It All Started in Pensacola

How the 1993 murder of Dr. David Gunn set off 30 years of violence toward abortion providers

March 9, 2023

On March 10, 1993, 31-year-old Michael Griffin, a fundamentalist with a “bad temper,” pulled out a shotgun, yelled, “Don’t kill any more babies,” and shot Dr. David Gunn three times in the back, killing him. Dr. Gunn had been walking into the offices of the Pensacola Women’s Medical Services Clinic, one of the two abortion clinics in Pensacola, Florida, where he provided care. 

He died on the lawn of the clinic. According to one witness, the anti-abortion protesters who surrounded the clinic nearly every day looked on “like they were just happy.” 

Dr. Gunn’s murder was the first of an abortion doctor in modern times—and the opening salvo of a campaign of intensifying violence against abortion providers during the 1990s. Dr. Gunn had been a true believer in reproductive freedom, undeterred by the threats of violence he faced. Just weeks before he died, on the 20th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, he stepped outside the clinic and sang “Happy Birthday” to the protesters outside. But Griffin believed he was acting under the guidance of God, and his action set a decades-long chain of events in motion.

As we approach the 30th anniversary of Dr. Gunn’s death—as reproductive care becomes increasingly harder to access and abortion providers continue to face alarming rates of violence—it is worth remembering what happened in Pensacola. 

Two men and a bomb

It was an accident of geography and a quirk of politics that made Pensacola a focal point for abortion violence: The Panhandle was accessible to abortion seekers in the deep South, and following Roe, Florida’s abortion laws were more permissive than those of the states that surrounded it. Women traveled to Pensacola from Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia to receive care. 

As patients came, so did protesters—and eventually, violence came with them. It started peacefully, in the 1980s : prayer vigils and protest signs. Then it escalated to yelling at women, threatening clinic staff, and rushing clinics. When that wasn’t enough, they turned to bombs and guns. 

Before Dr. Gunn was murdered and before hardline activists descended on Pensacola, there were James Simmons and Matthew Goldsby, both 26-year-old fundamentalists who felt moved by God to bomb the other clinic in the area, the Ladies Center, in June 1984. The effort wasn’t as successful as they’d hoped; the explosion left the clinic extensively damaged, but didn’t close it for good. 

But Simmons and Goldsby weren’t done. Emboldened, they planned more bombings for early Christmas morning, 1984, as “a gift to Jesus.” Three explosives detonated in Pensacola, at the offices of two abortion providers and, yet again, the Ladies Center. No one was hurt.

Simmons and Goldsby were eventually arrested. Before a judge put a gag order on him, their defense attorney spun a story to the press of two heroes, “knights in shining armor,” rescuing babies. They were eventually convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison, but the bombings had done irrevocable damage. Though the Ladies Center eventually reopened, the two doctors targeted in the bombing packed up and left town. 

Though some anti-choice groups denounced the bombings, others saw them as righteous interventions. Then-President Ronald Reagan had little to say, although he eventually made a statement condemning “violent, anarchist activities” after a rash of bombings followed Pensacola. 

And Simmons and Goldsby had drastically altered the landscape of abortion, opening up the possibility of actual violence, not just harassment, against staff and abortion seekers. John Burt, a former Ku Klux Klan member with ties to the terrorist organization the Army of God, latched on to the bombers’ trial, eager to defend their extremist actions. Then, shortly after the Ladies Center reopened, Burt dedicated himself to protesting outside the clinic. He was so committed that he bought the piece of land next to the clinic. There, protesters could yell at women and intimidate staff without fear of arrest; after all, they weren’t trespassing. 

Michael Griffin, who went on to shoot Dr. Gunn, was one of Burt’s followers, and took his gospel of violence to heart (his lawyer later argued that Burt had brainwashed him into the crime), Yet Burt remained free well after Dr. Gunn’s murder to preach the gospel of violence. His decades-long campaign only ended in 2003, after he was sentenced to prison for molesting a teen at his Christian home for unwed mothers. 

In Pensacola and beyond, Griffin’s murder of Dr. Gunn galvanized the anti-abortion community even more than the 1984 bombings had done. Shelley Shannon, an Army of God associate who attempted to murder Dr. George Tiller in Wichita in 1993, called Griffin “the awesomest greatest hero of our time.” Griffin’s supporters didn’t care that Dr. Gunn was “known as a dedicated father and doctor,” as the Tampa Bay Times described him. To them, his death was a victory, and they were determined that it wouldn’t be the last. 

A Killing at the Ladies Center 

Shortly after his death, Dr. Gunn’s son, David Gunn Jr., took up his father’s cause. He testified before Congress about abortion rights—and on March 15, 1993, two days after his father’s funeral, he appeared on Donahue, a popular daytime talk show, where he debated Paul Hill, a former minister who was so virulent in his anti-abortion views that he’d eventually be ex-communicated. 

