In a short while, the pro-choice movement will commemorate the one year anniversary of the murder of Doctor George Tiller. So many words have been written about this wonderful man who was gunned down at his church, so I cannot contribute anything else that hasn’t been said already.
But as we approach that day, I am reminded of the day when the murders began. I am reminded of the murder of Doctor David Gunn, the first abortion doctor who was assassinated for what he did. I think it’s important to remember that day as well.
I was working at a national pro-choice organization for about three years when I got the call at 11:45 a.m. on March 10, 1993. The woman at the end of the line was hysterical as she told me that David had been killed as he was entering his clinic in Pensacola, Florida. I didn’t know David, but I had heard about him from Susan Hill, a woman who owned several clinics, including one that David regularly worked at. Susan had told me weeks before that her doctors were getting nervous about the increased anti-abortion activity outside of the clinics. Then she told me about one of her doctors, David Gunn, and how he was so concerned about his safety that he started carrying guns with him as he travelled every day from clinic to clinic. He also told her that he had a “boom box” and loved to play “I Won’t Back Down” by Tom Petty in front of the protestors that he faced regularly. I wonder now if he had pushed it too far.
The facts are well known by now: he was killed instantly by an anti-abortion zealot named Michael Griffin, shot in the back as he got out of his car. Griffin did not flee and was arrested immediately. Ultimately, he was sentenced to life in prison.
Doctor Gunn’s murder created a national firestorm. The story was headline news everywhere. Unfortunately, over the years, as more doctors were killed, those stories got less attention. But this story was hot for days on end. At my office, we were flooded with calls from fellow abortion providers, most of whom did not know David Gunn, who were asking about how to buy bullet proof vests, how to install security measures at their clinics, how to avoid the stalking.
Over the next few weeks, a number of abortion doctors quit their jobs. They felt – understandably – that this would not be the first murder, that this incident would incite a wave of violence against abortion providers. So, without much fanfare, they quietly informed us that they were leaving the field. On the other hand, of course, there were the “warriors” who were ready to do battle and who armed themselves to the teeth.
Out of this nightmare emerged a quiet hero – David Gunn, Jr. David was an unlikely hero. He had a stutter, he had hair almost to his waste and he had never spoken publicly. But he had accompanied his father on some of his trips throughout the south and could see the hatred that was growing. Immediately, David took up the banner for his father and started appearing on a number of national shows. I’ll never forget his appearance on “The Donohue Show” about a week later as he sat on the stage with Mr. Paul Hill who told the audience point blank that it was “justifiable homicide” to kill a doctor who performed abortions. David was firm, probably totally puzzled , and polite as always. He did his father proud.
Unfortunately, the funeral of David Gunn was held in Tennessee during a terrible snowstorm so most of Doctor Gunn’s colleagues could not attend and get that big “group hug” that they all needed so desperately. A year later, however, the National Coalition of Abortion Providers held a memorial at the site of David’s death. And the 100 or so attendees barely escaped being massacred. More on that in a future post.