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09.10.11

Ranger Rick and the Coyote

Presidential hopeful Rick Perry claims he shot a coyote while jogging, but where are the witnesses, and would the governor of Texas really use a firearm fit for a ‘metrosexual’? Carol Flake Chapman has her doubts.

Texans, and Rick Perry in particular, are not known for their modesty, so it’s a good idea to assume that a little swagger might be involved in any homespun yarn involving physical prowess. I do know for a fact, though, that Rick Perry can run. He and I were in the same revved-up early morning running group for several months a few years go. And I know for a fact that he can shoot. He and I have competed in a few of the same shotgun tournaments over the years. As I recall, he’s pretty good at both of those skills. I gather that he must be pretty good at hollering, too, given his tenure as yell leader at Texas A&M. It’s the alleged combination of those three particular skills in a single fabled incident, however, that stops me in my tracks.

Ever since Perry regaled an AP reporter in April 2010 with a flint-eyed story of nailing a coyote on the jogging trail near his home with a single shot from his Ruger .380, I’ve tried to produce an instant replay of the incident in my mind, in the way that he described it. It’s got all the elements of a good frontier Texas tale, a legend in the making: snakes, guns, coyotes, a puppy in danger, a pistol-toting hero to the rescue. Everything but witnesses. Just the thing for a then-governor trying to hang on to his office with a quick boost of down-home cowboy macho in a tightening race against the balding, nerdy-looking mayor of the state’s largest city. Except that the varmint dispatching happened in an ultra-posh suburb of Austin, where mansions start at near $1 million, and the gun in question is not exactly a standard at the OK Corral.

Perry claims that he happened to be packing his pistol that morning because he was afraid of snakes, and that it came in handy when the coyote in question “laser-locked” its attention on his daughter’s Labrador Retriever. He told the reporter that after “hollering” at the coyote and charging it, he proceeded to send it “where coyotes go” with just one laser-guided shot. Presumably that would be coyote never-never land. Laser-like focus is no match, apparently, for the right firearm accessory. But however many times I try to rerun this scenario in my head, it just doesn’t make any sense, gun-wise or coyote-wise. And I’m not alone in that conclusion. There’s something about this story that just doesn’t smell right to folks who know something about guns, snakes, and coyotes.

I don’t doubt that there are snakes and coyotes lurking in the less manicured stretches of the Estates Above Lost Creek, where Perry’s $10,000-a-month rental mansion is located, and that the coyotes may have posed a threat to cats and the Chihuahuas in the neighborhood. My own neighborhood in the hills west of Austin is just a few minutes from Perry’s gated enclave, as the vulture flies, and the terrain is similar, though the rents are considerably lower. Over the years, folks here have lost several cats to coyotes. So I don’t doubt that Perry may have spotted one of the critters at some point on his morning jogs and thought about taking a shot at it. But that’s where the story gets a little iffy.

Perry told the reporter that he happened to be packing his pistol, loaded with hollow-point bullets, because he’s afraid of snakes, which raises a number of issues. First of all, the incident was supposed to have happened in February, during an unusually cold winter in Austin. It was the eighth-coldest February on record in Austin, and I can tell you it was damned cold that winter, and not the kind of weather when snakes are active. And then there’s the question of ammo. According to the gun forums I’ve consulted, if you’re worried about snakes, you load up with pellet-based snake shot or snake load, as opposed to hollow-point bullets, which are a “social” load. For a human attacker, that is. But realistically, by the time you actually get your gun out, as one hunter put it, you’re either safely past the snake, or you’ve already been bitten.

As for the puppy being in danger, you have to wonder how big it was compared to the coyote. For Perry to take it jogging without a leash, you’d have to assume it would be at least a few months old and a fair size. As a writer noted in The New Yorker, lab puppies are essentially full size by the age of 1 but are considered puppies until the age of 2. In Texas, coyotes are rather small, so that there’s a good chance the puppy actually outweighed the coyote. What’s more, the chances of a coyote standing still, like a sitting duck, as Perry hollered and charged it, while extracting his gun from his pants, seem fairly remote. As Perry himself noted, coyotes are “wily” creatures.

Perry doesn’t actually state flatly that he killed the coyote, nor does he say where the coyote was wounded, an odd omission for a hunting tale.

Which brings up the even more perplexing notion of jogging with a pistol, any pistol, and particularly a safety-less gun like the .380 that has been known to discharge when dropped on the floor. I know lots of people who jog with water bottles affixed to a fanny pack. But I haven’t found anyone yet other than Rick Perry who claims to jog with a loaded pistol on his belt, concealed or otherwise. Unless he figured out a way to camouflage a suspicious bulge under his jogging shorts, I can say with confidence that he wasn’t packing when he was part of the small jogging group I was part of that gathered at the RunTex store in downtown Austin and headed out on the hike-and-bike trail. But then the biggest danger we faced was tripping over the occasional turtle that clambered out of Ladybird Lake. In any case, he was usually accompanied on the trail by at least one of his fit young bodyguards. At the time, Perry seemed laser-focused on following in George W. Bush’s running shoes, which meant jogging as fast as Bush on the trail not only around Ladybird Lake but on an upward political track.

