A small-town doctor caught in the cross fire

Right to bear arms could face major test in Texas gun case

May 30, 2000|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

SAN ANGELO, Texas - In the debate over the constitutional right to bear arms, Timothy Joe Emerson is an unlikely protagonist. He's no Charlton Heston. Not even close.

Broke and living with his 80-year-old dad, Emerson is a physician who bounced from one job to another until he opened a medical practice in this Texas plains town. He's a father trapped in a nasty divorce who has been barred from seeing his daughter for 11 months.

But it is Emerson's possession of a handgun during an argument with his ex-wife and the federal court case that followed that have attracted the attention of legal scholars and historians across the country.

Emerson allegedly threatened his wife with the 9 mm Beretta, in violation of a restraining order commonly issued in divorce cases that precludes spouses from threatening or harassing each other. He was arrested Dec. 10, 1998.

The federal charge upended Emerson's life and set in motion what could become the first Supreme Court review in 61 years of the Second Amendment right to bear arms.

Emerson's court-appointed lawyer argued that the soft-spoken physician had a constitutional right to have the gun. A federal judge in Texas agreed and dismissed the case. The government appealed.

It didn't take long for the gun lobby and anti-gun activists to weigh in. More than 20 groups - including the state of Alabama, the National Network to End Domestic Violence, and Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership - have filed briefs in United States vs. Emerson.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is to hear the case the week of June 12 in New Orleans. If that court agrees that Emerson does have a constitutional right to his gun, the Supreme Court is likely to hear the case.

Such a review may affect the myriad gun control laws passed since 1939. It also may lead to a review of temporary restraining orders issued in divorce proceedings.

The key issue for the appellate court is the extent of the constitutional right to bear arms. Is it an individual right or one to be exercised as part of a state militia? Does the Second Amendment restrict regulation of firearms by the government?

But the question nagging Timothy Joe Emerson is this: When will my life get back on track?

At the time of his arrest, Emerson didn't know that the mere possession of a gun put him at odds with a 1994 federal law intended to curb domestic violence. His arrest 16 months ago worsened an already difficult time for the 43-year-old physician.

His wife left him for her hairdresser. He was working on a restricted license. He was behind in the office rent.

"It's like a West Texas soap opera. Your business goes to the tanks when the cops come to arrest you," said David Guinn, the court-appointed Texas lawyer who represented Emerson.

Most recently, Emerson spent a couple of nights in jail for failing to pay child support. He's broke and has been for some time. Credit card companies are hounding him. He owes about $17,000 in back taxes. He didn't have the $310 fee to renew his medical license.

If you engage Timothy Joe Emerson in a conversation about the Second Amendment, he can recite only part of it. The adopted son of an insurance salesman and his wife, Emerson grew up in Dallas and got his first gun at age 14. He learned early on that "you don't point a gun, a real gun, a toy gun - any gun - unless you intend to shoot it."

Over the years, he collected about 35 guns - an AK-47 and other military-style weapons among them - and kept them in a safe. Emerson says, "I'm not even going to say the right to bear arms is a good thing. But it's a right we have."

He hasn't been a member of the National Rifle Association in years and years. Anyway, he says, he can't afford the $35 membership fee.

Federal agents arrested him in December 1998 as he was leaving the beauty shop where his girlfriend worked. He spent the night in jail and, he says, missed a morning appointment to purchase the building that housed his medical office.

Since then, Emerson has been alternately depressed, confused and angry. He has been refused visits with his 4-year-old daughter, Logan Ashley, although his parents see her monthly. His ex-wife has moved with the child to a town about 50 miles away.

In a recent letter to her dad, Logan wrote, "I love you. I hope you come back."

Life wasn't always this hard. But it hasn't exactly been a physician's dream.

"I've got one of those resumes that everybody looks at and says `something's wrong with this guy,'" says Emerson, whose boyish face and casual dress make him appear younger than he is.

After graduating from the University of Texas medical school, Emerson wanted to become a Green Beret doctor. He ended up working as a civilian physician at North Carolina's Fort Bragg. When his contract wasn't renewed, he returned to Texas where he worked in a series of jobs: a medical clinic in San Angelo, several emergency rooms and a student health center.

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