January 25, 2002
The tragic murder of Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas C. Wales occurred in
Seattle on the night of October 12, 2001. An unknown assailant fired several
shots through a basement window, then walked to his car and drove away. Wales,
working at his computer, was struck twice and died a few hours later in a local
It was a strange time in history, with America still reeling from the
stunning attacks of 9-11. The media response was muted until reporters realized
that this federal employee was also the president of Washington Ceasefire and
the state's most visible anti-gun leader.
In October of 2001, the gun control movement was in trouble. Fund-raising was
in the doldrums, with national organizations closing offices and eliminating
It didn't take long for anti-gun leaders to realize that a martyr could be
just what the state anti-gun movement needed. Less than a week after the murder,
members of Washington Ceasefire created the Tom Wales Endowment Fund, which has
collected over $400,000 to date.
Historically, the anti-gun lobby has always gained support by exploiting the
deaths of those killed with guns. What an enormous victory it would be if it
turned out that Wales was killed not just with a gun, but also by a sinister gun
Early news reports played up the possibility that Wales was murdered because
of his courageous stand against guns. In reality, the investigation never found
any indication that this was the case and it appears more likely that he was
killed as a result of his work as a federal prosecutor. The absence of evidence
has not discouraged several reporters who practice advocacy journalism.
Numerous articles have appeared in the local and national press, hinting that
Wales died for his heroic efforts against gun ownership. The degree to which
this theory is emphasized is directly related to the political leanings of each
journalist and newspaper.
The leading media cheerleader for the Wales canonization project is Kim
Murphy, Seattle Bureau Chief of the notoriously anti-gun Los Angeles Times. Her
fourth article on Wales made the front page of the LA Times Sunday Magazine. The
headline sums up the tone: "Tom Wales Fought for Gun Control, Maybe He Died
For It." Murphy eulogizes Wales by lovingly listing the details of his life
in a way that reads like a movie script about the ideal sensitive, gentle, urban
No doubt Wales was an intelligent, caring human being in his private life. He
was certainly a popular and much-loved figure in liberal Seattle society, but
his personality changed when he joined in the emotion-laden gun debate. Those
who stood on the opposite side of the issue recall a controversial and
Washington gun rights activists are in a difficult position. Even though
investigators have found no evidence of a political assassination, the murder
probe is still active, so anyone who speaks out could be the target of a police
Speaking off the record, they describe a man who once became hysterical at a
public debate, bouncing red-faced in his chair and trying to antagonize his
opponents with sneering, insulting statements he knew to be false.
His emotional approach to the gun debate and utter contempt for his political
opponents was in stark contrast to his friendly, laid-back demeanor in private
life as well as the professional way in which he handled his government duties.
Like many gun haters, he apparently believed that the end justified the means
when it came to eliminating guns from society. He would do and say whatever it
took to get the job done.
It is ironic that some journalists cling to the possibility that he was
targeted by his political opponents. On the contrary, most of them were happy
that he was the leader of the Washington State anti-gun lobby. They felt his
emotional performances and single-minded zealotry reflected poorly on his own
organization. Even some members of anti-gun groups were uncomfortable with his
Last year, Wales became involved in negotiations with gun rights leaders to
see if a compromise bill on gun show rules could be offered to the legislature.
Working in good faith to craft compromise gun legislation proved impossible.
Instead, he behaved like a relentless prosecutor bullying a defendant into
accepting an unfavorable plea bargain. He is remembered by other participants as
arrogant, abrasive and condescending.
The story of Tom Wales could serve as a cautionary tale for those involved on
both sides of the gun debate or other emotional issues like abortion or the
death penalty. Even the most even-tempered person can fall prey to the intense
emotions that interfere with our judgment and our ethics.
Perhaps he would have accomplished more if he had pursued gun politics the
same way he conducted his private and professional life. Tom Wales was an
interesting, complicated man, but he is an odd choice for sainthood.
Dr. Michael S. Brown is an optometrist in Vancouver, Washington and a
member of Doctors for Sensible Gun Laws, www.dsgl.org.
Write the author at: email@example.com.
"Tom Wales Fought For Gun Control, Maybe He Died For It" http://www.latimes.com/features/printedition/magazine/la-000003204jan13.story
Tom Wales Endowment, see list of news articles: http://www.tomwalesendowment.org