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.
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 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
“You can’t let yourself be pushed around. You can’t live in fear. That’s no way to live your life.”
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.
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.”
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 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.
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
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.”
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.
“I would, without any hesitation, shoot a violent criminal again.”
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.
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.
“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.”