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The Manufacturing of a Martyr

by Dr. Michael S. Brown

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 hospital.

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 staff.

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 rights supporter.

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 male.

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 polarizing individual.

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 investigation.

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 extremism.

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: rkba2000@yahoo.com.

References:

"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

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