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Felons Get Concealed Gun Licenses Under Bush's 'Tough' Law

Crime: Texas governor vowed a system of 'rigorous background checks.' A Times study finds that the screening process has shortcomings. Bush advisor calls the program a success.


On Feb. 21, 1996, Gordon Hale III, 42, a welding equipment repairman, was involved in a minor traffic accident in Dallas that shattered the side mirror of a delivery van. While stopped in traffic, witnesses told police, van driver Kenny Tavai, 33, walked to Hale's pickup and started punching him as he sat behind the wheel.

Hale reached for his .40-caliber handgun and killed Tavai with a single shot to the chest. Hale was charged with murder, but a grand jury refused to indict him and the charges were dropped.

It was to be the first of many shootings by license holders.

Many Licensees Were Obviously Unfit

In many cases, concealed gun permits were given to applicants who were obviously unfit. Some had prior conviction records. In other cases, histories of abuse or alarming patterns of dangerous behavior were missed or ignored.

One applicant got his concealed gun permit under the name Jamaal H. Muhammad. What the state missed in its background check was that Muhammad used to be convicted felon James Weldon Washington of Corsicana.

In November 1971, Washington and an accomplice committed a brutal gas station armed robbery that severely wounded an elderly man. Arrested shortly after the crime, Washington was sentenced to 20 years in prison and later changed his name to Muhammad. Eventually authorities matched Muhammad and Washington--and Texas revoked his gun license in 1999.

In Killeen, an emotionally troubled cabdriver, periodically on psychiatric medication, was authorized to carry a concealed handgun until he pleaded no contest to felony sexual assault of a 14-year-old last year. A court-appointed psychiatrist said Ernest T. Turner was legally sane but suffering from a "panic disorder" and in need of psychotherapy. Turner was sentenced to 10 years' probation and banned from owning guns.

A 69-year-old man in Dallas with Alzheimer's disease was licensed until he was arrested in 1997 for molesting his 11-year-old granddaughter. It turned out the abuse had been going on since the victim was a first-grader.

In the last four years, Texas has also issued handgun licenses to:

Richard J. Merrill, convicted of the 1969 rape of an International House of Pancakes waitress in Los Angeles; Orville G. Holbert, convicted of manslaughter in Oklahoma in 1958; and Virgil H. Rizer, who pleaded guilty to a 1993 assault in North Carolina for attacking a woman with a frying pan and a stun gun.

State officials, citing confidentiality rules, would not provide details about how long those licenses remained in effect before they were revoked.

In many cases, missed clues were abundant and disqualifying records readily available.

For example, a former Houston sheriff's deputy was licensed although he had been dismissed from the force a decade earlier and convicted of extorting sexual favors from a single mother with unpaid traffic tickets. The former deputy, Karl R. Prevo, eventually lost his license when he was convicted of assault for severely beating a man during a 1996 traffic dispute in a small town in Illinois.

Among the most notable, however, was the case of Terry Ross Gist.

The 32-year-old from Southern California so loved guns that friends called him "Holsters." He packed weapons in ankle holsters, tucked them in his waistband and hid them under the front seat of his car. He frequently shopped at gun shows, gun stores and pawnshops.

He also had a violent temper and abusive tendencies. He is serving a 10-year sentence in the Colorado City, Texas, prison. The state has finally moved to revoke his license, though his permit was still in effect as of Monday.

Gist discovered his gun passion as a high school freshman in Long Beach. His father gave him a .410 single-shot shotgun for Christmas. "All the men always had guns in the family," he said in a prison interview. "And getting that shotgun was a real kick. It was like reaching manhood."

He became a serious collector after joining the Army. Altogether he served about 10 years in the military, ending up at Ft. Bliss in El Paso.

He applied for his Texas concealed handgun license in 1997. By then his record was littered with red flags.

While stationed in North Carolina in 1993, Gist's wife, Maryann, sued him for divorce and obtained a restraining order to keep him away from her. She complained in court papers that Gist tried to choke her twice and threatened her with a bow and arrow as well as a gun. Whenever Gist got angry, she said, she had to hide his guns.

While with the Army in Haiti, he said he was arrested for brandishing a 9-millimeter Beretta at a local citizen over a failed souvenir transaction. The matter never came to trial, he said, because he received an early hardship discharge when his marriage broke up.

In the interview, Gist related other stories about his reckless and threatening past.

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