Hill was well-known in Pensacola. Another Burt associate, he regularly protested at the Ladies Center, yelling “Mommy, Mommy, don’t kill me” to the women who passed through the clinic’s doors. He was also one of Michael Griffin’s most vocal defenders, writing The Army of God’s infamous “Defensive Action Statement” which argued that Griffin’s use of lethal force was “justifiable.” “Whatever force is legitimate to defend the life of a born child is legitimate to defend the life of an unborn child,” Hill wrote. He reiterated that point of view on Donahue, just feet away from the son of the man Griffin had murdered. 

Hill told writer Tom Junod in 1994 that he had no interest in killing doctors and that he merely “advocates the advocacy of force.”  But Hill changed his mind on the morning of July 29, 1994, when he watched Dr. John Bayard Britton pull into a clinic with escorts James and June Barrett, the retired couple who faithfully drove Dr. Britton from the airport to the clinic each week. 

Dr. Britton was Dr. Gunn’s replacement, a longtime abortion provider who was rough around the edges and willing to carry a gun for protection. He didn’t have Dr. Gunn’s deep commitment to his patients, but he was willing to come. Hill waited for him every Friday, holding signs and yelling. The clinic staff at the Ladies Center called him “scary.”

That morning, Hill stood in the middle of the parking lot, blocking the Barretts’ truck. Britton told him to move and Hill did, allowing them to pull into the clinic’s driveway. But then he then pulled out a shotgun, continued to walk toward the truck, and shot, wounding June and killing James and Dr. Britton. The doctor died wearing his bulletproof vest. 

The anti-abortion movement tried to distance themselves from Pensacola, arguing that Griffin and Hill were extremists. But they never denounced the tactics that helped create the conditions for the murders. A 1993 New York Times op-ed published shortly after Dr. Gunn’s death summed it up best: “Presidents Reagan and Bush, though they may have decried violence, implicitly encouraged it by their unwavering support for anti-abortion protest, their noisy commitment to overturning Roe v. Wade, and their failure to defend the rights of all women.” 

A legacy of violence

By the time the state of Florida injected Hill with a three-drug cocktail in 2003, the protesters in Pensacola had virtually disappeared. They didn’t need to come in such large numbers anymore; they had successfully driven almost every trustworthy abortion provider out of the city. The violence had also spread nationwide: two receptionists at a clinic in Massachusetts were killed in 1994; a bombing killed one in Alabama in 1998; and Dr. Barnett Slepian was murdered in his New York home in 1998. 

The absence of credible doctors in Pensacola had its own harrowing effects. After Britton’s murder, Steven Brigham took his place. Brigham had lost his medical license in New York, where the state’s Department of Health had charged him with gross negligence in the case of two botched abortions. He eventually lost his license in New Jersey, Maryland, and Pennsylvania as well. His patients reported perforated uteruses, dirty instruments, and injuries so severe they required hysterectomies. But even though he could no longer practice medicine, he still owned clinicsincluding the Ladies Center—and continued to provide abortions. Brigham was able to prey on the vulnerable for years simply because abortion seekers in Pensacola had few other options, the result of a years-long sustained campaign of violence. 

Last year, after numerous women had been hospitalized with severe injuries, the state of Florida finally closed the Ladies Center. But it almost didn’t matter: Just months later, Florida passed a 15-week ban on abortion with no exceptions—and now the state is looking to pass a more severe ban, prohibiting all abortions after six weeks, a point at which few pregnant people know that they are expecting. 

What happened in Pensacola is proof of a hard truth: Intimidation works. It scares off qualified providers and patients, creating a de facto ban. If states wouldn’t stop abortion, then activists like Griffin would—and eventually did. But it was never just about Pensacola; it was about a broader attempt to steal bodily autonomy from vulnerable people by any means necessary, be it bombs or bloodshed or legislation. 

And the bloodshed persists. A 2022 report from the National Abortion Federation found a significant uptick in violence against abortion providers. Stalking went up 600% and vandalism, including “bullets being fired through clinic windows,” also increased.

Remember Dr. David Gunn and Dr. John Britton and James Bennett when you read those stats. Remember Pensacola every time extremists threaten hospitals and access to medical care. Remember them when the violent anti-abortion playbook is reused against providers who are threatened because they offer gender-affirming care, as is happening now around the country.

If Pensacola’s history is any indication, threats are just the beginning. 

Stassa Edwards is a writer and editor. Her bylines have appeared in Jezebel, Slate, Self, Aeon, and Lapham’s Quarterly.