My best friend Michael was robbed at gunpoint, shot several times, and left for dead in the icy slush of a New York City gutter. It was the late 1970s, and the Sullivan Act had been protecting New Yorkers from gun violence for more than 65 years. In theory. In reality, my unarmed friend was shot and nearly killed for less than $20 by a remorseless smear of human excrement. A junkie or psychopath who knew that his law-abiding victims would be defenseless against the .22 caliber revolver he carried, and whose “no witnesses” policy helped insure that he was never brought to justice for this crime.
Michael felt very little pain as he lay paralyzed by a bullet fragment lodged in his upper spine. He was a man of faith, and he was thankful that he was going to meet his creator with his eyes open and his mind alert. He was also thankful that he hadn’t fallen face-down in the slush, because drowning in a slurry of ice and road-salt would be even worse than bleeding out.
Michael was a delivery driver, ferrying newspapers and cigars and what-have-you around the surprisingly rural environs of northeast Pennsylvania, northern New Jersey, and downstate New York. He typically carried a pistol in his truck, or even a rifle for lawful targets of opportunity during deer season, and he had never been hassled in his infrequent encounters with rural law enforcement.
New York was a different story, and he knew never to bring a gun into the city or its outskirts when his route occasionally took him there. His would-be murderer, a natural predator, was aware of this as well.
During the 1970s and early 1980s, used or stolen .22 revolvers could be purchased by New York’s criminal underclass for less than $50. Usually manufactured by Harrington & Richardson or Iver Johnson, they cost less than $100 brand-new and were known collectively as “Owlies.” They owed their street name to owl emblem of the Iver Johnson logo, and they were sold (by scumbags, to scumbags) in the back rooms of corner bodegas and even in black-market gun stores selling ammunition and holsters.
In the criminal culture of the time, any punk with $50 could buy an Owlie in a matter of hours. Carrying a fancier gun like a .45 or a 9mm gave you more of a badass reputation, but such firepower was rare and conspicuous on the street and tended to leave evidence (spent shell casings) at the crime scene if you actually had to shoot someone with it. By contrast, Owlies were cheap, easy to obtain, and impossible for witnesses to positively identify.
Michael was noticed by a Good Samaritan who immediately summoned help, and he did not lose consciousness until he was anaesthetized for emergency surgery. When he awoke he learned that his spine was not severed, and over the following months he regained the full use of his arms and torso. His legs never fully regained their strength, but he went back to work and collected several college degrees over the next two decades.
He never stopped hunting and shooting. Vowing that he would never be shot and left for dead twice in one lifetime, he was a CCW holder in several states. He didn’t believe in mouse guns; his carry pistol was a full-sized Government Model 1911, and at 6’4″ you never knew it was there.
We met in law school, and he honored me with his friendship and his generous spirit. He never failed to laugh at the indignities imposed on him by his physical handicaps, and would laugh and joke as I sometimes had to push or pull him up the gravel quarry walls to place or retrieve our targets. Later he got married, moved to Korea and became the father of two wonderful daughters. Several bullet fragments remained in his spine, embedded in vertebrae too close to the spinal cord to remove, and they caused him serious health problems for the rest of his life.
Having seen death and cheated it, Michael knew he was living on borrowed time and three years ago his debt came due. My best friend passed away far too young, in his mid-50s, another of the countless victims of the Sullivan Act, which ‘celebrates’ its 100th birthday this year.
To absent friends, shining still in memory.