Soldier in the Army of God
"Soldier in the Army of God"
Anti-abortion Activist Shooting of Dr. Gunn
By: Anne Bower
Date: February 18, 1996
Source: "Soldier in the Army of God." Albion Monitor. Originally published in the magazine the Body Politic.
About the Author: Anne Bower was educated as an anthropologist but in 1991 turned to journalism and the publication of the Body Politic, a pro-choice magazine in Binghamton, New York, to oppose the radical anti-abortion group Operation Rescue, also based in Binghamton.
On March 11, 1993, the anti-abortion movement took a new, more violent direction when Michael Griffin shot and killed David Gunn, a doctor who performed abortions at a local clinic near Pensacola, Florida. Gunn was the first known health-care worker to be killed by radical opponents of abortion.
Gunn, forty-seven at the time of his death, was a graduate of the University of Kentucky medical school. He originally planned to be an obstetrician/gynecologist, and he took a job at a hospital in Brewton, Alabama, specifically because, according to him, it had the highest infant mortality rate in the nation. When a local clinic that was unable to find willing doctors asked him to, he began to perform abortions–surprisingly to some, for he was raised in a fundamentalist Christian home. His parents did not learn that he was an abortion provider until his death.
Soon, Gunn was crisscrossing Alabama, Florida, and Georgia full time to perform abortions at six different clinics, many for women no other doctor would help. He stayed in motels and often logged 1,000 miles of travel a week. Aware of threats from abortion protestors, he carried three guns in his car.
Meanwhile, Griffin, a navy veteran, remained largely to himself; he and his wife occasionally associated with other members of their Christian fundamentalist community. Before shooting Gunn, he had participated in only a few anti-abortion protests.
The facts of the crime were simple. On the day in question, Griffin, dressed in a gray suit, positioned himself near the back door of the Women's Medical Services clinic where Gunn worked. The clinic, located in a complex of professional offices, had no signs that identified it; a notice inside the entrance to suite 46 simply instructed patients to proceed upstairs to sign in. When Gunn arrived at the clinic and was getting out of his car, Griffin stepped forward, allegedly said to him "Don't kill any more babies," and shot him three times in the back with a .38-caliber revolver. Gunn died in surgery two hours later.
Meanwhile, the police had been called to monitor an anti-abortion protest that was taking place at the front of the building. Moments after the shooting, Griffin walked around the building and informed the police that he had just shot Gunn.
Griffin was part of an anti-abortion movement that was adopting increasingly bold and terrorist-like tactics. Not content with protests, groups such as Rescue America and Operation Rescue had graduated to harassing doctors, nurses, and patients; then to vandalism, attacks with butyric acid (a noxious compound that left an odor that was almost impossible to eradicate), and arson. One tactic that outraged health-care providers and pro-choice advocates was the distribution in print and on the Internet of Wild West–type "Wanted" posters with the names, pictures, addresses, and phone numbers of abortion providers. Gunn was known to Griffin and the protesters outside Gunn's clinic because Operation Rescue had recently put his picture and phone number on such a poster distributed at a rally in Alabama.
Emboldened by Griffin's actions, pro-life advocate Shelley Shannon, who had taken part in violent protest since 1988, armed herself with a .25-caliber pistol and wounded Dr. George Tiller of Wichita, Kansas, continuing a string of at least ten shootings in the United States and Canada during the 1990s. Anne Bower, publisher of the pro-choice magazine Body Politic, interviewed Shannon and wrote a profile of her titled "Soldier in the Army of God." The article details Shannon's evolution from abortion protester to anti-abortion terrorist (a form of special-interest terrorism) and would-be murderer, as well as her reaction to the shooting of Gunn.
At first, Shelley Shannon was content to perform civil disobedience with Operation Rescue. According to her own notes, she engaged in 35 different actions, beginning in 1988. She kept track of her "rescues" and her jail time in a computer file, titled "Mom's Jail Time Total." By her count, the total was 98 days.
