The 9-1-1 Gamble

by Dave Kopel

The Blue Press, October 1998. More 911 data are available in Kopel's Amicus brief of the Independence Institute, the International Law Enforcement Educators & Trainers Association, and many other law enforcement organizations and leaders in District of Columbia v. Heller.

"Guns might have been alright when people lived on the frontier," anti-gunners will tell you, "But today, nobody needs a gun. All you need for protection is a telephone, so you can dial 9-1-1 for the police." The assertion that the government, through the 9-1-1 emergency phone system, can and will protect everyone from criminals is not just correct: it's unlawful and immoral.

"Women Raped after Response to 9-1-1 Slow," is a poignant but not uncommon type of headline (Tampa Tribune, March 24, 1997). The women in this particular story was walking home along a deserted highway, when a van full of young thugs began following her. She went to a pay phone, and called 9-1-1. By the time a police-car arrived, thirty-five minutes later, she had been gang-raped by the men in the van.

The Tampa story never made the national news, since stories like it are so common as not to be newsworthy beyond the town where they happen. (In contrast, fatal gun accidents involving children are rare, and are therefore played up nationally when they occur.) Wherever you go in the United States, you may encounter local 9-1-1 horror stories. In Chicago, handguns are against the law for law-abiding citizens, so only the criminals and the government have them. So what if a Chicagoan sees somebody being violently attacked by a criminal, and tries to call 9-1-1 to summon the police?

The crime victim better hope that he 9-1-1 system isn't inoperative, like it was for two-and-a-half hours one day. Or, that he doesn't get a busy signal, as is common in 9-1-1 systems all over the country. Or, that the phone doesn't just ring unanswered, as it has in Buffalo, among other places, due to understaffing. Or, that he doesn't reach a recording, as in Los Angeles. In one notorious Los Angeles case, a two-year-old boy lay wounded from a drive-by shooting while it took 20 minutes and the intervention of a telephone company operator to reach 9-1-1, according to a Newsweek article aptly entitled, "The Curse of 9-1-1."

If you do get through to 9-1-1, hope that you have better luck than the late Kyle Meriwether. When an armed robber entered her New York City business, "Avon Products," she pressed a silent alarm; her alarm company immediately called 9-1-1. The police responded within six minutes, but the 9-1-1 operator gave the police the wrong company name, "Eva Productions."

In the meantime, Ms. Meriwether had been shot, and was bleeding to death in a bathroom. Although the police were within a few feet of the murderer, they didn't find any company called "Eva Productions." So they called 9-1-1 back. And although 9-1-1 had been given the correct name, "Avon Products," the 9-1-1 operator insisted, "All I have is Eva Productions." The police explained that there was an "Avon" store at the address. "I don't know what that is supposed to be," the 9-1-1 operator replied. The police and operator agreed to file a "90x" form, meaning that the alarm had been unfounded.

After the police left, two Avon representatives went to Ms. Meriwether's Avon Products office. They found a man, the murderer (although they didn't know this at the time), sitting at the front desk. He said that Ms. Meriwether had stepped out, and would be back in a little bit.

Ms. Meriwether was bleeding so profusely that her blood traveled through the walls, and dripped downstairs into Karen Smith's apartment. Ms. Smith promptly called 9-1-1. In fact, she had to call three separate times. On the third call, the 9-1-1 operator told her, "Stop screaming in my ear," and then added, "We all have to go one day, right?"

Karen Smith later filed a complaint with the New York City Police Department, which at the time was headed by the vehemently anti-gun Lee Brown (who later became President Clinton's first "Drug Czar," and is now Mayor of Houston). The Department ignored her complaint, and sent over a police officer who, in her words, spent an hour "harassing" Ms. Smith for filing the complaint.

A little while after Kyle Meriwether's funeral, the Police Department sent a letter to her business addressed to "Eva N. Products." The letter stated that the Police Department responded to an alarm at the company, and "the alarm was determined to be UNNECESSARY." The letter warned that receipt of additional "unnecessary" alarms "will result in NO RESPONSE by the police to similar calls."

Ironically, the failure of the government 9-1-1 system is sometimes the basis for additional infringements on the right to self-defense. For example, in 1989, a gunman named Marc Lépine walked into the École Polytechnique college in Montreal, Canada, and began methodically shooting female students; he murdered 14 and wounded 12 more.

During the shooting, police and 9-1-1 operators argued over whether the emergency call should be transmitted to the police directly; police dispatchers provided police officers with only the school's address, and not the building where the murders were taking place; and the police did not enter the building until eight minutes after Lépine had taken his own life. This outrageous display of governmental incompetence was promptly used by the Canadian government as a pretext for drastic gun restrictions, including storage requirements making it impossible to keep any type of firearm available for defense in one's home.

Of course, there are many other times when the 9-1-1 system works fine, and most of the people who staff 9-1-1 offices are competent and hard-working. But relying on the 9-1-1 system to save your life is a gamble at best. However, let's imagine that the world were different; if you were attacked in your home or on the street, you could be certain that he government would immediately send a police officer to protect you. Would it then be appropriate to rely exclusively on the government for protection?

"No," writes Jeffrey Snyder in his brilliant article, "A Nation of Cowards" [The Public Interest, Fall 1993]. "How can you rightfully ask another human being to risk his life to protect yours, when you will assume no responsibility yourself? Because that is his job and we pay him to do it? Because your life is of incalculable value, but his is only worth the $30,000 salary we pay him? If you believe it is reprehensible to possess the means and will to use lethal force to repel a criminal assault, how can you call upon another to do so for you?"

Your life, and the lives of your family, are not government benefits which you can demand that the government preserve inviolate. Those lives are gifts from God, and it is the moral and legal responsibility of every capable adult to protect those lives. One step in meeting that responsibility is to own a firearm and learn how to use it effectively for defense. That responsibility cannot be met - practically, legally or morally - through hoping that a telephone call might result in the government sending someone else who will arrive in time to do for you what you should do for yourself.

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