Angry At The Gun, Not At The Killer

COMMENT

January 16, 1994|By ELISE ARMACOST

Dick and Barbara Willis do not blame the boy who shot their son to death last August.

They blame the gun.

A 9mm semi-automatic handgun, purchased somewhere in California by a young man who, at the time, was a law-abiding citizen -- the kind of person the gun lobby says ought to have the right to buy a firearm, few questions asked.

But Thomas Joseph Cummings never should have been able to have a gun. We know that now. Something was wrong inside. No one will ever know what it was; probably some weakness of the mind or emotions, waiting to give way.

The Willises feel no anger toward Tom Cummings. "How can you be angry at someone who was so miserable he ended up killing himself?" Barbara asks.

She thinks of his last hours -- the hours just after he shot their son, a total stranger, at the Severna Park Dunkin' Donuts because he wouldn't sell him a ballpoint pen -- and suffers for him.

"I hate to think of him driving from Severna Park to Norfolk," where Tom Cummings shot himself. "It must have been pure misery for him."

Where is the bitterness that so many victims harbor toward those who have caused them grief? It does not exist for the Willises. The only bitterness, the only anger they feel is aimed toward the gun.

If only Tom Cummings had not had that gun in his pocket when he snapped over that pen. If only . . . he and Charley probably would be alive right now. About two weeks after the tragedy, after the first wave of grief had crested, the Willises started thinking about that.

They started thinking how different things would be if Tom Cummings had been in exactly the same state of mind, but had gone after Charley with his fists. Charley could have fought back, and his two friends might have helped him.

Even if Tom Cummings had pulled a knife, Charley would have stood a chance. But the gun made killing so much easier. A quick pull of the trigger, and 10 bullets unloaded before Charley knew what hit him. Another quick pull, and Tom Cummings was dead, too.

"The gun," says Dick Willis, "turned violence into death when it didn't have to be that way."

Sometimes, the survivors of horrible tragedies immerse themselves in causes as a kind of therapy. That is not why you see the Willises helping organize tomorrow's gun control rally in Annapolis or hear them telling local students, civic clubs and the Annapolis City Council why tighter restrictions on gun ownership are so necessary.

"Dick and I are getting along fine, really," Barbara says.

They have a strong faith that Charley is in a good place and two other sons they love. They can still be happy, though now, Barbara says, "no matter how happy I am, something in my stomach says, 'Don't forget. No matter how happy you are, don't forget.' " The Willises have become activists, not because it helps them, but because they believe that, through Charley's death, a special charge has been laid in their hands.

"It seems to me that we have been given a responsibility -- if we can -- to try to make this world a better place," Dick says. "We have a very special gift in that no one, or at least very few people, won't listen to us."

So they've been talking themselves blue in the face. Last Monday night, it was the Annapolis City Council. Wednesday, the Crofton Kiwanis. Friday morning, Severna Park High School. Friday night, a WBAL-TV show with Sarah Brady. Tomorrow night, the Marylanders Against Handgun Abuse rally.

Their message is not the tired, "People with guns kill people," but this: "Guns take the violence and create death."

Their message is that it's not enough to get guns out of the hands of the criminals. We've got to stop selling them like candy to anyone who asks.

They're falling into the hands of people who shouldn't have them -- people unstable enough to contemplate their own deaths, volatile enough to shoot in a heated moment, irresponsible enough to leave a gun where a child can find it; people such as Tom Cummings, whose record was clean as a whistle until the night he pulled out a gun and started shooting.

"What happened to Charley is the perfect case for gun control," Dick Willis says.

Violence turning into death over a ballpoint pen. It didn't have to be that way. But because of a gun, that's the way it was.

Elise Armacost is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

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