But during 1991, according to her sentencing report, Shannon underwent a transformation from civil disobedience to violence. She wrote about it in a document entitled "Join the Army:"
The biggest hurdle was being willing to even consider that God could indeed require this work of anyone. Christians don't do that kind of thing, do they? But prayer and God cleared that up. Then I realized that I needed to stop the killing too.
She also began to correspond with men and women named in the "Prisoner's of Christ" list. This dialogue convinced her that most rescuers were not willing to put their convictions into action because they were unwilling to pay the price. Taking inspiration from these arsonists, bombers, and kidnappers, Shannon decided to risk her freedom. She was especially encouraged by arsonist Marjorie Reed who wrote:
If you are going to get a year for just blocking the doors, you might as well do much more drastic measures. . . . It is going to get a whole lot worse. Blood will be shed, not just the babies blood either.
Shelley Shannon recorded her last blockade as November 17, 1992. By then, this wife and mother of two teenage children, had committed herself to violence and engaged in a year-long arson and butyric acid bombing spree across three states . . .
Her transformation manifested in January of 1993 when Shannon wrote a letter to Life Advocate magazine, a publication that has condoned violence to end abortion. In the letter Shannon, referring to the recent spate of attacks on clinics (some of her own making) said,
I'm sure the bombers are acting in the will of God, and doubt they would or should stop if a guilty bystander or innocent person is hurt. If they don't act, a lot of people will be killed. Let's pray no one gets hurt, but this is war and we have to be realistic.
Two months after this letter appeared, Dr. David Gunn was shot in the back as he attempted to enter Pensacola Medical Services. The murderer, Michael Griffin, was immediately taken into custody. In "Next Advent" her computer file diary, Shannon said of the murder,
He didn't shoot Mother Teresa, he shot a mass murderer such as Saddam Hussien [sic] or Hitler. I don't even think it is accurately termed 'murder.' God is the only one who knows whether Gunn would ever have repented or if he would have killed another 5,000 babies and probably 3 or 4 more women who probably weren't Christians either.
With these chilling words, the quiet housewife embarked on her own path to murder.
The murder of David Gunn shocked the pro-choice community and was the beginning of the awakening of the public and law enforcement that things were getting serious in the trenches. Many in the Right-to-Life community were astonished that their years of calling abortion "murder" and doctors "baby killers" had resulted in such action. Some in the "rescue" community, who had been willing to blockade clinics and hassle women with "sidewalk counseling," were not prepared to condone cold-blooded murder. Michael Griffin was roundly condemned in many circles.
But not by Shelley Shannon. She wrote in "Christ Advent,"
I'm not convinced that God didn't require it of Michael to do this. It is possible. I'm praying God will push more of us 'off the deep end' . . .
Before his trial, Shannon began corresponding with Griffin and eventually spoke with him by telephone. In her diary she noted that Michael called her and said of him, "He is definitely a Christian." She was very upset by the apparent lack of support for Griffin in the pro-life community.
In her diary, Shannon expressed the belief that God could not lead her to do anything sinful, even if it seemed so to the outside world—a place that was fast receding from Shannon's consciousness. Just as Michael had been called to d.r. [direct rescue], she believed her path had become clear. God asked her to kill, and after praying on it and reading the Bible, she finally had no doubt. Her only prayer now was, "please help me do it right."
Shannon's target was Dr. George Tiller, a physician who practiced in Wichita, Kansas and was a major target of the anti-abortion movement. Dr. Tiller was especially hated because he performed late term abortions for which he was nicknamed "Tiller the Killer." In a letter to her daughter Angie written in prison after her arrest, Shannon tells the story of her quest to emulate Michael.
She obtained a .25 caliber pistol from an unnamed friend and practiced shooting at her home. A bus took her to Oklahoma City where she rented a car and drove to Wichita. Posing as a patient, she was unable to kill the doctor inside the clinic. Eventually she left the building and hung around outside with the protesters, where she says she got the idea to shoot the doctor when he drove out. Around 7:00 p.m. the doctor and another woman left. Shannon explained to her daughter how she made her move.
