The campaign of Dr. Al Gross is spending tens of thousands of dollars – if not hundreds of thousands – to convince Alaskans that what is important for anyone representing the 49th state in the U.S. Senate is a history as a commercial fisherman, a skier, a four-wheeler drive operator and a bear killer.
Or more specifically in the latter case, someone who killed a bear in self-defense given that killing bears for their hides or so-called “sport” wouldn’t be politically correct in these times. You can pretty well rest assured the campaign wouldn’t be running an entertaining “Bear Doctor” video if Gross was a registered guide overseeing the deaths of a half-dozen or more Alaska grizzlies every year.
Now, unfortunately, the bear doctor’s bear story has run into some problems with fact-checkers, and Gross’s most ardent supporters would like everyone to believe his whole claim to having killed a bear that snuck up on him is irrelevant.
Let’s not be naive.
Money is one of the main ways in which importance gets measured in a capitalist economy, and the Gross campaign has spent a lot of money promoting the idea Gross is a brave, modern-day, Alaska version of the fictional Francis Macomber who stood in there against a charging and dangerous wild animal.
Only there’s this problem with the story. The version told now isn’t the version told after the bear died in 1995.
In the 1995 version, a hunting partner – Jeffery Jones – swore he shot and killed the bear, and at the very bottom of his six-page sworn statement as to what happened at that time are written the words “Agree with above,” followed by the date and a not clearly legible signature that appears to be that of Alan Gross.
These are inherently contradictory stories. Either Gross got it wrong when he agreed with the Jones statement in 1995, Gross misremembered what went down after he decided to run for public office all these many years later (humans are prone to this weakness), or one of the oh-so-wise campaign strategists he hired from the Lower 48 heard Gross tell the bear story and decided they could make the candidate look even better if they cut out Jones and had Gross kill the bear.
If it’s the latter, you have to feel sorry for Gross, a decent guy.
The campaign isn’t talking. But it is worth noting that Gross campaign manager David Keith, “a seasoned political operative” as his bio puts it, helped Democrat Randy Bryce – the “Iron Stache” – shape a man-of-the-people campaign that threatened House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin in the last election.
“In Bryce, a lot of people who don’t know the difference between Chinese and American steel, who have never stepped foot in Racine, whose own mustaches are ironic, have found an avatar of a new direction – by the working man, for the working man,” Mother Jones reported in December 2017. “If their problem is that people who look like Randy Bryce stopped voting like him, then this, they believe, is the way to win the state that got away.”
In Alaska, Keith appears to be trying to wag the dog both ways with a “Dr. Al Gross” campaign portraying the good doctor as a salmon-slime-covered, hard-working, bear-killing, glacier-skiing Alaska everyman – good parts of which do describe Gross, the son of the late attorney general Av Gross, a true Alaska character.
And so now there are these contradictory bear stories – one new and one old, one told by a Gross hunting partner and at one time confirmed by Gross, one told now by Gross – with no real evidence to verify either given that Jones and Gross were the only witnesses to the shooting and disposed of the carcass afterward.
For many – who knows, maybe it’s most these days – this doesn’t really matter. They’re mired in the partisanship of the day and that goo resolves any issues as to the “truth.”
For those on the right and many leaning right, Gross’ new version of an old story makes him a liar. For those on the left and many leaning left, the fact Gross apparently did shoot at the bear is the same as the claim he killed a bear in self-defense.
Who knows what the few true independents in the state think in a world where truths have become personal, as in they are what you believe not necessarily what the evidence supports. And the evidence here for anything is sketchy.
Since the two hunters skinned the bear and delivered the hide and skull to the state in order to comply with the Defense of Life and Property (DLP) law that allows people to shoot bears in self-defense, they surely know who killed it. It’s not hard for even hunters with limited experience to tell lethal wounds from non-lethal wounds, especially if one hunter is shooting with a rifle and the other with a shotgun.
Unfortunately, no one knows what sort of weapon Gross was shooting when the shooting began 25 years ago, and his campaign has so far refused to say. Jones isn’t talking at all.
Still, the incident started when Gross and Jones were duck hunting, an activity that involves shooting waterfowl with shotguns loaded with birdshot. It is hard to hit birds on the wing with a rifle, and in the case of waterfowl hunting, that is also prohibited by federal law.
Jones’ sworn affidavit says that after Gross yelled a warning about a bear, Jones “grabbed a rifle,” and he and Gross “both stepped back into the pond.” There is no mention of Gross grabbing a rifle, though that is entirely possible.
