonder pulled over into the parking lot of a local post office, Pettit followed him.

The two men exited their cars and an argument ensued. Wonder, a concealed carry permit holder in the state of Florida, then drew his handgun and shot Pettit, who was unarmed, in the back of the head. While Pettit’s daughter looked on in horror, Wonder went back to his vehicle and fled the scene, leaving the federal agent to die.

Wonder attempted to elude police by dying his hair and driving in a rental car, but after a massive 24-hour manhunt, he was apprehended by authorities at a dialysis clinic thanks to an anonymous tip. “We told you we would get you,” said Pembroke Pines Deputy Chief Mike Segarra to a cheering crowd of law enforcement officers at a press conference later that evening. Police recovered several handguns from Wonder’s home, including the weapon they believe was used to shoot Pettit.

While Wonder was initially charged with premeditated murder and held without bond, on August 28, a Broward County grand jury indicted him on a lesser charge, manslaughter. Wonder then posted $10,000 bond and was released from jail. He now faces a maximum of 15 years imprisonment. Had he been charged with premeditated murder, Wonder could have received life in prison or the death penalty.

Frank Maister, an attorney for Wonder, expressed disappointment that the grand jury chose to indict his client. He also indicated he will argue his client acted in self-defense. He might have a strong case due to a Florida law that lowered the standard for using deadly force in public places. Previously, Florida law required citizens to retreat from a situation in which they felt threatened if they could do so safely. Florida’s 2005 “Shoot First” statute, however, changed the law so that, “A person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in any…place where he or she has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force, if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.

Clearly, both Wonder and Pettit were at fault that day for allowing their road rage to escalate into dangerous behavior, and Pettit was wrong for following Wonder into a parking lot and confronting him. Beyond that, however, we are left with several important questions… Why didn’t Wonder call the police or drive to a police station if he was being followed by Pettit? If he was being actively attacked by Pettit, then why was Wonder uninjured, and why was the fatal bullet wound in the back of Pettit’s head? Most importantly, why would a man who acted legitimately in self-defense flee a crime scene (leaving a child to deal with her dead father) and attempt to evade police capture by ditching his car and disguising his appearance?

No matter what answers we eventually find, the sad fact is that no one had to die that day. The presence of a handgun during a moment of passion turned what should have been a shouting match or at worst a scuffle into a fatality that has left a family “destroyed.”

September 8, 2008

"I had fun."

On July 17, Randal Rushing, 25, turned a quiet family home in Scranton, Pennsylvania into a slaughterhouse. At approximately 4:30 AM that morning, Rushing—who rented basement room in the house—went on a killing spree, using a handgun to order his victims into submission and then bludgeoning and stabbing them to death with carpentry hammers and knives. When all was said and done, three people lay dead: Justin Berrios, 21; Dustin Hintz, 22; and Leslie Collier, 16. Collier’s body was so badly beaten that police could not tell exactly how he was killed. Authorities believe that Rushing’s rampage was triggered by jealousy regarding a girl he was dating who also lived in the house.

Police apprehended Rushing at a friend’s apartment the next morning, where he was found playing Playstation in blood-soaked boots. As police led Rushing out of the house, he blew reporters a kiss and told them, “I had fun.” The office of the Lackawanna County District Attorney is currently deciding whether to pursue the death penalty against him.

Rushing had a permit to carry a concealed handgun in Pennsylvania. His permit application had been approved in less than 24 hours in February 2007, despite the fact that he listed the address of a homeless shelter as his home address and provided two references whose names were illegible. The sheriff who issued the permit, Barry Stankus, claimed that he “followed all the guidelines established by the Pennsylvania Crimes Code and utilized the [Pennsylvania Instant Check System] established by the Pennsylvania State Police.”

Stankus’ successor as sheriff, Michael Savokinas, was of a different opinion. He described Stankus’ office as a “one-stop shop” for permits and, stating the obvious, noted, “we should have called the [references].”

Rushing had no criminal record, but even outside the problems with his written application for the permit, there were obvious red flags in his background. His attorney, Paul Ackourey, has stated that Rushing “has some serious emotional and mental health problems that will be explored.” State Police also indicated that Rushing had “made overt threats” at T.J. Maxx, where he worked. Despite the fact that Pennsylvania is a “shall-issue state, pursuant to statute local law enforcement can deny a concealed carry permit to an individual who is “not of sound mind” or who “has a character and reputation indicating the applicant would be likely to act in a manner dangerous to public safety” (among other reasons). Law enforcement is allowed 45 days to carry out an investigation on an applicant.

When claiming that concealed carry permit holders are the most law-abiding citizens in the country, the gun lobby will frequently point to the “rigorous” vetting they go through in order to obtain their permits. This case, however—and others detailed in our “Ordinary People” series—reveal that the screening process in many instances is not even cursory, much less rigorous. For example, Pennsylvania does not even require permit holders to undergo firearm safety training before carrying a handgun in public.

Several other important questions are raised by the Rushing case… Did Sheriff Stankus issue permits to other individuals who posed a threat to public safety during his tenure? Has the state of Pennsylvania implemented any monitoring or oversight procedures to determine if there are similar permitting problems in other counties?

An independent audit of the permitting process is also certainly justified. That is impossible, however, because Pennsylvania has enacted a National Rifle Association-drafted law that prohibits the public from accessing information on concealed carry permit holders.

One thing is clear—when it comes to individuals carrying handguns in public, it is time for Pennsylvania to start putting the safety of its citizens ahead of the interests of the gun lobby.