Auric Gold: 'I swore to myself I was not going to be defenseless ever again.'
When Auric Gold got out of the Army in 1977 and moved back to Wisconsin, the college town of Madison seemed like a safe place to settle. But a few random incidents made Gold feel vulnerable.
The first happened when he was a UW-Madison student, taking a bus ride home. By his account, he suddenly found himself in the middle of a shootout. Police "machine gunned" a car in front of the bus, bringing traffic to a halt at Regent and Park.
"I suddenly realized I was vulnerable," Gold says. "I didn't know what kind of firepower was being used."
Not long afterward, he was walking in the woods near his residence in Fitchburg, which was much more rural back then. A couple of hunters, he says, took a shot in his direction. He turned and saw them gazing at him.
"They had a clear view," Gold says. "It was clearly intentional. I just looked at them and thought, 'What are these guys doing?'"
The third incident purportedly happened while Gold was driving home from his mom's house in Prairie du Chien. He encountered a motorist who blew through a stop sign and tailgated him for several miles, apparently in the throes of road rage.
"I felt my life was in danger, and I was completely defenseless," he says. "I swore to myself I was not going to be defenseless ever again."
Gold, now 55, has made good on that promise. Today, the east-side Madison resident rarely leaves home without a sidearm - either a Glock semiautomatic or a Ruger .357 revolver. He's a founding member of Wisconsin Carry and an advocate for the right to carry guns, both openly and concealed.
People like to be armed in public for various reasons - out of concern for their safety, a sense that it is their right, or just because. It's legal to carry a gun openly in Wisconsin, but the state is one of a few where it is illegal to carry concealed weapons.
With the recent elections, that is almost certain to change (see sidebar). Citizens will be able to carry guns covertly as well as openly, and many more people will likely do so.
Others are baffled by the desire to secure this right. What exactly does the gun crowd want - and why do they want it? I set out to see what I could learn.
In 1998, Wisconsin voters approved amending their state constitution to add: "The people have the right to keep and bear arms for security, defense, hunting, recreation or any other lawful purpose."
But the manner in which people can bear those arms is still regulated. Wisconsin, Illinois and the District of Columbia are the only places that absolutely forbid carrying concealed guns. (Hawaii and New Jersey issue permits for concealed carry, but in practice these are almost impossible for civilians to obtain. Alaska, Vermont and Arizona allow anyone to carry concealed without a permit. All other states have a permitting process.)
Conservatives and gun-rights advocates have long fought for concealed carry in Wisconsin, and the Legislature has passed bills allowing it - only to have Gov. Jim Doyle veto them. After the last legislative effort, in 2006, Doyle was quoted saying that if people want to carry a gun, they should "wear it on their hip."
Some advocates started calling his bluff. State law allows Wisconsinites to openly carry guns, with a few exceptions, like government buildings, schools and places were alcohol is served. Loaded and uncased guns are also not allowed in automobiles, boats or planes or for those under the influence of alcohol or controlled substances. In addition, businesses can ban guns from their premises.
In April 2009, state Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen gave weight to the open-carry cause when he issued a memo affirming that people in Wisconsin have the right to carry a gun without fear of police harassment.
"The [Justice] Department believes that mere open carry of a firearm, absent additional facts and circumstances, should not result in a disorderly conduct charge," Van Hollen wrote. "For example, a hunter openly carrying a rifle or shotgun on his property during hunting season while quietly tracking game should not face a disorderly conduct charge. But if the same hunter carries the same rifle or shotgun through a crowded street while barking at a passerby, the conduct may lose its constitutional protection."
The same applied to handguns, he wrote. A charge of disorderly conduct depended on the person's behavior, not whether he or she was openly bearing arms.
Van Hollen said police have the right to stop and question someone carrying a gun as long as there is "a 'reasonable suspicion' based on articulable facts, of criminal activity." Absent suspicion, officers are allowed to speak to anyone, "as long as the questions, the circumstances and the officer's behavior do not convey to the subject that he must comply with the requests."
Armed with this memo, gun advocates began asserting themselves. The same year, Gold helped form Wisconsin Carry, which the group's website says is "dedicated to the preservation and reclamation of the basic rights critical to a free society." Cofounder and vice president Hubert Hoffman says the group decided early on not to release its membership numbers. But, he says, members are scattered throughout the state.
