Pistol Packin' Politicos
It began peacefully enough on that late-November day in 1991. Miami Beach residents were exercising their Constitutional right to vote, as candidates for mayor and city commission stood by shaking hands and kissing babies in a final attempt to curry electoral favor.
That's what most of the candidates were doing, anyway. One of the mayoral hopefuls was packin' heat and lookin' for trouble.
Barry Kutun, a strident law-and-order candidate who'd adopted the slogan, "Feel Safe Again: Elect Kutun for Mayor," had received word that his little sister was involved in a fracas with some opposition campaign workers at a polling site on Collins Avenue.
It was payback time.
Kutun drove to the polling place, tucked a .22 caliber Beretta into the waistband of his trousers, and waded into the fray. No matter that police had already restored order. Nobody gets away with socking Barry Kutun's little sister in the mouth.
When an alert cop asked Kutun to hand over his pistol, the candidate refused. How dare they? he protested. He had a permit to carry a concealed weapon.
After locking the Beretta inside his car for safekeeping, Kutun placed a call on his portable phone. "The fucking police are siding with my opponent again," he said to the unidentified person at the other end of the line, according to the police report. "Yeah, they beat up my sister and now they want to arrest me. I had my gun on the outside. The goddamn police just want to make it hard on me."
Kutun, a former state representative and onetime candidate for governor, eventually agreed to turn over the gun to police. For him, it was a pretty bad day all around. Opponent Seymour Gelber trounced him in the election.
Today Kutun is helping out another pistol-packing politician, Dade County Commissioner Joe Gersten. Kutun is a contributor and a fundraiser for the embattled Gersten, who is mounting a desperate bid to cling to a commission seat after a year of scandals stemming from an alleged crack-house encounter with a whore.
Even more recently, Gersten found himself embroiled in a gun-toting controversy. Last month a valet at the Four Ambassadors, a waterfront hotel/condominium complex on South Bayshore Drive, claimed Gersten had threatened to shoot him if he moved the commissioner's Mercedes from the front of the building, where it was blocking traffic.
To emphasize his point, Gersten allegedly removed a gun from his briefcase, shoved it into his waistband, and -- although accounts differ slightly -- made it clear that if the valet attempted to move the car, he did so at his own risk. "Touch my car and I'll shoot you," Gersten barked, according to one witness.
Investigators interviewed several people who were present at the scene, but state prosecutors are not expected to charge Gersten with any wrongdoing. Although most of the witnesses agreed the commissioner behaved like a pompous jerk, their versions of the incident were varied enough to make a conviction difficult.
The Gersten-Kutun connection, however, was not lost on other local politicians, who noted that the pair once served together in the state legislature.
Are they Dade County's Thelma and Louise?
It's not hard to envision them, after all, driving off into the Everglades at dusk, Joey at the wheel of the big red convertible, Barry at his side, both of them cackling like kids on too much cough syrup, leaving a trail of spent shell casings in their wake.
In light of the curious conjunction of the two local politicos and their handguns, it's tempting to wonder whether they represent a trend worth investigating. Just how many high-profile public servants have permits to carry concealed weapons, anyway? And how great is the potential danger to the general public? A consultation with the highest officials at the state capitol in Tallahassee, followed by an in-depth computer search for the names of more than 100 local public figures, provided the astounding answer.
Politicians love guns. They're plum nutty about em.
How else to explain the fact that the computer check through the state's Division of Licensing, which issues permits for concealed weapons, yielded fifteen percent of the 100-plus names. Fifteen percent! The figure is staggering when you consider that only one-half of one percent of the state's general population possess such permits. To put it another way: Politicians are nearly 30 times more likely to have a permit to carry a concealed weapon than is the average Floridian.
"I'm a strong believer that every good citizen should carry a gun," argues North Miami Beach Councilman John Kurzman, proud owner of what he describes as a .38 caliber police special. "If more people carried guns, there would be a heckuva lot less crime on the street, because criminals will get the idea that if they try to do something wrong, they'll get blown away."
While Kurzman has owned at least one gun since 1955, he says he hasn't yet "blown away" anybody himself. "I came close a few times," the councilman recalls. "I was held up once, but I was able to kick the guy in the face, so I didn't have to pull out my gun.
