The Subway Vigilante Who Birthed the Modern Concealed Carry Movement

Sometimes small things have really big consequences.

A quick way to keep a couple of guys occupied is to pose this question, “Batman versus the Terminator—Go.” The typical American male can entertain himself for hours with such banal stuff as this. I know I can.

Batman looks cool, to be sure. However, at his heart the Caped Crusader is just a working stiff like the rest of us.

Unlike Superman, Captain America, or the Flash, Batman is just a dude. Sure, he has ninja training and more cool-guy gadgets than Delta Force, but at his heart, he’s really no different from the rest of us. What always befuddled me, however, is how anybody could philosophically oppose his violent nocturnal forays into the Gotham underworld.

Batman and I both think it is stupid not to actively resist in the face of violence.

Batman is a vigilante, a private citizen who fights crime on his own nickel. This is illegal almost everyplace. However, kind of like removing mattress tags or driving 57 in a 55, this always struck me as the kind of rule that should remain a bit pliable. However, there yet remains a surprisingly large percentage of folks who really do think that in the face of violent crime one should just embrace the victim role and wait for the cops to sort it out. I struggle with that myself.

This geeky-looking guy was stone cold when it came time to throw down.

Certain events are watershed moments in cultural history. Compelling optics or a moving narrative can drive sweeping policy changes. One such episode was the sordid tale of Bernhard Goetz.

Bernie Goetz’ upbringing was fairly chaotic. However, the young man was smart, hard-working, and resilient.

Bernie Goetz was born November 7, 1947, in Queens, New York, to Bernhard William Goetz and his wife Gertrude. The senior Goetz was a German immigrant who owned a large dairy farm in upstate New York as well as a bookbinding concern. When young Bernie was 12 his dad got into some trouble. The details don’t much matter, but Bernie was subsequently sent to boarding school in Switzerland.

New York City in the 1980s was fairly horrible before Rudy Giuliani cleaned things up. What the heck is that guy anyway, Disco Sasquatch?

Bernie returned to the US to attend New York University where he studied electrical and nuclear engineering. At the time of his infamous subway attack, he owned a small business that calibrated precision electronic equipment. In January of 1981, Goetz was traveling on the New York subway with a parcel of expensive electronic gear when he was attacked by three teenagers. 

It took longer to lodge a formal complaint with police than it did to book and release the miscreant who attacked Bernie Goetz.

The teens threw him into a glass door, injuring his knee and tearing his jacket. A nearby off-duty NYPD officer arrested one, but the other two escaped. The apprehended teen spent less time in the police station than it took Goetz to complete his report. 

Then as now, you could technically obtain a concealed carry permit in NYC but pretty much only if you knew somebody important. That’s just wrong on a dozen different levels.

The kid was charged with criminal mischief, an obviously benign offense. As he had to travel regularly with expensive electronic equipment Bernie Goetz applied for a concealed carry permit. The New York City bureaucracy denied his application citing insufficient need.

For decades the 5-shot J-frame .38-caliber Smith and Wesson revolver represented the industry standard for concealable defensive firepower in America.

On a subsequent trip to Florida, Goetz purchased a Smith and Wesson .38-caliber revolver. While I could not find any specifics concerning the type of pistol he carried, the gun did pack five rounds. That narrows the field considerably.

The Watershed Event

Before they reached the age of 20, all four of these guys had earned criminal convictions.

In the early afternoon of December 22, 1984, four Bronx teenagers climbed aboard a downtown 2 train. Troy Canty, James Ranseur, Barry Allen, and Darrell Cabey were all four already convicted criminals. They later admitted that they set out that day to rob a Manhattan video arcade. 

NYC subways circa 1984 looked like something out of a Mad Max movie.

The R22 subway car number 7657 was the seventh of ten. When Bernie Goetz entered from the rear there were between fifteen and twenty other passengers onboard. Goetz took a seat opposite where Canty was stretched out on a long bench. The other three teens were arrayed nearby. Canty asked Goetz how he was doing. Bernie responded simply, “Fine” but otherwise kept to himself. 

In addition to some mad electronic skills, Bernie Goetz turned out to be a bit of an amateur philosopher.

“You can’t let yourself be pushed around. You can’t live in fear. That’s no way to live your life.”

-Bernard Goetz

The four Bronx teenagers apparently moved like a criminal unit.

Goetz later claimed that the teens exchanged quiet signals and moved to surround him. Canty said, “Give me five dollars.” Bernie Goetz then produced his revolver and shot all four men in rapid succession.

When he felt threatened Bernie Goetz took care of business. The details of that frenetic exchange sparked a nationwide discussion on the subject of personal defense.

