Gunman In The Courtroom:
The Judge Harry Peetris Incident
Situation: The defendant pulls a gun and takes the entire courtroom
hostage — but there is one judge who has more than a gavel with which
to enforce his authority.
Lesson: Lawbreakers, by definition, do not obey laws. When they violate
them and threaten the lives of the innocent, lawful force is required to bring things under control. Competence creates confidence, and vice versa. And from the tactical side, we need to remember gunpoint situations can last longer
than shooting matches.
Security at courthouses is rigid. It has to be. Courts are filled with emotionally charged people who are going through some of the worst experiences life has to offer. Some of those who come to court are filled with everything from total despair to a lust for revenge.
Many a judge has been the recipient of death threats. It’s no secret — at least in the justice community — many of them wear guns under their signature black robes. Some judges have had to clear blue steel from beneath those black robes to protect the lives of themselves and others.
Now, meet a judge who once had to do exactly that.
On August 29, 1962, Judge Harry Peetris was presiding over Division 67, an arraignment court on the first floor of a Los Angeles courthouse. He carried a gun, wearing it under his robes in court. Then and now, even in jurisdictions like L.A., where it’s extremely difficult for ordinary people to get a license to carry, exceptions are routinely made for attorneys in general and judges in particular. It was known to the other judges Peetris not only carried, but shot regularly every couple of weeks at the LAPD range — where he consistently tallied perfect scores with his preferred revolver, a 4″ Colt.
At that time, and even now, armed bailiffs were stationed in the courtrooms, but there were never enough of them to keep an eye on everyone. Judge Peetris recently told me, back in those days, the bailiffs in the municipal court were Los Angeles County Marshals, while Superior Court employed Los Angeles County Deputy Sheriffs. Security was a big concern for the folks in the black robes and part of their security plan included notifying Judge Peetris in the event a courtroom faced an armed threat.
Judge Peetris had a full courtroom on the day of the incident, and had been in session only 40 minutes when he noticed his court clerk had received a telephone call and gave him a troubled look. Sensing a disturbance, Peetris covered his microphone and motioned her up to the bench where she proceeded to tell him a gunman had taken over a neighboring courtroom, holding Judge Donald Redwine and a room full of people hostage.
The judge motioned to his own bailiff, Marshal Shelly Wagner, to approach the bench and briefed him quickly, telling him to take the front door while the judge would get the back door. After admonishing everyone to remain seated, the two split up, with Peetris running out the back door toward Judge Redwine’s second-floor courtroom.
Upon reaching the back door to the courtroom, Judge Peetris opened it carefully and quietly. A strange tableau awaited him.
A full jury box, sitting still. Judge Redwine, motionless at the bench. A uniformed police officer, sitting stock-still in the witness box. And a full courtroom of spectators, likewise silently rooted in place.
And, striding angrily back-and-forth in the well of the courtroom, stood John Burrows, a stocky clean-shaven Caucasian, about six feet tall, wearing white coveralls. In his hand was a black semiautomatic pistol.
tris threw open his robe to clear his snubnosed Smith & Wesson .38 Chief Special from its open-top leather holster on his belt. Going to the familiar standing barricade position from which he had shot PPC so many times, Peetris said in command voice, “Drop your gun!”
John Burrows, the man with the pistol, faced him for a moment. He waved his gun, but didn’t aim it at the judge or anyone else. Instead he shouted back, “Shoot me! Go ahead and shoot me!”
It had instantly turned into a potentially lethal standoff.
Peetris could see his bailiff, Wagner, posted opposite of him at the edge of the main doorway to the courtroom. Wagner’s service revolver, a 4″ S&W .38, was on the gunman. The packed courtroom offered a target-rich environment for the offender if he started shooting. Contrarily, this was an innocent bystander-rich shooting backdrop for Peetris and Wagner — obviously complicating the matter greatly.
In the following moments, Peetris began to understand why no one in the room was moving. It was obvious the man with the gun was a raving lunatic, who continuously screamed allegations he had not been speeding and the police officer was lying. In essence, he had drawn a gun over a speeding ticket. It was apparent to everyone in the room the gunman was irrational, and none of them wanted to push him over the edge.
