Forty-Two Die in 24 Bloody Hours
Marcia's tragic death was one of 42 handgun murders reported during PEOPLE'S national survey (another 20 handgun deaths were suicides). She died, as did many of the victims, because her alleged killer squeezed the trigger of a readily available weapon in a moment of blind rage.
Joe Washington, 47, was rolling dice in the back of a Houston pool hall when he got into an argument with another player over a $10 bet. The loser paid up, but paid off Washington as he left with a single gunshot to the chest. The alleged killer was arrested on murder charges several hours later, a victim, like Washington, of a temper that reached its flash point in gunfire.
Fear of crime has driven millions of Americans to buy a handgun for self-defense, but according to a U.S. Conference of Mayors study the buyers had better beware. A gun kept in the house is six times more likely to kill a member of the family—by accident or in a domestic quarrel—than it is to shoot an intruder. Consider the case of shipping clerk Karl Eselgroth. He and his wife, Charlotte, 25, also a clerk, kept a gun to defend their home in the Los Angeles suburb of Venice. Unfortunately, Eselgroth, according to his mother, "could be a mean drunk." His wife was fearful of yet another beating when he entered the house early Sunday morning. Charlotte took up the gun and is said to have fired a futile warning shot into the floor. When Eselgroth kept coming, Charlotte raised the .22-cal. revolver and fatally wounded her 6'4" husband in the chest. "I can't believe I killed him, but I did," she reportedly gasped to police. She was released without formal charges. The district attorney believed the evidence indicated justifiable homicide. "It didn't have to happen," observed Eselgroth's mother, "but it's the sort of thing that occurs if you mix drinking with guns."
Despite claims by the National Rifle Association, which regularly publicizes examples of successful self-defense with a handgun, law enforcement officials say such cases are comparatively rare, and that a tragic outcome is more the rule than the exception. When a 22-year-old gunman tried to rob Harry Smith Jr., a 72-year-old Houston bar owner, Smith decided to shoot it out. His attacker was killed immediately, but a week later, on the night of Saturday, September 18, Smith, too, died from his wounds.
For many people, handguns offer a desperate, often impulsive solution to personal problems. In central Illinois, a 44-year-old housewife, despondent over a crisis in her marriage, turned her husband's .22-cal. handgun on herself. She was one of 20 people who died of self-inflicted handgun wounds in the 24-hour period. Some died with clear intent to end their suffering from terminal illness or emotional problems. Others seemed to dispatch themselves on the spur of the moment. One such case occurred in Houston. Reportedly worried over an upcoming court appearance on a minor drug charge, a 27-year-old shot himself in the head with a .25-cal. handgun.
A handgun murder occurs every 50 minutes on the average, but through the 24 hours of PEOPLE'S survey, fatalities totaled more. The youngest person to die on September 18 was 11-year-old Andre Reeves, who was shot twice in the back while running from an East Side Detroit street corner. Gang shootings led to the deaths of some young male victims.
Revenge killings and feuds among drug dealers accounted for some of the shootings, yet many victims were simply that—victims. James Thorpe, a 64-year-old gas station attendant was gunned down during a holdup in Washington, D.C. Douglas Baringer, a 28-year-old architect, was shot in the parking lot of a saloon near Baton Rouge, La., apparently while trying to fight off a mugger. Four victims were killed in Florida, including Emory Stripling, 50, who was filling in for a junkyard owner when a man opened fire. In the Miami area, two-thirds of all handgun crimes are committed with guns stolen from the cars and houses of law-abiding gun owners. Nationwide, an estimated 200,000 guns a year are stolen, a significant proportion of the 2.5 million new handguns Americans are acquiring each year. "People think they are arming themselves, when in fact they are arming the criminals," says Art Nehrbass, a former FBI agent and now commander of the Metropolitan Miami Police Organized Crime Bureau. "And when their guns are stolen they go out and buy more—thus ensuring a constant supply."
When Antonio Knight, 16, was fatally wounded in a depressed and predominantly black neighborhood of Baltimore, he became that city's 158th murder victim of 1982, and the 90th to die by handgun. A street kid with a juvenile record who was armed with a pellet gun, Knight was reportedly shot by a man some say he may have been trying to rob. The neighborhood teems with guns, and killings are their inevitable harvest. During the funeral service for Antonio Knight, a woman shrieked in anguish, "Oh Lord, Oh Lord, not again."
But it will happen again, this Saturday night.
This survey was reported by David van Biema in Washington, David Chandler in Miami and 37 other correspondents across the country.