From the horse’s mouth, “I decided to shoot as many as I could as quickly as I could. I did a fast draw, and shot with one hand (my right), pulling the trigger prior to the gun being aligned on the targets. All actual shots plus my draw time occurred easily within 1.6 seconds or less. This is not as difficult to do as some might think…The first shot hit Canty in the center of the chest. After the first shot my vision changed and I lost my sense of hearing. The second shot hit lightning fast Barry Allen in the upper rear shoulder as he was ducking (later the bullet was removed from his arm). The third shot hit the subway wall just in front of Cabey; the fourth shot hit Cabey in the left. The fifth shot hit Ramseur’s arm on the way into his left side. I immediately looked at the first two to make sure they were “taken care of,” and then attempted to shoot Cabey again in the stomach, but the gun was empty…I had lost count of the shots…I didn’t even hear the shots or feel the kick of the gun. ‘You don’t look too bad, here’s another’, is a phrase I came up with later when trying to explain the shooting while I was under the impression that Cabey was shot twice…Shortly after the shooting my vision and hearing returned to normal.”

“…in a combat situation…you’re not thinking in a normal way. Your memory isn’t even working normally. You are so hyped up. Your vision actually changes. Your field of view changes. Your capabilities change. What you are capable of changes…you respond very quickly, and you think very quickly…You think, you analyze, and you act…you just have to think more quickly than your opposition…Speed is very important.”

After the shooting Bernie Goetz spent several days traveling New England in anonymity.

Goetz checked on a pair of women who had been knocked down in the chaos, spoke briefly with the train conductor, and jumped out of the car. He then went home, gathered some belongings, rented an automobile, and drove to Bennington, Vermont. There he burned his distinctive blue jacket and dismantled his pistol, discarding the components in the woods nearby. He spent the next several days in New England registering at various hotels under assumed names and paying cash.

The Gun

The S&W snub-nosed .38 was purpose-designed for concealed carry applications.

The snub-nosed .38 revolver was the most popular deep cover concealed carry weapon back in the early days. Colt made a similar pistol called the Detective Special, but Smith owned most of the market. Their Model 36 Chief’s Special was ubiquitous. Goetz’s gun might have differed slightly in its details, but this will be close.

Smith and Wesson churned out these tidy little defensive handguns by the millions after World War 2.

Designed in the immediate aftermath of World War 2, the Model 36 was introduced in 1950 at the International Association of Chiefs of Police convention. The name “Chief’s Special” was the result of a poll taken at that gathering. The gun was produced with either a 2 or 3-inch barrel and fed from a five-shot cylinder. Serial number 337 was engraved with J Edgar Hoover’s name and shipped directly to him. The Model 37 Airweight was the same gun with an aluminum frame and cylinder. However, the lightweight cylinder proved troublesome. The Model 36 was also marketed as the LadySmith in 1989 with “grips designed especially for women,” whatever that really means. In 1976 a blued Model 36 cost $110. That would be about $516 today.

The Rest of the Story

Six of Goetz’ twelve jurors had themselves been victims of violent crime in NYC.

On December 30, 1984, Bernie Goetz walked into the police station in Concord, New Hampshire, and turned himself in. His case was heard before a grand jury twice, and he was ultimately tried on charges ranging from attempted murder to possession of a weapon in the 3rd degree. Of his twelve jurors, half of them had themselves been victims of street crime in New York. Goetz was ultimately convicted solely on the weapons possession charge and spent eight months in prison.

“Jail is much easier on people who have nothing.”

-Bernard Goetz

Darrel Cabey would never walk again after having been shot during his attempted robbery of Bernie Goetz.

Darrel Cabey was rendered paraplegic, but the other three teens recovered. During the trial, they claimed they were simply panhandling but did eventually admit their intent had been to rob Goetz. Paramedics recovered three screwdrivers from the men. Cabey was later awarded a $47 million judgment in a civil suit. As of 2004, Goetz had declared bankruptcy and not paid a penny of it.

James Ramseur was convicted in 1986 of robbing, raping, and sodomizing a young pregnant woman. In and out of prison until 2010, Ramseur died in 2011 at age 45 of a drug overdose–27 years to the day after the subway shooting.

“I would, without any hesitation, shoot a violent criminal again.”

-Bernard Goetz

Today Bernie Goetz is a vegetarian marijuana enthusiast living in the same apartment he occupied back in the 1980’s.
In recent years Bernie Goetz has been castigated by his landlord for farming squirrels in his NYC apartment.

Goetz was arrested in 2013 for selling marijuana, but the charges were dismissed. Bernie Goetz is now 74 years old and resides today in the same NYC apartment where he lived back in 1980. He has run for public office twice, advocates for the legalization of marijuana, and, no kidding, apparently enjoys raising squirrels.

Bernie Goetz was either a role model or a villain depending upon one’s worldview.
It’s all a question of perspective. While many Americans obviously disagreed, apparently this pirate thought Bernie Goetz was a great guy.

Whether Bernie Goetz was a hero or a criminal turns on your perspective. However, that brief frenetic gunfight did help catalyze the modern concealed carry movement in America. Biased media coverage notwithstanding, crime rates have generally fallen steadily since that time. The Subway Vigilante shooting was a seminal moment in American history.

Bernie Goetz inspired Joaquin Phoenix’ depiction of Arthur Fleck in the dystopian film The Joker.

