When his armed standoff began 16 years ago, fugitive militiaman John Joe Gray was described as a “gun-toting fanatic” and “anti-government zealot.”
Today, he sounds like half the candidates for the Texas House.
In an hour-long visit Thursday at the gate of his family’s backwoods Henderson County compound in the Trinity River bottomland, Gray said the same things about God, government and guns that he’s said since 2000.
But after 16 years of angry talk radio, chain emails and town-hall belligerence, what Gray says simply doesn’t sound so extreme anymore:
▪ “Taxation is tyranny.”
▪ “Public officials are in it for the money.”
▪ “God gave me a right to carry this gun.”
▪ “The government has been taken over by a foreign entity.”
Heck, if I hadn’t been standing in front of a 66-year-old guy with a scraggly beard and a .38 in a handmade leather holster, I’d have thought it was some Tea Party congressman.
At one point, when he was talking about being a militia “sovereign citizen,” he said he won’t fill out applications because “I won’t give out my Social Security number.”
Most forms don’t ask for that anymore, I told him. Privacy concerns.
“Really?” he asked, cocking his head and peering at me through an old pair of eyeglasses. (As of last week, Gray was free of all criminal charges in a 1999 assault and could go see a doctor, but he still refuses to leave the ranch where he resisted arrest.)
He repeated the question in disbelief, as if I’d told him, say, that Texans carry guns everywhere now, and the governor ordered the State Guard to put the U.S. armed forces under surveillance.
“Really?” He asked. “You’re kidding.”
If the Grays ever leave the armed compound where they have grown their own food, lived on solar power and worshipped for most of two decades, they will find a Texas that has in many ways come around to their way of thinking.
When Gray was arrested by a state trooper during a traffic stop, he says, the trooper asked if he had a gun.
“I said, ‘It’s my God-given right to have a gun,’ and he said, ‘No, it’s not,’ ” Gray said, “and that’s how this all started.”
We have everything we need here. We have our garden. For a prison, I’ll take a prison like this any day.
John Joe Gray
Today, nearly 1 million Texans are licensed to carry a sidearm. Several lawmakers claim it’s a “God-given right,” and influential Aledo activist David Barton, chairman of a Ted Cruz presidential campaign PAC, has written that Christians deserve the same weapons as the government.
The Grays’ freedom of religion will be staunchly defended by Attorney General Ken Paxton, and lawmakers have considered a resolution to prevent any agency from interfering with matters of religious conscience “in any case whatever.”
Meanwhile, the Department of Public Safety is no longer fingerprinting driver’s license applicants.
Yes, Gray spent all this time under what amounts to house arrest.
But “we have everything we need here,” he said.
Gray is asking for donations — Box 366, Trinidad TX 75163 — to help make a tax payment. Under Texas law, he can apply to postpone it.
“We have our garden. For a prison, I’ll take a prison like this any day.”
Gray, still holed up and threatening to renew the standoff over $34,618 in unpaid taxes, grew wistful over missing friends’ funerals and again when I asked about his health.
“My eyes and hearing are going bad,” he said, but “I’d have to see a doctor.”
More soft-spoken, weaker and grayer than the angry militiaman of old news videos, Gray said he still supports militias occupying an Oregon federal bird sanctuary.
“It’s all about the Constitution,” he said.
“I think they’re doing right. I think you’ve got to make a stand.”
If officials try to take his ranch — no such case is pending — Gray said he will “stand up against tyranny. It’s a man’s right to protect his family and his property.”
Asked about the government, he lowered his voice.
“We all know [President Barack] Obama’s a Muslim, but God put him in office. … God wants us to turn back to his way.”
But when I asked about Gov. Greg Abbott, Gray brightened up.
“I think he’s a good man,” Gray said. “I like the way he stands up to Obama. I think he’s doing right.”
In Texas, it's tough to tell where one armed compound ends and the next begins.