Gun-control advocate killed by a gun still can make a difference |

Gun-control advocate killed by a gun still can make a difference

by John L. Smith

The image of the federal prosecutor is easy to caricaturize. You know the routine: The humorless cog in the great grinding wheel of justice. Ramrod posture, expressionless profile. Dark suit, sensible shoes. More New Yorker cartoon than human, he’s Joe Friday with a law degree.

The federal criminal justice system is serious work for serious minds, and the caseload for many assistant U.S. attorneys is bruising; but what set the late Thomas Wales apart from the stereotypical image of the dedicated and Dickensian federal prosecutor was his undeniable energy and devotion to the cause of gun control in the great American shooting gallery.

In a word, Wales was engaged. He wasn’t a machine, but a man out to make a difference.

That’s only part of what makes the murder of the federal prosecutor at his Seattle-area home on the night of Oct. 11, 2001, such an awful shame. He was only 49. He left behind a daughter and son.

But at a time in our history when so many citizens are resigned to gun proliferation and murder rates that would send shivers through some war zones, Wales was outspoken in his belief that we can do better.

He was the president of Washington CeaseFire, a gun-control advocacy group.

Today, the Seattle FBI is asking for the public’s assistance in finding information leading to the identity of Wales’ killer. The bureau recently received an anonymous letter postmarked Jan. 23 from Las Vegas from a person who claimed to be responsible for the assassination.

That development has led me to find out more about Wales, who enjoyed a successful 18-year career with the U.S. attorney’s office and specialized in complex fraud cases.

But he didn’t allow his career to dampen his political beliefs, and I admire that.

Never mind whether you agree with his cause or think the slightest constraint on the Second Amendment is too much. Wales was a man who possessed the courage of his convictions. That he would die from a coward’s gun is the cruelest sort of irony.

Seattle police Chief Gil Kerlikowske first met Wales when they shared a panel discussion on gun violence at the University of Washington Law School. Wales was articulate and well-versed on the subject, but what impressed Kerlikowske most was his unflappable patience with the coughing hecklers in the audience who tried to distract him from his message.

“Tom was able to work around it to get his point across,” Kerlikowske recalls. “He maintained his composure the whole time and was able to get his point across.”

The chief lived just four blocks from Wales in the Queen Anne section of Seattle. He heard the confused call about the shooting, and quickly drove to the crime scene.

“It’s almost worse than when a police officer gets shot, in some ways, if that’s possible,” he says.

“Cops know about the danger. They wear body armor, have guns and radios, et cetera. They understand the danger issues. Prosecutors, especially those who prosecute gangs and organized crime, do an incredibly dangerous job, too.”

Since that night, Kerlikowske and his wife, Anna, have become friends with Wales’ daughter, Amy, an Oxford graduate who has focused her studies on public health and firearms. Like her father, she is articulate and outspoken.

The killer silenced the man, but not his message about the plague of gun violence in a country with a seemingly limitless blood lust.

On the Thomas C. Wales Foundation Web site, I found this quote from him:

“The founders of this nation declared their independence to create a more perfect nation, not a perfect nation. They knew it would always be a work in progress, depending on each following generation to continue the work. And as they were right in so many things, they were right in that.

“There is work to be done. And it doesn’t have to be sweeping change that you accomplish. What are we, most of us who are active? We’re the little rudders that eventually get the big ship to turn. It doesn’t take a lot to make a difference.”

He was not a machine, but a man.

Right now, I wonder if there’s someone in Las Vegas who could make the difference that results in justice for Thomas Wales.

• John L. Smith’s column, reprinted from the Las Vegas Review-Journal, appears on Thursdays on the Appeal’s Opinion page. E-mail him at or call (702) 383-0295.