On Aug. 1, 1966, David H. Gunby was a 23-year-old engineering student at the University of Texas. After a round of studying at a campus library, he walked out into the courtyard of the UT Tower. As he crossed the courtyard, he became one of Charles Whitman’s first victims. Whitman shot him in the lower left side of his back.

As he lay on the ground wounded, he could see Whitman up in the tower. When other students attempted to run out and help him, Gunby waved them off. He knew Whitman would fire at anyone else who appeared out in the open.

By the end of the day, 17 people (including Whitman) were dead or dying, and 33 were wounded. When Gunby finally made it to the hospital, doctors found that Whitman’s bullet had severed his small intestine. As doctors performed surgery to repair the intestine, they also discovered that Gunby had only one kidney and that it, too, had been damaged by bullet fragments.


According to published reports, Gunby never fully recovered. After the shooting, he suffered repeated kidney problems and eventually received a kidney transplant. His body rejected the new kidney, and he almost died.

Gunby finished his degree and settled here in Fort Worth. He raised two children with his wife and worked at General Dynamics. For the last 27 years of his life, Gunby endured kidney dialysis three times a week. He was in constant pain, but that didn’t stop him from being a good provider, father, and husband.

On Nov. 7, 2001, Gunby decided to stop dialysis. He was pronounced dead at Harris Methodist Hospital a week later. He was Whitman’s 18th victim.

There’s no way anyone who knew David Gunby or carefully read the preceding passages about him could consider him anything less than a courageous man. Life dealt him a tragic hand, and he did the best he could. And when he finally wore down and didn’t want to subject himself to the constant physical infirmity any longer, he arranged to end his life.

To social and religious conservatives, what Gunby did was a sin. They believe that only their God should have control or authority over whether we live or die. Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court disagreed with them.

In a 6-3 decision, the high court rejected the Bush administration’s challenge to Oregon’s “right-to-die” law and ruled that former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft had overstepped his authority when he tried to punish Oregon doctors for assisting terminally ill persons in their efforts to end their own lives. The decision came not long after intervention by the Republican-led Congress in the Terri Schiavo case last year, which also resulted in an ideological setback for social conservatives when the Supreme Court balked on taking up the case.

Apparently, the conservative stalwarts just don’t get the point. Suffering folks like David Gunby are peacefully abridging their existences without God’s permission, and the “force-to-live” faction, as I like to call them, just can’t allow them that right.

If the religious right really has absolute faith in God’s control over human life and death, why don’t they skip the pleasantries and lobby to abolish doctors and medicine altogether? If God has decided it’s our time to go, wouldn’t a doctor simply be interfering in God’s plan? Was it God’s plan for Charles Whitman to blow a hole in David Gunby’s back? Was it God’s plan for Gunby to spend the last 27 years of his life enduring the hell of kidney dialysis three times a week? If you were David Gunby, wouldn’t you have had enough of God’s plan? Could anyone honestly blame him for taking matters into his own hands?

Why do Christians have such a problem with suicide? Jesus Christ was a great guy, and the accounts we have of his existence certainly make it worth emulating. But the lives of lots of people and prophets are worth emulating. What made the early Jewish religion different from many other belief systems of the time was its constituents’ refusal to compromise their existence by abandoning their beliefs. The Jews at Masada chose to hurl themselves over the cliff rather than proclaim the Roman emperor their god – down to the last woman and child. They decided to commit suicide rather than abdicate their religious faith. In the end, such devotion and fidelity overcame even the Romans. They couldn’t strong-arm a people who opted for death over compromised life. What was David Gunby’s life if not physically compromised?

The term “liberty” in the phrase “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” is not the property of self-righteous religious groups. It’s the established right of every individual American. One of the great things about America is that no one can tell you how to live your life. In that case, why should anyone be allowed to tell you how you can end it?

The recent attempts by the Republican Party’s “force-to-live” faction to usurp and restrict existential freedoms should be met with defiance and scorn. Who are they to decide whether someone like David Gunby had suffered enough?

E. R. Bills is a Fort Worth construction worker and writer.