So why go running with a Ruger LCP .380, a model released two years earlier and promoted as a pocket or purse pistol ideal for concealment and close-up personal defense? The model had already been subject to recall in 2009 for firing when dropped on a hard surface. Obviously, the gun must be really small and light, which could be one advantage for a trigger-happy jogger who might want to avoid unseemly bulges. The LCP stands for “lightweight compact pistol,” and I have seen the gun referred to on gun forums as Miss Elsie Pea, or less affectionately, as a “pea shooter.” One guy even referred to the .380 as the firearm equivalent of a “sequined purse.”

I called Red’s Indoor Range, located on the far redneck edge of Perry’s neighborhood, where in January 2010, a month before the coyote incident, Perry had thrilled some conservative bloggers who had never actually fired a gun before by taking them to the range and letting them hold his .380 and even shoot at paper targets. “I really like it out this way,” he told them, presumably referring to the pistol-and-pickups atmosphere. I assumed Red’s would have a .380 available for rent, but they didn’t. “It’s not really a gun for range or target shooting,” I was told by an employee named Robbie. “The .380 is really just for self defense,” he said.

So I headed for McBride’s, near downtown Austin, which Perry has patronized, and where I purchased my Benelli shotgun. There’s a picture of Perry on the wall. One of the salesmen obliging pulled out a .380 for me from its packaging and held it out. It’s tiny and rather cute and stylish, actually, compared to the intimidating-looking handguns other customers were perusing further down the counter. Loaded, it weighs about a pound, and it’s about the size of my hand. I could understand why women like it, and why it has been referred to on gun forums as the kind of gun a “metrosexual” would choose.

I was told that with practice I would be able to hit fairly close to the heart of a torso-shaped standing target about 15 feet away, maybe 25 if I practiced a lot. The .380 kicks pretty hard, and its short muzzle doesn’t offer much of a sight. A laser sight wouldn’t actually improve my accuracy, said the clerk; it would just help me “acquire” the target faster. I know from my shotgun experience that just putting your sights on a target doesn’t mean you’ll hit it, particularly if it’s moving.

I asked the clerk about holsters, and he showed me the standard inside-the-pants holster that will clip to a belt or the top of your pants. After affixing the Crimson Trace laser sight, like the one Perry uses, the gun required a larger holster. I tried anchoring it inside my drawstring pants and decided it would be damned uncomfortable to walk with the thing, much less run. It’s too small to anchor to your leg, so it tends to shift around. Getting the gun out quickly and drawing a bead on a target, I decided, would challenge even Billy the Kid. Even though it’s light, if you have a bad back, as Perry has complained about, I would think that it would throw your balance uncomfortably off kilter. For a man, I imagine the chafing potential would be considerable. Outside the pants, it would cease being a concealed weapon, obviously.

I asked the clerk, who said that he’s a pretty good shot himself, if anyone would be able to kill a coyote with the .380. He shook his head, incredulous. “It’s not the gun I’d choose to shoot a coyote,” he said. “It would have to be the shot of a lifetime,” he said. “Coyotes run pretty fast,” he said.

Of course, the inappropriateness of this gun for shooting coyotes didn’t stop Sturm, Ruger & Co. from issuing a special edition of the .380 called the “Coyote Special” packed in a box labeled, "For Sale to Texans Only."

Upon a closer look, Perry’s description of the coyote incident seems to offer a little wiggle room with regard to “truthiness.” He doesn’t actually state flatly that he killed the coyote, nor does he say where the coyote was wounded, an odd omission for a hunting tale, but he does say that it “was not in a lot of pain” and that it “pretty much went down at that particular juncture.” Did it go down or not? He’s also careful to include the detail that “either me or my dog are in imminent danger,” which made it legal for him to shoot an animal in self defense within the city limits. The wording reminds me of the stilted language of police reports I’ve read over the years describing a controversial incident in which questionable force or tactics were used.

It’s also possible that Perry was mulling over the details of an anecdote for inclusion in Fed Up, the book he announced he was writing shortly after the coyote story made such a splash in the news. The incident does appear in the second chapter of the book, though mostly to differentiate the manned-up Texans who elect coyote killers from the wimpy folks in Massachusetts who elect people like Barney Frank.

I find it interesting that just a week before Perry went public with his coyote story, polls showed that Perry’s lead in the gubernatorial race over Houston Mayor Bill White was diminishing. Nothing like brandishing a gun to get your poll numbers pumped up.

The timing also suggests a possible copycat varmint shooting. The same month that Perry is supposed to have shot the coyote, Iowa Republican Congressman Steve King was reported to have shot a raccoon eagerly trying to get into his house during a snowstorm. While King got some flack from PETA for the killing, he also got considerable support from the NRA. King’s weapon, however, was heftier than Perry’s: It was a 50-caliber Desert Eagle.

So what are we to make of Perry’s winter’s tale? For me, it presents the question of whether we want a presidential candidate who not only “pops off,” as Peggy Noonan has put it, under the slightest provocation, but who also brags about it. Do we want a president who thinks before he takes aim, or do we want a pistol-waving French-cuff cowboy who goes after paper-coyote targets with a pea shooter loaded with hollow points?