Trooper Charles Hanger was patrolling the I-35 corridor in north-central Oklahoma on the morning of April 19, 1995, stopping to help a stranded motorist and then heading north on a call to aid another when he noticed a yellow Mercury sedan without a tag. Hanger signaled for the car to pull over, and the driver complied. The two men got out of their vehicles and met between them. The trooper testified later that he questioned the man about the missing tag, and the driver said that he had recently bought the car and had not yet obtained a tag for it. It seemed a routine stop, until Hanger noticed a bulge under the driver’s windbreaker. He instructed the man to unzip his jacket and open it. Before being discovered, the man volunteered: “I have a gun.”
The trooper immediately pulled his gun and aimed at the driver’s head. He took the weapon from the man and tossed it away. Hanger asked why he was carrying the weapon, and the man, now splayed against the car, responded that he thought he needed it for protection. The trooper handcuffed the driver and read him his Miranda rights. Thereafter, with little conversation between them as they sat side-by-side in the front of the patrol car, they made their way to the jail in Perry, Oklahoma. The man’s only concern, the trooper said later, was that he should have his gun returned to him. At the county jail, the driver — Timothy McVeigh — was booked for transporting a loaded firearm in a vehicle, unlawfully carrying a weapon, and failure to obtain a tag and insurance on the car. In the subsequent two days leading up to his court hearing on these charges, federal agents were able to identify McVeigh as the man responsible for the Murrah Building bombing in Oklahoma City and locate him waiting in the county jail.
Normally, failure to display a tag and carry proof of insurance are not violations for which one is arrested. These are just misdemeanor charges under the Oklahoma Statutes, and a car isn’t even impounded during stops based on these infractions, usually. Instead, one is simply ticketed/fined and, perhaps, denied driving privileges for a period of time later (although a conviction can warrant a brief jail sentence, which is not common in practice). Since McVeigh was carrying a loaded weapon, however, he was arrested immediately. The following month, the Oklahoma legislature passed a law (that the Governor signed) permitting citizens to carry a concealed weapon upon obtaining a license to do so — ostensibly for personal protection. Just a couple of years ago, the legislature amended the Self-Defense Act to permit licensees to carry their weapons in full view as well.
Of course, the persons from whom McVeigh would have needed protection were the authorities, pursuing him for his crimes. Bizarrely — and disturbingly — if he had committed his act of terrorism just a few months later, the trooper could have had no cause to detain him at his stop. With credentials, McVeigh could have continued on his escape north, delayed only to obtain a ticket he would likely never pay. The manhunt for him would certainly have become more lengthy and complicated then as well. Who knows how long it would’ve taken to locate him, had he not been tucked away in a jail in Noble County. He probably could have hidden in a remote location in another state and even gone underground — perhaps aided by sympathizers who shared his hostility to government. A costly and time-consuming pursuit would then have been necessitated. It might even have been that the authorities would never locate him. Had he not been stopped and discovered illegally carrying a weapon when he was, his odds of finding safe haven would have been far greater.
Even more troubling, any number of future domestic terrorists and armed anti-government revolutionaries need not fear being detained as McVeigh was either. Fleeing from a crime scene created by their impersonal weapons — at a sporting event, clinic, parking lot, or courthouse — their personal ones might not be enough to cause their arrest if stopped.* License to protection would preclude any detention that would allow investigators time to track their suspects as they sat incommunicado. Reduced gun restrictions now prevent a trooper from responding as Hanger did. Accordingly, self-protection has undoubtedly made us all less safe.
*Since 2001, bombs have been set by domestic terrorists at each of the kinds of places listed. Some of these crimes remain unsolved.