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National Perspective | CRIME

Murder Case Puts New Focus on Texas' Concealed Gun Law

November 02, 2000|LIANNE HART and WILLIAM C. REMPEL | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

AUSTIN, Texas — It was the kind of shooting that many have dreaded in the five years since Gov. George W. Bush signed legislation giving Texans the right to carry concealed handguns.

Early Saturday, two popular young men in their 20s--both high-tech professionals--hailed a cab a few blocks from the Governor's Mansion. Barely two miles later both were dead, gunned down by their cabdriver--a gun enthusiast with a Texas concealed handgun license in his pocket.

Taxi driver Wayne Franklin Lambert Jr., 53, who had a gash over his left eye that required 18 stitches, told police he acted in self-defense. But he also gave differing accounts to witnesses as they happened upon the scene: They tried to rob him; they tried to run out on his fare; they jumped him.

Police were puzzled by what they said were other inconsistencies as well.

For instance, one of the men was shot three times in the back. And the other gave a death-bed statement indicating the cabdriver became enraged over something his friend had said and challenged him to a fight. It was a fight that the second victim said he was trying to stop when a .45-caliber slug tore through his body.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday November 3, 2000 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 3 Metro Desk 1 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction
Texas shooting--A story in Thursday's Times stated that a double shooting involving a cabdriver in Austin, Texas, occurred last Saturday. The shooting occurred Oct. 21.

Police charged Lambert with capital murder, opening the second multiple murder case brought against a Texas concealed gun licensee in the last three years. He remained in jail Wednesday when a Travis County judge refused to reduce his $100,000 bail.

At the bail hearing, Assistant Dist. Atty. Robert Smith portrayed Lambert as a flight risk because he has lived in the Philippines. He disputed claims of self-defense and noted the cabdriver "has an extreme fascination with weapons and a large cache of guns."

Meanwhile, lingering echoes of that deadly gunfire have resounded into the political campaign of the man from the Governor's Mansion. Gun control advocates have seized on the shootings to renew criticism of the law and the Texas legacy of Republican presidential nominee Bush.

"The history of the concealed handgun law in Texas is ugly," said Nina Butts, a spokeswoman for Texans Against Gun Violence and a longtime foe of the Bush-backed measure. She said that Bush "promoted rather than prevented gun violence" when he signed the bill in 1995 and that the state has since "licensed people with questionable judgment . . . who have done terrible things with their guns."

The Bush concealed handgun law, a hallmark of his gubernatorial record in Texas, already was an issue in some swing states where gun control groups have mounted anti-Bush ad campaigns featuring the law.

The Bush campaign declined comment Wednesday, referring questions to the governor's state press office. Spokesman Michael Jones defended the Texas concealed gun law but said "it would be inappropriate to discuss a pending criminal case."

Last month, The Times disclosed that a yearlong investigation into serious crimes committed by concealed gun licensees raised doubts about the state's screening process and the judgment, character and training of some license holders. The investigation found that Texas has licensed hundreds of people with prior criminal convictions--including rape and armed robbery--and histories of violence, psychological disorders and drug or alcohol problems.

It also identified many of the more than 3,000 licensees who committed crimes, ranging from murder to drunken driving, after receiving their Texas permits. Though access to such records is limited by strict confidentiality rules, the investigation traced scores of cases in which license holders responded violently under stress.

The latest controversial shootings revive many of those issues. And new information shows that accused killer Lambert's questionable history fits a pattern of problem licensees revealed in The Times' investigation.

Sixth Street in Austin is still alive with music and crowds after midnight when the cabs normally line up outside the Ivory Cat Tavern to pick up the first wave of homebound fares in the city's nightclub district. A regular at this unofficial cab stand was Lambert, usually in his trademark camouflage jacket and Army boots.

His fellow drivers knew he had a passion for guns and a fear of crime that prompted him to defy his employer's ban on drivers carrying firearms. He always had a loaded .45-caliber handgun in his cab, they said. Some said he also hid a smaller gun in a door pocket.

During off-hours, Lambert practiced shooting in the country. Fellow driver Kevin Norris, 31, said Lambert "could hit a peach core" from 50 yards. "He was always practicing his target shooting," Norris said. "He'd ask me to go with him three or four times a week."

Other friends said Lambert learned to shoot in Vietnam, where, he told them, he served on helicopter gunships.

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