Indeed they are. One Wisconsin Carry member, Jesus Gonzalez, is now facing charges for first-degree homicide and attempted homicide for a shooting in Milwaukee; he claims it was self-defense.
On Sept. 18, five Wisconsin Carry members, all wearing side arms, had dinner at the Culver's by East Towne. As they were leaving, a 62-year-old woman sitting in her car noticed their weapons and called police. She later told officers: "I didn't know what the law was, and I thought I should at least call so the police can come and check it out 'cause I didn't want to be that one person that saw guns and didn't call, and then have something terrible happen."
Eight Madison police officers soon arrived on the scene and asked that the men show identification. Two of them refused; they were arrested and charged with obstructing an officer. Two days later, police dropped those charges but charged all five men with disorderly conduct.
The police department then issued a press release stating: "Chief [Noble] Wray wants to make clear: It is the department's wish that concerned citizens call 911 when they see armed subjects."
Wray also directed officers to contact, control and frisk armed subjects and "separate the suspect from any weapons in his/her possession during the encounter."
That press release prompted Wisconsin Carry to sue the city. In its short existence, the group has been involved in a number of lawsuits over gun laws and their enforcement. It currently has a lawsuit pending against the state for its prohibition on guns in school zones.
In its case against the city, Wisconsin Carry argues that Madison's policy violates the constitution and that police are not using "reasonable suspicion" in deciding whom to stop. (Madison City Attorney Michael May declined to comment.)
Attorney James R. Troupis, who is representing Wisconsin Carry in the lawsuit, says police have always been able to stop a person if they have reasonable grounds for suspicion. "But when you remove that discretion and say every time you see someone with a weapon, you're going to stop them and detain them - when you remove the reasonable discretion, that's when you run afoul of the law."
He uses an analogy: "What if they don't like people who wear burkas? People are afraid of them. Do police have a right to stop that person? People are allowed to dress as they will."
Gold, who wasn't at Culver's when the arrests were made, says he's never been stopped by police or questioned while carrying a gun. He sometimes cuts his lawn while armed and has seen police drive by, but they've never stopped. And he's walked armed downtown past police unbothered. Still, he's aware of the potential for a confrontation.
"I don't break any laws, so I'm not worried about getting busted," he says. "I don't think I'd be confrontational [if questioned by police]. The police have the upper hand. If you want to object to what they do, do it in court."
Gold doesn't want police "to see us as potential foes, even though we end up filing lawsuits against them." And while he's met officers who are pro-carry, he understands why some police squirm at the thought of armed civilians.
"It removes the control they have, and it bothers them knowing they're on an even playing field, dealing with someone capable of doing the same violence they are," he says. "Well, too bad."
Dr. Stephen Hargarten, director of the Injury Research Center at the Medical College of Wisconsin, looks at the debate from a public-health standpoint. Kinetic energy - in the form of a moving car or a firearm or a brick falling from a building - causes injury. He seeks ways to limit the accidental or unauthorized release of that energy to prevent its damage. He likens gun safety to car safety.
"What are we going to gain by having an increased number of individuals carrying a product that has not undergone rigorous safety testing or the individuals carrying the product not having rigorous training?" he asks. "What are we trying to accomplish when our rates of crime are relatively lower than the rest of the nation?"
I grew up in a hunting family, and my dad was a lifetime member of the National Rifle Association. We had some 40 guns in our basement, mostly rifles and shotguns, but a few handguns and antique firearms. Dad would drag me along with him every weekend in the fall, hunting grouse, deer and woodchuck, first as a sidekick and then as a hunting partner. I ended up loving the walks in the woods but never cared for the guns or killing.
It's been years since I've fired a gun, and I wanted to remember what it felt like. So I asked Gold to take me shooting.
On Halloween weekend, I accompany Gold and his partner, Andrea, to the free shooting range at Yellowstone State Park. It's a cool sunny morning, but the range isn't crowded. A man and his sons shoot a .22 rifle next to us.
Gold gives me a metal holster to put on my belt and a Glock 23 - the standard gun issued to the FBI - to rest inside of it. It feels odd wearing a gun, but also kind of cool. There's an instant feeling of authority and power that comes with having a gun at your side.
Gold teaches me basic retention techniques, in case someone tried to steal my gun. One is to simply shove the assailant's hand down against the gun, to prevent him from pulling it out of the holster.