"I have very little patience for criminals," Kurzman sighs. "To me, if somebody commits an armed robbery or any other act of violence, they should be put in jail and the key should be thrown away. They shouldn't be allowed to get out on parole, and they should stay there the rest of their life. Then I'd be happy."
Miami City Commissioner J.L. Plummer is another advocate of publicly pumping one's iron when necessary. "Yes, sir, I have a gun," he states matter-of-factly. "It's for self-protection." Plummer says he decided to arm himself back in 1978, when ex-cop and former San Francisco city supervisor Dan White shot and killed the Golden Gate city's Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, after binging on Twinkies. "I was concerned," says Plummer, whose weapon of choice is a Glock 9mm. "Very concerned."
It's not clear whether Plummer was afraid one of his ex-peers on the commission might be on the verge of a homicidal rampage. "I'm just looking out for J.L.," he says.
Of course, Plummer isn't alone. Who can forget the picture of Alex Muxo, the city manager of Homestead, marching through his town's wind-ravaged streets with a tiny tin star pinned to his sweat-stained shirt and a revolver strapped to his hip?
It's unclear where Miami Beach Commissioner Abe Resnick straps his piece; he didn't return phone calls for this article. But North Bay Village Mayor Paul Vogel is known to keep a gun neatly tucked in an ankle holster, at least every now and then. And fellow mayors Tobie Wilson (Medley) and Pedro Reboredo (West Miami) also have concealed-weapons permits.
"I own a number of guns," Reboredo happily volunteers. "I took advantage of getting a permit in case I ever decided to go in a certain area where my security might be at risk." As mayor, he explains, he has ridden along on several undercover drug stings, "and that revived my awareness of the crime problem in our neighborhoods."
Cesar Odio, Miami city manager, was offended that he'd been lumped in with a bunch of elected officials. "I'm not a politician. Why am I on your list?" he asked. "I have a permit, but I don't usually carry a gun on me. Sometimes I do have a gun in my car. During an emergency like Hurricane Andrew, if I went out after curfew, I would carry the gun on me."
Odio says he purchased his gun a few years ago, after there was a threat on his life.
"Whenever you are in a campaign, you worry about your safety," affirms Republican State Sen. Roberto Casas (39th Dist.). "You want to be protected. I've got a few guns."
Frank Wolland, a councilman for the City of North Miami and an attorney, applied for and received a permit when the state first made them available in October of 1987. (Before the state consolidated and streamlined the process, concealed-weapons permits were issued by individual counties.) Wolland has since let his permit expire, although he still keeps a handgun or two around the house. "A little .38 caliber," he says.
And what made him apply for a permit in the first place?
"That way if any fuckin' bellhops give me a hard time, I'll just blow them away," the attorney guffaws.
"No, no," he continues, in an attempt to regain his composure. "I really do have a good reason to have a gun-carry permit. It is a violent society. As a lawyer I've had several cases where people have been shot. In my last case, a client got killed right out from under me."
A criminal case?
"No, this is all divorce stuff," he shrugs. "But if I was a judge or a prosecutor, I would absolutely still carry a gun." (According to the State Division of Licensing, 221 Florida judges have permits to carry a concealed weapon. As shown in the sidebar on page *TK, *TK of those judges sit on the bench in Dade.)
Once, Wolland says, a client of one of his partners got mad about the legal service he was receiving. It seemed he thought he wasn't getting his money's worth. "The guy came up here and beat the you-know-what out of that lawyer for a security deposit," Wolland recounts. "Now, while this was going on, another lawyer in this office -- I won't say who -- went in with a gun. And guess what? The guy that was doing the beating stopped. He understood that this is not acceptable behavior, because he didn't want to get a bad case of lead poisoning."
The round metal ball tore through Alexander Hamilton's right side, shattering several ribs before destroying the Revolutionary War hero's liver. He looked across the twenty paces that separated him from his adversary, Vice President Aaron Burr. A wisp of smoke rose from Burr's pistol and a slight smile crept across his face. Horror struck Hamilton as thoughts of his seven soon-to-be-fatherless children raced through the treasury secretary's mind. "I am a dead man," Hamilton declared, falling to the ground with a bad case of lead poisoning.
Actually, Hamilton didn't die until the next day, July 12, 1804. But the lesson is still clear: Bad things can happen when politicians play with guns. A further example is to be found in the life of Andrew "Stonewall" Jackson. Before he became this country's seventh president, Jackson was seriously wounded when he was ambushed by Thomas Hart Benton, an eventual U.S. senator from Missouri, and Benton's brother, in a bar.