The cop on the stand, a motorcycle officer, was in uniform wearing his service revolver in a flap holster that hung at his thigh on a swivel. It would have taken too many movements to open the flap, draw the weapon and bring it on target without catching Burrows’ attention thus inviting him to open fire. Realizing the jurors would all be directly behind him if he traded shots with Burrows, the motor officer made the conscious decision not to go for his own gun.
At one point during the standoff, Peetris remembers silently urging Judge Redwine to drop to the foot-well of the bench for his own safety. Redwine waved him off, later saying while he could have easily removed himself from danger, he didn’t want to spook the ranting madman any further. With Redwine still a visible target Peetris knew he would have no choice but to open fire if the man pointed his gun at the judge.
As the gunman paced the courtroom and shouted mindlessly, the court reporter documented every word on her steno machine. The wife of an LAPD officer, she kept a low profile and calmly documented every word spoken in the courtroom — which later became valuable evidence.
The manically pacing Burrows continually walked between Judge Peetris and Marshal Wagner, forcing both men to elevate their muzzles to avoid crossing each other.
Judge Peetris realized his snubnosed revolver, in a packed courtroom with many observers in the seats between him and Burrows, posed a tremendous danger to onlookers. He was grateful for having the foresight to load his .38 with hollowpoints long before they were allowed by LAPD. In the event of a sudden escalation requiring Peetris to shoot, hollowpoints were much less likely to overpenetrate and strike a bystander.
Early in the standoff, the judge made the conscious decision to cock the hammer of his little Chief Special. This was a man capable of shooting a perfect 300 out of 300 on the LAPD qualification exam, all double action and while overcoming the short sight radius of the snubnose .38. But Peetris recognized a 12-pound double-action trigger press on a 19-ounce revolver could pull the muzzle off-target if he had to fire reactively in an instant.
Even then, shooters were taught not to cock the hammer of a revolver in a gunpoint situation because it increased the risk of an unintentional stress-induced discharge if one was startled. But, as a law school graduate, he also understood the Doctrine of Competing Harms, the principle which holds one is allowed to break the rules or even the law in the rare circumstance where following the law would cause more danger to human life than breaking it.
Acutely aware of this delicate balance of dangers, Judge Peetris allowed his index finger to lightly rest on the trigger as he tracked the situation across his sights. Initially holding for the chest, he took time to analyze Burrows’ anatomy vis-à-vis the positions of the people behind him, and decided the upper abdomen would be a more solid target with less likelihood of even a mushrooming hollowpoint exiting. Accordingly, he lowered his point-of- aim to that part of Burrows’ body.
The incident received an unexpected twist in the form of Burrows’ concerned boss, who arrived to the courthouse earlier that day in support of his employee. He hadn’t been in the courtroom when Burrows pulled the gun, but once he learned what happened, he made his way to what was now a hostage situation. Bailiff Wagner, holding the fort at the main entryway to the courtroom, called out to Judge Peetris, asking him if the boss would be able to enter to speak to Burrows.
It was a difficult decision for Peetris. Normally, people in the hostage-taker’s life aren’t allowed into the hostage negotiation, because it is impossible to predict whether their presence will help or hurt. In this case, instinct told Peetris it would more likely do good and invited the boss in. A large man in a dark suit entered the courtroom. The gunman yelled at his boss to stay back — and at that moment Peetris must have questioned his own decision — but after that outburst, the gunman calmed down.
At this point, Peetris remembers feeling something at his knee and looked down to see a gun pointed at the defendant with the man wielding it identifying himself to the Judge as Captain Pete Hagen. It turns out Hagen was in charge of the Southwest Division of the LAPD, located one block from the courthouse.
There were now three drawn guns on Burrows, but he seemed to no longer be aware of them. Instead, he was listening to his supervisor. As he approached the low swinging gate separating the courtroom well from the spectators’ gallery, he soothingly urged Burrows to calm down and hand him the gun.
And then, John Burrows simply reached over the short wooden gate and handed the pistol to his boss.
Peetris and Captain Hagen moved in from their position, and bailiff Wagner from his, all with their guns on Burrows. The motor officer approached from the witness stand to assist in apprehending the suspect. In moments, Burrows was handcuffed and the officers began searching his person. Captain Hagen took the semiautomatic pistol from the gunman’s supervisor, removing a fully-loaded magazine and clearing a live cartridge from the chamber. Hagen then searched the handcuffed Burrows, finding two more fully-loaded magazines.
