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The Peaceful Warrior

Windle Turley fights for gun control

Published in 2012 Texas Super Lawyers magazine

By Jim Walsh on September 10, 2012


Ask Windle Turley if he has any thoughts on the Trayvon Martin shooting, and he’ll say he’s got nothing to add to the discussion. Then his answer comes like a spray of bullets.

“Starting in the mid-‘80s, for eight or 10 years, we focused on trying to develop remedies in the common law that would curtail the unlimited access to handguns by potential wrongdoers,” says Turley, sitting in the offices of the Turley Law Firm he shares with four other attorneys, including his daughter, Linda. “And that issue has gotten so out of hand as far as I can see, and here’s another example. And the [National Rifle Association] has to wipe this blood on its hands as well as a lot of other blood every year.”

This year could be pivotal in the gun control debate, as Florida’s so-called “Stand Your Ground” law, which in essence gave Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman, the right to shoot first and ask questions later, is being put to the test.

“The NRA was very instrumental in getting that law passed, and it’s terrible,” says Turley. “It’s just a terrible situation.

“I think all of us who have been involved in that debate over the decades feel like a voice in the wilderness today,” says Turley. “We had some early success. Things were evolving and developing in the area of strict product liability laws here in Texas and throughout the country. I came upon a theory that said … you balance the utility of a product against the dangerousness of the design in determining whether or not it’s effective.

“So I said, ‘What’s the utility of a little small handgun and how dangerous is it?’ and took that concept and engrafted it onto the handgun injury and death cases that were coming into our office. We filed a series of cases throughout the United States, and we won some of those. Ultimately, the Maryland Supreme Court adopted that theory and applied it in Maryland to really curtail the sale of those Saturday night specials for a few years until the NRA went to the legislature in Maryland and got that turned around.”

Gun control isn’t the only fight Turley has been engaged in during his career. His passion for law started in a small one-lawyer town in Western Oklahoma, where he met his high school sweetheart and wife of 54 years, Shirley. He graduated from Oklahoma City University with thoughts of studying theology at Southern Methodist University, but the civil rights movement of the ’50s and ‘60s inspired him to go into law.

“I wanted to do some things that I thought would be socially constructive and I didn’t think I was going to find that in theology, but I did think I would find it in law,” he recalls. “All through high school I had a great interest in social issues, including people who I thought were put upon, mistreated, and discriminated against.

“What Martin Luther King, Jr. had been doing and the issues about getting the minorities enrolled at Little Rock school [in Arkansas] was very prominent when I was in college. I read about it a lot, and I wrote about it a lot in my essays in undergraduate school; I read some books about Gandhi and what he was doing in India, and I migrated in that direction.”

One of his proudest moments came in 1971, when he successfully argued before the U.S. Supreme Court that  men should have to pay child support for unwed mothers. Growing up in Dallas, it was those kinds of cases that caught the attention of Linda Turley, who has practiced law with her father for 27 years.

“My dad talked about his work as I was growing up,” she says. “What I first remember is going with him to get people out of jail when I was a kid. What attracted me about the law was understanding later that the law was a way to help ordinary people who needed help, whether that was to help a child who had gotten into trouble, or make fuel systems safer on cars, trucks, and airplanes. The law was a way to make a difference in the world.”

To that end, Turley has spent a lifetime looking out for “the most helpless in our society,” including children. He regularly takes on complicated sexual abuse cases, including one that’s pending in Utah, in which 350 kids were allegedly mistreated in several behavior modification schools. And while he remains steadfast in his mission to be a voice for the voiceless, he says the emotional weight of standing up for them can be daunting.

“One of the things I do is I try to compartmentalize and say to myself that I am there to deal with the law issue, and not the psychological or the grief issues,” he says.

Good luck with that, counselor.

“I know; you’re right,” he says. “Heck, when I try a lawsuit, it seems more and more when I’m giving an argument to a jury or something like that, I get very, very emotional. Sometimes I want to cry, right there in front of them, even more than I did earlier in my career. It took a while, but I’m more comfortable with it now. It comes with the territory.”

“You work real hard not to cry except when you’re alone,” says Linda. “Every good trial lawyer will tell you that you leave little pieces of yourself in the courtroom when you try a case, and that is true. These tragedies stay with you. But you have to put it in check so you can speak for the family, because that is what the family needs you to do.

“That’s what my dad does. I have seen him work to keep it together in every case we’ve tried. I can’t tell you exactly how he does it, or what it looks like, but if you know him, you can see it every time.”

One of the coping mechanisms Windle has found is wildlife photography, a passion that led him to publish a book of photography in 2010, The Amazing Monarch, on the monarch butterflies of Mexico.

“I really got hooked on it, particularly when I started studying the phenomenal and fantastic lives of these little creatures, which is unlike any other creature in nature,” he says. “Three or four generations of them will only live 45 days, as they make their migration from Mexico back to southern Canada and the northern United States. I’m intrigued by these little creatures that just weigh a few grams that can fly 3,000 miles on this return migration—science keeps studying it, but nobody really knows how they do it.”

Nature provides a safe retreat from his heated battles with the NRA.

“We had some success, and looking back on it, the main thing is we stimulated the debate and created some forums where people really had to swear and get under oath and talk about the dangers of handguns and balance them against the benefits that they might bring,” he says, with a heavy sigh. “I think we helped that discussion along, but pretty soon the NRA overwhelmed everybody and everything, and there’s not much we can do about that now.

“We’re so far behind. I think it’s to the point now where there are 100 million guns in this country, maybe more than that. At the time I was working on this issue, there were 50 million guns. It’s a terrible, terrible spiral we’re in.

“I keep praying and hoping that some good people, particularly legislators and congressmen and women will come to their senses and say, ‘Enough is enough.’ We need to put some restraints on things like automatic rifles and guns that are only used in combat and police enforcement. There’s no reason for guns that aren’t used for hunting to be so widespread in the public’s hands, because innocent people are going to continue to be killed.”

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