Historians report that upon seeing the men, Jackson refused to back away from their challenge. "Now defend yourself, you damned rascal!" he is said to have shouted as he rushed forward, armed with a pistol and a bullwhip. He was promptly shot twice. Some say his wounds soaked two mattresses with blood before they finally healed.
One would think that by this time politicians would know better than to get involved in dueling. But consider the following: In 1986, Jorge Mas Canosa, leader of the Cuban American National Foundation (and, if he gets his way, future president of Cuba), challenged then-Miami City Commissioner Joe Carollo to a duel, because Mas Canosa felt Carollo had impugned his character.
"I am going to prove to the Cubans that you are a clown and a coward," vowed Mas Canosa on Radio Mambi. "Your bullying in Miami has ended, because you have encountered a man with a capital M, a very big M."
Carollo was stunned. "He challenged me to a duel, with either swords or guns," the ex-commissioner recalls. "My reaction at the time was that if he wanted to have a duel, we should have it with water pistols, and maybe after I squirted him in the face he'd cool off."
The duel never transpired, but Carollo later heard that Mas Canosa, who reportedly owns a .357 magnum, had gone so far as to make arrangements with El Salvadoran armed forces officials to hold the duel on one of their bases in Central America. That way there would be no question of criminal charges against the victor. Besides, Mas Canosa doesn't even have a concealed weapons permit in Florida.
Further insight into the field of dueling politicians was provided by Donald Fleming, Ph.D., an esteemed educator and historian.
"Let me see," mused Fleming, reach by phone in his office at Harvard University. "Theodore Roosevelt had lots of guns, but that was because he was a great hunter. Of course you do have military men who were politicians, but that's a bit different from what you're after.
"You have the Burr-Hamilton duel," the renowned historian continued. "That incident with Andrew Jackson. I also have a vague recollection that one of the vice presidents in the 1800s, Richard Mentor Johnson, may have been involved in dueling. And of course Henry Clay had duels."
He was sorry, Fleming admitted finally, but those were about all he could come up with. "I'm not sure that there are any notable politicians particularly identifiable with guns since the dueling era passed," he noted. "No one is really studying the issue, though."
Upon being informed that someone was studying the issue, Fleming was aghast. He was particularly struck, he said, by the statistical revelation that Dade politicians are 30 times more likely than ordinary Florida citizens to possess concealed-weapons permits.
"Is that all true?" asked the dumbfounded professor. "My! Well, I take your point, then."
Contacted in his office at UCLA, psychology professor Jim Sidanius offered one theory about why politicians might be so enamored of artillery. "There was an old thesis, developed in the 1930s by a psychologist by the name of Harold Lasswell," Sidanius said. "Lasswell was a major figure in American political science and political psychology. He had the idea that the political power of politicians was simply an extension of personal power needs and various feelings of inadequacy."
As Sidanius explained it, Lasswell surmised that by and large, politicians were a bunch of sick puppies. In his 1936 treatise entitled, Politics: Who Gets What and How, Lasswell wrote: "They have often learned to cow their environment by the sheer intensity of their willfulness. Such are the men of Napoleonic mold, prone to break themselves or others . The common trait of the political personality type is the emphatic need for deference."
If one accepts Lasswell's argument, Sidanius pointed out, it would make sense that politicians would carry weapons.
"Having a gun, carrying a gun, flaunting a gun would be a natural extension of that need for power," the professor explained. "It would probably also be the case that male gun owners are probably more dominance- and control-oriented."
And so, in fact, they seem to be. According to the state's figures, among those Dade public servants who were granted a permit to conceal their weapon, more than 96 percent are men. (Among current officeholders, only Gilda Oliveros, the mayor of Hialeah Gardens, has a concealed-weapons permit. The other woman whose name surfaced in the computer search was former judge Ellen Morphonios.)
The overwhelming male-to-female ratio among the gun toters naturally leads one to ponder the long-held view that the pistol is a symbol of male dominance, an extension of the phallus. Politicians and guns. Politicians and sex. Guns and sex.
As of the first of this year, 79,762 Floridians had been granted permission to walk around with a gun hidden beneath their sport coat, or tucked into their boot, or hidden someplace else on their person -- easily accessible but out of sight.
