Talking to my dad about Gail Gerlach

My dad, Dennis Baumgarten, is the most fastidiously moral person I have ever met or known. He is so deeply Good — capital G — I often feel that I’ll never match his kindness, compassion or selflessness. The way he treats people is a model for the way I try to treat people. I always come up short, but his is a signpost I guide myself by.

At the same time, my dad is very wary of “People” — anyone in the reckless, 24-hour news cycle of anonymous chaos that defines modern life — who might do harm to my mother or my brother or me. He is a veteran, an avid hunter, a passionate advocate for gun rights, and a lifetime NRA Member (a membership he purchased, he remembers precisely, in 1977 for $106).

My dad grew up in a violent part of a bad town in central California. He came to the woods of North Idaho and, eventually, Eastern Washington to be closer to nature, certainly, but also, I think, to have more control over his physical environment and the people in it.

The two most salient things I remember from my childhood living up a long country road northeast of Chattaroy are these: my parents always kept the door to our home open to anyone who needed our help, and they always kept a pistol close at hand in case someone wanted to do us harm.

When Gail Gerlach was found not guilty on charges of manslaughter in the death of Brendon Kaluza-Graham yesterday, I felt such an intense and nauseating swirl of emotions, it was as if the world had lost its mooring.

So today, I did what I do whenever I feel my moral foundation and my understanding of the world shaken. I called my dad.

Have you been following the Gerlach case?

I have a little, but I also know people who know him and from what I understand, the man [Gerlach] is extremely frustrated with the amount of crime around his home and they’ve always had problems and problems and he’s just had it. He was frustrated.

The police are a reactionary force. They don’t prevent crime, so I understand that frustration, but would I shoot somebody who is stealing my truck? I wouldn’t go to that extreme, myself.

So when would you consider using your gun?

The only time I would ever use it is if our life was threatened. If there’s no other way out.

How do you make that decision?

It would be a really hard call to make. You never have ideal circumstances. But if somebody’s stealing my truck, psh. I’m not going to use a gun. I’ve never seen a U-Haul behind a hearse. You can’t take that with you. The guy stealing [Kaluza-Graham] was in the wrong in every possible way, but that’s still too far.

Gerlach says he believes [Kaluza-Graham] pointed a gun at him as he was driving away. He said he feared for his life.

Well, if someone fired a gun at me I’d return fire. I’d protect myself.

But [Kaluza-Graham] didn’t fire. He didn’t have a gun.

[Gerlach] may have seen something, or thought he saw something, but that’s a horrible thing to live with. If I felt my life was in danger, I’d return fire. I’d empty the clip.

But the first thing you taught me — the first thing I learned in gun safety — is to check your backstop. Would you unload a clip into a car driving away when your neighbor’s houses are the backstop?

If there’s people around and someone’s shooting at me, I wouldn’t miss. But I would avoid [shooting] all costs because if there were kids anywhere around, [and one of them got hit] that would just be awful.

And then once you kill the guy, that truck is just out of control!

You’re right. A truck is like a missile.

You wouldn’t just get back into the house until the guy was down the block or around the corner? If he’s driving away and you think he might be pointing a gun over his shoulder?

If I thought it was going to endanger someone else, I would duck! If he’s shooting at me and there’s a bunch of people behind him, I’m just gonna hug the dirt as hard as I can. If I get hit, I get hit. And if I die, I die. I can’t really endanger somebody else — innocent people — like that.

So here’s the question I’ve been really fighting with. All of this is assuming there are a bunch of people walking around, carrying guns, trying to kill people. Is it good — is it a good idea — to always be this hyper-vigilant against violence?

That’s the big question of the day.

Are we too scared of each other in this country?

Well, I feel like there’s a lot of — with gangs and stuff — the news spreads this mentality that the world is unsafe and maybe the world is getting more dangerous or difficult. I don’t really see it myself, here. But if someone comes in my shop, I’d avoid everything, but if they want to shoot at me, I’m going to have to live with the choice to do this.

Violent crime isn’t getting worse, though. It’s going down.

I did read that! I did, but I hear about these shootings in places — the gangs and the Colorado shooting and [Newtown]. I don’t know why anyone would do those things, but there are innocent people getting shot right and left and it worries me.

But it’s not newsworthy to not shoot someone. It’s not newsworthy to show restraint, so of course all we hear about is violence.

You’re right about that. You also never hear about the good people who carry [guns]. There are a lot of good people who carry.

You carry. And you’re the best person I know.

[Laughs] I don’t know about that. But if you have a home invasion, what are you going to do? Yeah, take my stuff, but what if they want more than stuff? Nine times out of 10 you don’t need a gun —

Do you really think you need a gun 10 percent of the time?

No, no. Say 99 times out of a hundred you don’t need a gun. But that one time, I want to be able to defend myself. I’m getting to an age where I probably couldn’t win a fight, and I’ve got to protect your mom and our family. You’ve got to be prepared.

I get that, and if someone is standing in your living room he’s moving toward mom, defending her and yourself makes total sense. But the guy Gerlach shot didn’t have a gun, and Trayvon Martin didn’t have a gun, and [Chad Oulson] in the movie theater didn’t have a gun. I feel like people are getting so worried about that 1 time in 100 that they’re afraid of every person they see. I feel like this vigilance against the perception of violence is driving everyone crazy.

I think that’s true to a huge degree. We don’t have any compassion or love for our neighbor. And that doesn’t just have to be your next door neighbor. Your neighbor is anyone around you. It’s the guy stealing stuff, even.

You need to be concerned about your neighbor. You need to care for them. You love them. People who get on dope, you don’t stop loving those people. It’s your job to do what you can to help them. And if they don’t want help, you let them go. You say, “alright, buddy.” But you have your arms open if they come back.

As a Christian you’ve got to put other people before yourself, and you try to figure out how to do that as best as possible. But it’s very, very hard to know. ♦