What happened after Jones grabbed the rifle and the men stepped back into the pond is not clear. In the affidavit, Jones says the bear was five to 10 feet from Gross when the rifle was grabbed and afterward “both stepped back into the pond.”
If the bear had been intent on grabbing Gross, it could easily have closed that five to 10 feet in the time it took Jones to grab the rifle no matter how fast the man moved. As someone who has been bluff charged by bears many times, interviewed dozens of victims of bear maulings, and once shot a bear off his leg after a charge that wasn’t a bluff, I can personally testify as to how fast bears move.
If it took that charging bear more than a second to run over me, put a claw cut in my jaw, grab my weapon in its jaw, let go the gun, spin around and grab my leg, I’d be surprised.
Jones’ statement strangely does not mention a charge.
After the retreat into the pond, it adds, “the bear stood up on its hind legs (something curious bears are prone to do to getter a better look), then lowered down to all fours and proceeded toward my partner.
“At that point I shot the bear as did my partner Alan Gross. I was approximately 35 feet, 40 feet from the bear when I shot it. I felt my partner’s life was in immediate danger.”
The statement does not say how far Gross was from the bear, what he shot it with, or whether he thought his life in danger. There are just those three words at the bottom of the statement indicating that someone, apparently Gross, agreed with Jones’ account.
The notes of the trooper who took the affidavit add only that “when the bear was within 10 feet of Gross, Jones fired his weapon hitting the bear. Both men fired their weapons twice. The bear was hit three times.”
The notes don’t say where that 10 feet distance estimate came from. They don’t say what kinds of firearms were used. They don’t say how far Gross and Jones backed into the pond or where the bear was at that time it was shot. And they don’t say how the two men decided it was Jones who killed the bear, though a skinless carcass would make obvious the mortal wounds of a high-power rifle versus the peppering of birdshot.
A photo Jones took after the shooting shows Gross posing with the dead bear atop dry beach grass. The bear’s fur does not appear to be soaked as it would be if it had ventured into the pond and been shot and killed there.
As is the normal case with DLP kills in Alaska, this one was not investigated in any detail. The state has a lot of bears, and there isn’t much concern about someone shooting one in “self-defense” even if the claim sounds extremely thin, and even then some questionable cases are allowed to pass as legitimate.
The trooper involved with this case at the time also isn’t talking, but the sworn statement of Jones and the agreement of Gross would have been way more than enough to get the shooting over the low bar for an acceptable self-defense shooting in Alaska.
Jones’ claim that he felt Gross’s life “was in immediate danger” is, in fact, more than enough because there is no way to prove a close encounter with a grizzly bear isn’t going to end with a human seriously injured and killed.
Most end without death, but as the family of a young Ohio man on a moose hunt in Alaska sadly learned only days ago, bears can prove deadly. And shooting bears in self-defense is something that happens in Alaska with some regularity.
The Gross campaign has tried to portray this shooting as manly, if not heroic. As someone who has been involved in two DLP shootings, I can testify there is nothing heroic about them. Heroism is about risking your life to save someone else.
Shooting a bear in self-dense is about saving your ass or cleaning up someone else’s mess. These things are done because there are really no other options. The Gross campaign has tried to make this shooting into something more and spent a lot of money trying to sell the public that idea.
And it’s that, for better or worse, that makes the truth both relevant and newsworthy if, of course, anyone cares about the truth anymore. So many people have made up there minds that there doesn’t seem to be an overwhelming interest in the facts of the cases, and I’m personally tired of listening to Gross supporters who sound like former House Speaker Newt Gingrich trying to defend polebrity Sarah Palin’s claim former President Barack Obama wanted to create “death panels”.
The moral equivalency nonsense has spun all out of control in this country. Just because President Donald Trump lies all of the time doesn’t mean it’s fine for other pols or potential pols to bend the truth some of the time, and that’s what we’ve got here.
It’s bad enough if all that happened is that Gross misremembered the role of the hunting partner Gross once appears to have believed saved his life, but it appears to be more than that. It appears either Gross or someone in the Gross campaign decided the candidate should declare he killed a bear in self-defense because that sort of thing would sell well with Alaskans.
It’s a shame Gross didn’t have a trusted adviser to tell him that was a bad idea. If he’d even left Jones somewhere in the picture when talking about a 25-year-old shooting, the dead bear would never have come back to life.
And now the animal could well haunt his campaign because in politics, for better or worse, the little things sometimes matter a lot more than the big things.