One out of every four permits issued in Florida goes to someone in Dade County. Currently, 21,813 people in Dade have permits.
Since the state's concealed-weapons law was enacted in late 1987, tens of thousands of people have paid the requisite $160 fee, answered the dozen simple questions on the one-page application, and fingerprinted themselves for posterity. Only if a person has been convicted of a violent felony or misdemeanor, been judged to be mentally incompetent, or been convicted of two or more drunk-driving offenses will the state refuse to issue a permit.
In the past five years, only 837 people have applied for a permit in this state and had their application refused.
In Florida, which is one of 34 states that has enacted statewide concealed-weapons legislation, a person doesn't need a permit to buy a gun. There is a three-day waiting period for purchase, but anyone can possess a gun in his or her home or place of business -- even in a car, as long as the weapon is out of easy reach -- without a special permit. Only those who actually want to carry a gun with them need to have a permit. (Incidentally, it's illegal to carry an "unconcealed" weapon -- say, a six-shooter strapped to your side -- unless you're a police or jail officer, or an on-duty guard or investigator. The only other exemptions apply to hunters, people practicing their marksmanship at gun ranges, and collectors at conventions and exhibitions.)
The pistol-politician nexus is also evident in the power of the gun lobby, typified by the National Rifle Association. Although a count isn't yet available for the new U.S. Legislature, as of last year at least 125 U.S. representatives and senators were card-carrying members of the NRA, according to David Gibbons, director of federal affairs for the NRA in Washington, D.C.
"Of course George Bush is a member of the NRA and Ronald Reagan is a member of the NRA, and lots of people like that," gushes Gibbons. Senators and congressmen serve on the NRA's national board of directors. The group's political action committee donates tens of thousands of dollars to politicians across the nation, and its lobbyists are considered to be among the most powerful to patrol the halls of Congress. Repeatedly, those lobbyists have fought for the right of the American hunter to obtain semiautomatic assault rifles and armor-piercing bullets.
"Most politicians feel very strongly about the Constitution," Gibbons says. "And the majority of them believe that the Second Amendment is exactly what it says concerning the right to bear arms."
Obviously, however, not every politician owns a gun. Given her commitment to law and order, you might expect that U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen's name would have a permit attached to it. Not so, the computer inquiry revealed. Nor is her husband, war-weary former U.S. Attorney Dexter Lehtinen, registered with the Division of Licensing. (Because of his media prominence, Lehtinen's name was included in the computer search, even though he isn't technically a politician.) Too bad, because it's easy to picture the two of them striding through the darkened streets of Dade, keeping the populus free from lawlessness, or standing shoulder-to-shoulder at the firing range, blasting holes in life-size cardboard cutouts of Ted Kennedy and Michael Dukakis. Good shot, dear!
A couple of state legislators -- Democratic Sen. Ron Silver (38th Dist.) and Republican Rep. Luis Rojas (102nd Dist.) initially showed up on the state's computer printout of pistol packers, but both turned out to be cases of mistaken identity. "There are several Luis Rojases," Congressman Rojas explains. "One of them was arrested, and I've always had problems [with people] thinking I was him. I think handguns are dangerous. I think we have too many of them. I'm not anti-gun, but I wish we didn't have them."
Says Silver: "I've never applied for a concealed-weapon permit. I don't even know how to use a gun. Although, as the problems in society escalate, you do think about it a little bit. But right now I still don't feel the need to carry one."
And of course there are also those who are vehemently opposed to the idea of carrying a gun. "I have no desire to get a concealed-weapon permit," says Don Goetz, mayor of Virginia Gardens. "Particularly since I'm a father of three. I know what can happen when parents own guns. I also see what this gun mania is doing to this country."
Goetz, a teacher at Miami Central High School in Liberty City, has had a close-up view of the nation's gun fancy. Once, he says, one of his students let him know he was carrying a gun, but he dealt with the situation by talking to the student; in such a situation, if he'd had a gun himself, it only would have made matters worse. "You don't want to settle arguments with guns. We've glorified guns," Goetz says. "Having a gun is part of the American mystique. Our generation has given the wrong message concerning guns."
Echoes Joe Carollo, who narrowly escaped a duel with Jorge "Big M" Mas Canosa: "People who have big egos often don't have the self-control to understand how dangerous a gun is. And there are certainly some people who hold elected office who fit that stereotype. But you don't have to be a politician to have a big ego."
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