Judge Harry Peetris carefully lowered the hammer of his Smith & Wesson and returned it to its holster inside his robes.
The jurors in the jury box stood up as one, spontaneously applauding the men who had ended their terror.
It was over.
Review of the transcript recorded by the unflappable court reporter indicates the encounter lasted between 22 and 23 minutes. John Burrows was later found to be mentally incompetent to stand trial, and was committed to a California institution for the insane.
In the country of the blind, the 1-eyed man is king. Likewise, a single criminal with a lethal weapon can dominate a great many unarmed helpless people at once. But when the armed criminal realizes he is under the gun and will likely die the moment he pulls the trigger, his interest in self-preservation is suddenly more important. It’s clear the perpetrator in this case realized Judge Peetris had a gun on him, who would be more than capable of “dropping the hammer” on him if he pulled his own trigger or even took aim at someone in the courtroom. Soon after, the bailiff and the police captain also had guns leveled, and Burrows had to realize three good guys with guns are better than one. This is the most likely explanation of why the situation did not escalate, and why the perpetrator ultimately surrendered.
Taking dangerous criminals at gunpoint is a far more common occurrence than actually having to shoot them. A study conducted by the California Attorney General’s Office not long after the Peetris incident proved this to be true of armed citizens who took criminal suspects at gunpoint. Later studies by professors at respected universities have also validated this finding.
I have been an LE course instructor for over 40 years, and in the classes I teach, I routinely ask those in the attendance to raise their hands if they had lost count of the number of people they’ve shot in the line of duty. In many years of asking, no hands have ever been raised. When I follow-up and ask if anyone had lost count of how many suspects they’d taken at gunpoint, a forest of police officers’ arms will rise — particularly if the class takes place in a high-crime area.
Most gunpoint situations last little more than seconds. Judge Peetris’ incident lasted more than 20 minutes. Let’s take a moment to look at this often-neglected element of armed-encounter tactics.
When you have a death grip on your gun and are holding it on target at arm’s length, you’re using muscles unaccustomed to doing so for long periods of time. Cramping, pain and tremors can set in. The ability to vary stances proves useful during such long, drawn-out situations. Adjusting from an isometric Weaver stance to a skeletal support-intensive isosceles position allows tired muscles a break from their unnatural “push-pull” position. Switching from Isosceles back to Weaver lets the muscles bear the brunt of the effort, and allows painfully weary joints to rest and recuperate. Even changing hands may become necessary when cramping and tremors set in.
Judge Peetris told me during this incident, he was indeed aware of muscle fatigue and cramping effects. What got him through it, he said, was the fact he had spent a great deal of time shooting left-handed from the left side of a barricade and right-handed from the right side. It also helped he was fairly young and in good shape. All of this prepared him for the long ordeal in Judge Redwine’s courtroom. The stance he used was the old FBI barricade position, with his support hand palm-flat against the wall and his thumb protruding parallel to the floor, creating a “rest” for the wrist of the gun hand.
More than 50 years after the incident, studies of human error have continued to show us cocked guns with fingers on triggers are not a good idea, and guns with a light trigger press are almost universally frowned upon for threat management. However, at the time of this incident, this was not the common practice. Well into the 1980s, police training manuals depicted officers with their fingers on the trigger during gunpoint situations — even through the course of the draw. Many police duty holsters back in 1962 left the triggers exposed, and the “clamshell” holster popular among LAPD officers at the time actually required the finger to be inserted into the triggerguard to release the firearm. In any case, thanks to an experienced shooter’s finger on the trigger, this incident ended well.
Judge Peetris told me while the standoff was happening, he “went cold,” something he had learned to do in harrowing situations during his FBI days. His focus on the task and his perception of what he needed to do and watch for, allowed him to push out fear. This seems to be a nearly universal agreement among today’s teachers going in harm’s way.
Now well into his 90s, retired Judge Harry Peetris remains an armed citizen, a gun enthusiast and a man who continues to practice on the range. He leaves a considerable legacy: A half-century on the bench and a career marked by a deep understanding of both human values and human nature as they relate to the laws of man and society. I hope he writes his autobiography one day, and on behalf of American Handgunner, I would like to thank him for sharing his story with our readers.
By Massad Ayoob