Police State/Civil Liberties

Widow turns tragedy into a cause for gun rights

USA Today

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Clutching a .38-caliber revolver stashed in her sparkly blue purse makes 36-year-old Nikki Goeser feel more secure when walking to her car at night.

  • Nikki Goeser shows a card that she hands to restaurant and bar owners asking them not to post signs prohibiting guns on their premises.By Jae S. Lee, Gannett

Nikki Goeser shows a card that she hands to restaurant and bar owners asking them not to post signs prohibiting guns on their premises.

Goeser, who says she feared guns as a child growing up in Western Kentucky, does not take safety for granted.

“I thought they’d jump right up from the table and shoot me,” said Goeser, whose father collected guns.

But her life changed after watching a man walk into a bar in April 2009 on a rain-soaked night here and shoot her husband in the head with a .45-caliber semiautomatic pistol. The shooter then stood over him and continued to fire rounds into his body.

Goeser’s embrace of gun rights after witnessing to her husband’s murder became so feverish that her story has been turned into a visceral symbol of how gun restrictions harm society.

Even though most criminologists find little to no connection between gun control laws and crime rates — much to the chagrin of both sides of the gun rights debate — Goeser firmly believes that her husband, Ben Goeser, might still be alive if someone else in that bar had been armed.

Her testimony in front of the state legislature helped drum up support for a law passed in 2010 allowing permit-holders to carry loaded guns into bars unless the owner expressly bans them. The retelling of her husband’s murder also served as a case-in-point for letting guns in bars in Ohio, where its legislature last summer passed a similar rule.

“You don’t ever imagine it’ll happen to you,” Goeser said recently. “Crimes often happen in gun-free zones because criminals know there will be no defense. Guns are the great equalizer, putting us on equal footing with criminals.”

Since her husband’s death, she has not had to pull her gun out for protection. Yet she can’t help but dwell on what could happen. If she had to, Goeser’s specially made purse lets her fire her gun from the bag’s pocket.

“Permit holders are not the people you need to fear,” she said, leaning in closer to underscore her conviction. “Do guns make it easier for bad guys to do things? Sure. But do they make it easier for law-abiding people to defend themselves? Yes, they do.”

Goeser works as an assistant to state Rep. Curtis Halford, a Republican from Dyer, Tenn., and she is facing an uphill battle in convincing voters that the 339,000 Tennesseans who have permits to carry handguns are promoting safety by bringing firearms into restaurants and bars.

Polls have revealed that the majority of voters object to letting permit-holders carry firearms into other public places, such as parks and schools.

Tennessee lawmakers are preparing to introduce a so-called guns-in-trunks bill next session aimed at letting gun owners keep permitted firearms locked in their cars — even at work. A similar bill was blocked earlier this year.

Goeser plans to advocate for the bill. She keeps her gun in her car in the legislative parking lot, which the state allows.

“Think about all the places people stop to and from their house,” she said. “You very well may need to protect yourself.”

However, confusion persists about Tennessee’s existing gun laws, including the guns in bars law, now more than 2 years old. This complicates Goeser’s mission of making the state’s eating and drinking establishments more gun friendly, she said.

From a private property rights perspective, Goeser says she respects establishments that post no-gun signs. Still, she won’t hesitate to hand business owners a card that reads, “No Guns (EQUALS) No Money” above a sentence that states she and other armed customers “will spend our money with your competitors.”

Tennessee’s guns-in-bars law allows permit holders to carry their firearms into any place that serves alcohol though people carrying are not allowed to drink. A provision of the law allows business owners to post signs banning guns, which is legally enforceable.

Businesses without signs allow guns by default.

Most restaurants want the issue to disappear, according to Ray Friedman, who runs the Gun Free Dining Tennessee website. It lets customers look up the gun policy of some 700 businesses around the state.

Although nearly two-thirds of businesses his group has surveyed are opposed to allowing guns, some are skittish about posting a sign, afraid it will jeopardize business from the gun-owning set.

“Most businesses we call have no clue that guns are allowed in restaurants,” Friedman said. “Some of them say, ‘Oh no, we don’t allow guns’ but have not posted a sign. I have to explain that without the sign at your door, you’re letting gun-carriers walk in.”

A 2010 poll from Mason-Dixon Polling and Research found that the vast majority — 70% — of Tennessee voters think mixing guns with alcohol is too dangerous. Past studies on the subject have yielded similar results.

Author Paul Barrett, who this year published, Glock: The Rise of America’s Gun, said that despite the wide slate of research dedicated to the subject, criminologists still are stumped about whether permissive gun-carry laws have any effect on crime rates.

“The prevalence of guns in American society most certainly makes violent crimes more lethal,” Barrett said. “But you cannot draw a neat, causal connection between policies that encourage people to walk around armed and higher or lower crime rates.”

Restaurant owner Randy Rayburn said he has had death threats sent to him since he banned guns from his eateries. But his businesses have not suffered.

“I’ve had hundreds upon hundreds of people thanking me for the stand I have taken,” Rayburn said.

Hank Wise, the shooter who killed Goeser’s husband, was sentenced last month to 23 years in prison, two years short of the maximum sentence.

Goeser has been working on a book about the experience and her gun advocacy with economist John Lott. He is much admired in pro-gun circles for research in the 1990s that concluded that as gun ownership rises, crime drops — a finding other researchers have challenged.

Rain sometimes jolts Goeser back to the events that unfolded the night of the shooting. She and her husband ran a mobile karaoke business, and on the eve of his death Nikki wanted to cancel the event, worried the soggy weather would damage the equipment. But Ben Goeser insisted they had an obligation.

For Nikki Goeser, the decision would reroute the course of her life.

“If the law would have been different, and if the killer knew we could carry, that might have been a deterrent, knowing someone might just shoot him if he tries this.”

Since the law took effect, Jonny’s Sports Bar, where Ben Goeser was killed, has posted a sign barring guns.

Josh Clinton, professor of political science at Vanderbilt University, said highly charged stories like Goeser’s are effective in galvanizing the public and lawmakers around an issue. But often, the emotion of the story dwarfs the complexity of public policy.

“For every Nikki Goeser, there’s an incident of someone shooting off a gun accidentally,” he said. “There are powerful anecdotes on both sides, and they are usually picked up by people who have a pre-existing stance.”

Goeser sees it differently. Her own life story convinces her that more people carrying guns make potential victims safer.

“All of this fear people have is unwarranted,” she said. “Bad guys are always going to carry. Don’t you want to have law-abiding, trained people around that can stop them from taking an innocent life?”

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