Finally they both came out, and fortunately her car was right in from of him, so if he lost control, his vehicle would only smash into hers. So I kept praying, shot, and took off. It never occurred to me that people would come after me, but they did!
Both the woman and Doctor Tiller—who was not seriously wounded—chased Shannon, but she got away and headed for Oklahoma City. Enroute she ditched the gun, which was never recovered. But before she could get on a plane home, Shannon was taken into custody.
That was August 19, 1993. Shannon has not been a free woman since. She was easily convicted and sentenced to 11 years for attempted murder. In her prison letters to Angie, Shannon showed no remorse for her actions. A few days after the shooting she wrote,
I'm not denying I shot Tiller. But I deny that it was wrong. It was the most holy, most righteous thing I've ever done. I have no regrets. I hope he's not killing babies today. If he is, at least I tried.
Some in the anti-abortion community supported her actions, especially Rev. Paul Hill who came to her trial. Rev. Hill had emerged on the anti-choice scene a few days after the murder of Dr. Gunn. He was first seen on the "Donahue Show" arguing that Dr. Gunn's murder was justifiable homicide, a theme he continued until July 28, 1994 when he gunned down Dr. John Britton and his volunteer escort, Colonel James Barrett . . .
But 1995 was not a good year for Shannon. She was found guilty of arson and sentenced to 20 more years to be served consecutively with the previous 11 . . .
Today, back in Kansas prison, Shannon is seldom visited by family or old friends. Her daughter has recently been arrested for a 1993 death threat on a California doctor. But she still remains a good little soldier in the Army of God.
Griffin's attorney tried to enter a temporary insanity plea, but the trial judge would not accept it because Griffin refused to undergo psychiatric examination. Nonetheless, at trial the defense tried to show that Griffin was the victim of brainwashing on the part of John Burt, head of Rescue America, alleging that Burt subjected Griffin to relentless anti-abortion rhetoric and graphic images, including a "funeral" for a pair of aborted fetuses. The jury, however, after deliberating for less than three hours, found Griffin guilty of first-degree murder. The judge sentenced him to life in prison, with the possibility of parole after twenty-five years.
Meanwhile, the violence continued. In addition to the wounding of Tiller by Shannon, further shootings and bombings occurred in British Columbia, Ontario, Manitoba, Massachusetts, Florida, Alabama, and New York. In 2003, the Reverend Paul J. Hill was executed for the murder of an abortion provider in Florida in July 1994. Suspected in much of the violence was James Kopp, who was finally arrested, tried, and convicted for the 1998 killing of an abortion provider while he slept in his Amherst, New York, home.
Largely in response to the killing of Gunn, and the increasingly violent sentiments and views expressed by Shannon, Congress passed the Freedom of Access to Clinical Entrances Act, which President Bill Clinton signed into law on May 26, 1994. The law provides stiff civil and criminal penalties for intentionally using force, the threat of force, or obstruction to "injure," "intimidate," or "interfere with" a person attempting to obtain reproductive health-care services.
The law applies equally to abortion clinics and pro-life counseling centers. It does not prohibit protests, prayers, singing, or distribution of literature.
In the years that followed, anti-abortion groups mounted numerous legal challenges to the act, arguing that it was vague and that it infringed on the right of free speech. While these challenges led to modification of details (for example, the distance at which protestors had to remain from patients and entrances, and the allowable level of noise from amplified microphones), the law has survived.
Baird-Windle, Patricia, and Eleanor J. Bader. Targets of Hatred: Anti-Abortion Terrorism. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001.
Mason, Carol. Killing for Life: The Apocalyptic Narrative of Pro-Life Politics. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2002.
Rutherford Institute. "Abortion Protests." <http://www.rutherford.org/documents/pdf/H01-Abortion%20Protests%20_1_.pdf> (accessed May 16, 2005).