Gold staples a paper target with the outline of a human body - head and torso - to the wooden backing. At 20 feet away, he draws quickly and fires several times, each shot landing definitively in the target's chest area, a nice cluster. He moves up a few feet and repeats the exercise, this time his bullets landing in the target's head.
"I don't consider handgun combat a marksmanship contest, I consider it a survival contest," says Gold, who tries to hit the range at least once a week to "keep fresh in my memory the recoil of the gun."
My own efforts are much less respectable. Most of my shots stray to the right of the target, if they hit paper at all. Gold tells me I'm anticipating the shot too much, pulling the gun to one side as I pull the trigger. He also suggests I lean forward, in a more aggressive stance. The advice doesn't help.
Gold used to hunt, but never enjoyed it much and doesn't like game meat. "I can't see the point in killing something just to kill."
He confesses, though, that he "had a thing against squirrels for a while." They were getting into his garage and house, causing damage. When traps and poison didn't work, Gold wrote a letter to the police asking if he could shoot them. Permission was denied, so Gold bought a pellet gun to wage his war. The squirrels lost.
Our conversation comes to an abrupt halt when a guy next to us begins firing an assault rifle. The sound is deafening, so we pack up. I check to make sure the Glock is unloaded and hand it back to Gold. Briefly, I think it would be cool to own one.
I know some people in Madison think the open-carry crowd is a bit off its rocker, but Auric Gold doesn't seem crazy to me. He's a nice guy, friendly, smart. And after spending some time with him, I'm convinced he's a well-trained and responsible gun owner.
A Wisconsin native, Gold grew up in Prairie du Chien. His dad was a World War II vet who didn't much care for guns after the war, and there were none in his house. But Gold got accustomed to being around them while serving in the Army, including a stint in Germany. He came to Madison to attend the UW, majoring in philosophy.
He makes his living doing commercial and studio photography, as well as some fine art, retouching and restoration. His company is called bAsO Arts. He has two children, though neither of them has acquired his interest in guns.
Gold spends what seems, at least to me, an inordinate amount of time preparing to shoot his way out of dangerous situations. Besides going to the range regularly, he practices firing while moving, running and crouched behind barriers. He practices how to react when being assaulted while loved ones are nearby, learning how to push or pull them out of the way while still being able to fire off some shots.
And he's taken courses at the Deerfield Rod and Gun Club in which an instructor plays the role of a stranger acting bizarrely and the student must decide when to draw and fire a paintball gun in defense. The instructor might pull out a weapon or a religious tract. The course is designed to get students to recognize the difference between being afraid and being in danger, and to understand the consequences of firing your gun.
"Last time I did [the course], I didn't shoot [the instructor]," Gold says. "I felt gypped, because I wanted to. But he never did anything threatening."
Afterward, police officers who belong to the club interview the students as if it had been a real shooting. Participants must decide what, if anything, to tell the police.
Despite all this training, Gold insists, "I don't feel any great fear or paranoia. I don't think I look like an easy target." He looks, in fact, like he could be a member of the Allman Brothers or an extra in Lord of the Rings, with a dark beard and long black hair. He keeps his hair long in part to gauge people by the judgments they make about him.
Of course, Gold would be an unwise mark for a bad guy. "If somebody broke into my home, they really picked the wrong spot," he says. "Out on the street, people don't usually hassle you."
Perhaps one day, Gold's training will come in handy, but I doubt it. I've traveled the world and walked on streets at night alone in cities around the U.S., Central America and Asia, and never once been accosted. It seems far more likely that both he and I will end up falling victim to a distracted motorist, clogged artery or cancer cells than armed bandits.
Gold says he doesn't expect trouble either, but knows random bad things happen to people who are just "in the wrong place at the wrong time."
Still, as he creeps toward old age, Gold feels he's becoming more vulnerable to society's dangers. "The last time I tried to run at high speed, I tore my hamstring," he says. "I've got bad knees, arthritis. I'm depending on more than my feet and hands to get out of a bad situation."
A certified shooting instructor, Gold is licensed in three states - Florida, Pennsylvania and Minnesota - to carry a concealed weapon.
The permits came in handy a few years back, when he helped his son move to Portland, Ore. Gold researched the gun laws of each state he would be driving through. Turns out he could legally carry a weapon in all except one.
"I was armed the entire way back from Portland to Wisconsin," he says. "But when I see that 'Welcome to Wisconsin' sign coming up, I had to stop the car, unholster and unload."