Undone by a few words ill-chosen

By Jose Martinez
Globe Correspondent / May 29, 2011

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

Text size +

Robert Schuler says he knew he shouldn’t have said what he said about guns during a meeting on the town budget in Shirley as soon as he said it.

He was frustrated that little progress had been made to whittle down the budget, Schuler explained, and he engaged in regrettable hyperbole. The May 2 meeting, complete with Schuler’s comment, was captured on local-access cable TV.

“The only question I have about the budget is what have the selectmen done with this, if anything? Don’t tell me they haven’t done anything with it,’’ he said, pausing a moment before laughing and adding, “or I’m going to pull my gun out and start shooting or something. It drives me nuts!’’

What followed over the next week were two public apologies, a visit to his house by police, and the unanimous vote by the Board of Selectmen on May 9 to ban the longtime volunteer from town property and meetings, pending the completion of the police investigation.

“I apologized for my insensitive and obviously not-well-thought-out comments. I did indicate at the end of my apology that that sort of behavior would never happen again by me,’’ Schuler said recently by phone from the Framingham office of his lawyer, Jesse Cohen, a specialist in gun laws.

Now he’d like things to return to normal, Schuler said. And he wants an apology from the town.

“I am still a member of the Finance Committee. I am still a member of the Sewer Commission. I run a business in town, life goes on,’’ he said. “I have no idea how long I am going to be investigated, or who they are going to talk to, which is why I retained Mr. Cohen.’’

No charges have been filed against Schuler. In a May 12 letter from Police Chief J. Gregory Massak, he was informed that his license to carry firearms had been suspended. Under the no-trespassing order issued May 9, Schuler is subject to arrest, 30 days in jail and a $100 fine if he goes on town property.

Massak declined to discuss specifics of the case, but characterized his department’s investigation as “noncriminal.’’ He said the stay-away order would remain in place until removed by the Board of Selectmen.

Schuler said he voluntarily surrendered his gun license, two handguns that he said he uses infrequently at a local firing range, and a shotgun he uses for bird hunting to two police officers who visited his home May 7. According to the police report filed by Sergeant Alfreda Cromwell, she had been “contacted by a confidential informant (who will remain unnamed for safety reasons) that informed me of safety concern for several people in the town of Shirley.’’

The officer also was given a DVD of the meeting, which she watched before driving over to Schuler’s home. There, Schuler explained his “shooting’’ comment as “just a bad choice of words’’ and that he did not plan to shoot anyone, Cromwell wrote in the report.

Cohen said the case smacks of politics.

“Mr. Schuler has given thousands of hours of public service in the 21 years he has lived there. He cares deeply about his community. He is not working his way up to be a senator or anything. This is Shirley, a small town, and he wants to give his time to help his community. This has been blown out of proportion,’’ Cohen said.

But Selectman Armand Deveau, who is the board’s vice chairman, said the threat must be taken seriously, regardless of how much a slip of the lip Schuler contends he made. Deveau said Schuler will remain under the order to stay away from town buildings and officials until the board hears back from the police chief.

In defending the selectmen’s actions, Deveau cited the point-blank shooting of US Representative Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona at a public event in January, a gunman holding a Florida school board hostage in December before shooting himself, and a Cape Cod selectman who drew criticism this month for pulling out a toy gun at a meeting to make a point.

And, Deveau added, he heard Schuler had made a similar comment at another meeting.

“When someone makes a reference to taking out a gun and shooting people, you may take that as a bad analogy, poor choice of words, however you want to take that. When he makes the same reference twice in two meetings — same comment — it needs to be taken seriously,’’ Deveau said Monday night, during a joint session of the Board of Selectmen and Finance Committee.

“In today’s world, there is no room for error here. We take all threats like that seriously. There should be a zero-tolerance policy on any threats like that,’’ he said. “Whether they were meaningful or not we don’t know. I believe we took the appropriate action.’’

Schuler admits he made another gun reference at a Sewer Commission meeting in trying to assess the risk of the town defaulting on a state loan.

“I was asking if it was highly likely in the near future . . . there was some misunderstanding of what I meant, so I said, ‘For instance, if someone comes up to you with a gun and asks you for your money, that is high risk. If someone comes up to you without a gun and asks you for your money, that is low risk.’ That is the analogy I used,’’ Schuler said.

Meanwhile, Schuler wants an apology and his guns returned.

“Honestly, what I am looking for would be an apology by the selectmen, an admission that it never should have happened and everybody moves forward — something as innocuous as that,’’ he said. “I’m not trying to extract a pint of blood here. I’m looking for something that acknowledges — publicly acknowledges — it spun out of control; my license is restored, my weapons are restored; everything goes back the way it was.

“Except, clearly, my reputation can’t be restored at this point.’’

Through all this, the Finance Committee has continued its work on the town’s $10 million budget for the coming fiscal year, but with one less voice at the table, said chairman Frank Kolarik.

“My biggest frustration right now is whether Mr. Schuler is being treated fairly, and this is hampering his ability to take part in the Finance Committee — and this is the most critical time of year for us,’’ Kolarik said, citing its duty to review spending items going before Town Meeting.

Shirley’s annual Town Meeting convenes on June 6.