“With my time in the limelight, I regret that I didn’t use it more to push vegetarianism. I support vegetarian options in the school lunch program.”

-Bernard Goetz

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About the author: Will Dabbs A native of the Mississippi Delta, Will is a mechanical engineer who flew UH1H, OH58A/C, CH47D, and AH1S aircraft as an Army Aviator. He has parachuted out of perfectly good airplanes at 3 o’clock in the morning and summited Mount McKinley, Alaska, six times…always at the controls of an Army helicopter, which is the only way sensible folk climb mountains. Major Dabbs eventually resigned his commission in favor of medical school where he delivered 60 babies and occasionally wrung human blood out of his socks. Will works in his own urgent care clinic, shares a business build-ing precision rifles and sound suppressors, and has written for the gun press since 1989. He is married to his high school sweetheart, has three awesome adult children, and teaches Sunday School. Turn-ons include vintage German machineguns, flying his sexy-cool RV6A airplane, Count Chocula cereal, and the movie “Aliens.”

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  • Ej harbet May 7, 2021, 3:52 pm

    5rd revolver and 4 goblins dealt with, excellent work.
    I listened to a interview of him on morning talk radio.
    Interesting fellow

  • Jack Barrett May 3, 2021, 8:06 pm

    Goetz bought the gun at a hardware store in Union Park a suburb of Orlando, Fl. His uncle was a housing developer who lived in my neighborhood. I retired from the Orlando Police Dept as a sergeant and knew his uncle

  • Mark Wynn May 3, 2021, 12:19 pm

    One of the most interesting and well-written, with supporting images, articles I’ve read in Guns America Digest. Thanks, Will Dabs!

  • Ken May 3, 2021, 12:14 pm

    Mid 70’s. Ned and I were on the Chicago “L”. Standing. About 1 pm.

    In spite of being “military contractors” we were both illegally armed. Ned had a .357 S&W model 13 and I had a 1911. Both wearing levys and field jackets and beat up combat boots — the 5.11’s of that time. Both spec ops Vietnam vets in the 60’s.

    About ten teen thugs got on and started going from person to person extorting a dollar from each.
    They were nasty and offensive. Most kept hand in pocket… implying a weapon.
    Ned and I separated without saying anything in order to cover each other.

    When they got to Ned:
    Thug: Hey, man… got a dollar for me?
    Ned: You have change for a twenty? Cause all I have is twenties and (pulling his jacket aside) this here .357 magnum.

    In spite train rumble you could of heard a pin drop. The baby thug was scared.
    Ned: All you assholes are getting off at the next stop.

    Other thug: You gonna shoot us all?
    Ned: You’re first asshole. Now get to the ***** door and get out.

    They all got out at the next stop… and then Ned actually got an ovation. People started clapping for him.
    He took a bow.

    No one even noticed me throughout the whole affair. But Ned knew he had my 7+1 of .45 acp as back up and that, in part, gave him the courage to “bogart” ten guys with a six round revolver.

    Yes, we both carried extra ammo. I had two extra mags and Ned had a couple of speed loaders. No holsters or ammo pouches was the rule of the day back then.

    We both got off at the following stop due to the fact we were carrying illegally. Took a cab. We were on our way to an overseas job interview in the federal building downtown.

    We wouldn’t have opened up on a bunch of kids unless things had gotten a lot worse. But being armed helped intimidate them and perhaps teach them a lesson.

  • PeterC May 3, 2021, 10:47 am

    The next “Subway Shooter” should ideally be Gunsite-trained. The question is, would a Gunsite-trained individual be likely to frequent the NYC subway?

  • DS May 3, 2021, 9:23 am

    ‘They was just good boys out for a little fun’.

  • Scott Taylor May 3, 2021, 9:11 am

    I thought Bernie had a .44 special. I guess I had it wrong all these years

    • kent May 3, 2021, 2:02 pm

      David Berkoweitz, the “son of sam” killer used a .44 handgun. One was a hero, the other a psychopath. One became a cult hero and had movies made of him, the other raised squirrels. How’s that for a nation with screwed up priorities?

  • Jim May 3, 2021, 9:07 am

    Back then I worked with a guy who was originally from Brooklyn. He commented there was no way a jury of subway riders was going to convict him of the attempted murder charge. I also seem to recall that Goetz used a .25 of some kind. It’s been a long time so I could be wrong.

  • Mike in a Truck May 3, 2021, 7:56 am

    The small earphone from my pocket radio was in my ear…sometime after 1 a.m as I stood guard shift watch in my TC hatch on a M109 SP howitzer. The feed from the nearest big city came in clear from the rock station then a news break telling of this shooting back home in NY.I cant tell you how happy I was to hear this news. The little guy fighting back and not taking it anymore.Goetz is a bit of a weirdo- but hes my kind of weirdo.

  • Steve in Detroit May 3, 2021, 6:09 am

    A few pics of Sliwa and his Guardian Angels up there, he is running for NYC Mayor now.

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