It was a Thanksgiving Day that forever changed one family.
Paul Michael Merhige finished his dinner, left his cousin’s home, returned with a handgun and executed five of his own family members in Jupiter, Fla., including an unborn baby and a 6-year-old girl asleep in her bed.
The 35-year-old, mentally ill shooter didn’t say a word as he mercilessly pulled the trigger.
Merhige shot and killed his twin sisters, one of whom was pregnant. He fired a bullet into his brother-in-law’s head. He shot his aunt and tried to shoot his uncle, but the gun jammed.
And then the cold-blooded killer did something even more unthinkable.
He walked into his 6-year-old cousin’s bedroom and shot her dead while she slept. Just hours earlier, that same little girl had prayed and given thanks to God as she shared Thanksgiving dinner with her killer, several relatives and guests.
The media refer to it as “The Thanksgiving Day massacre” of 2009.
Jim Sitton will always remember it as the day he lost his little girl, Makayla, to an evil madman with a gun.
Now, a little more than three years after his tragic loss, Sitton, a photojournalist for WPTV-TV, the NBC affiliate in West Palm Beach, Fla., has a powerful message for lawmakers and citizens who advocate restricting the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding Americans:
“[I understand] what it’s like to be completely helpless and powerless when someone attacks your family with a gun.
“For me, it comes down very simply to, when someone bursts into your home with murderous intent in their heart, wanting to kill you and your family, you have a choice: You either choose to be armed and trained to protect yourself – or you choose not to arm and protect yourself and your family.”
However, Sitton condemns attempts to prevent other Americans from arming and protecting themselves.
“That’s the worst choice of all,” he said, “and it seems that’s what this government is intent on doing.”
Sitton was a gun owner at the time of the shootings, but he said he didn’t have time that night to access his firearm.
“I did have a shotgun in my closet, but I wasn’t able to get to it. The gunman was between me and it with a gun, shooting, so I couldn’t go that way. But I’d never owned a handgun up until that point. The first word out of my mouth was ‘run,’ and the second words were to my son, ‘Do you have your gun?’”
Sitton said his son had left his handgun at his home.
“When it comes down to it, everything happened so fast,” he said. “The only thing that will stop a bad man with a gun is a good guy with a gun. Unfortunately, none of the good guys had guns that night.”
WND asked Sitton for his thoughts on Congress' recent proposal for background checks at gun shows and for Internet sales. He agreed that background checks are not foolproof, as there are still many holes in the system. He questions efforts to pass new gun-control laws when the laws already on the books aren't being enforced.
"Merhige was on the loose for almost a month after killing my family," he said. "As you can imagine, I ended up buying some guns for protection during that time. And every gun purchase I made – at either at a gun store or at a gun show – I had to go through background checks. I had to go through a background check to get my concealed-carry license."
Despite the shooter's history of mental illness, Sitton said Merhige simply lied on all his forms to obtain guns.
Sitton explained: "The state had issued him a concealed-carry license, and he bought guns legally just in the weeks leading up to that Thanksgiving. He lied on his concealed-carry form about his history, and he also lied on every [Florida Department of Law Enforcement] form that he filled out for each of those five guns.
"The government had five opportunities to check this guy's background, and the state didn't check when they gave him the license. The federal government didn't check his background whenever he bought the five guns. If they had, they would have seen that he had previously used a gun to shoot himself in the shoulder in a supposed suicide attempt."
Sitton told WND the shooter had been involuntarily committed for mental examinations twice, and police had been called to his parents' residence on calls of domestic events.
"His sister had a restraining order against him when he threatened to slash her throat with a knife," Sitton added. "He had told his psychiatrist he wanted to kill his entire family. And the state or the federal government, I guess no one checked the police records to see his background."
Asked if he believes strengthening the gun laws will do any good, Sitton replied: "I think everyone agrees that when you buy a gun, you should go through a background check. That doesn't mean that [should] put you on a universal list by the government, but to use the laws we have in place today. … I just think that the state should do its due diligence for each and every individual form.
"I don't know if this is really about saving lives. I think it's more about people control than it is about gun control."
Editor's note: The following is an interview with Jim Sitton by WND's Greg Corombos:
WND asked Sitton about his position on proposed bans on "assault weapons" and high-capacity magazines.
"First of all, they're using the words 'gun violence,'" he said. "Words are important. Words have meaning. It's not gun violence. No gun has ever jumped up and committed murder. It's people violence.
Sitton added, "So we need to do background checks on the people that are using these guns. As for so-called 'assault rifles,' 'assault' is an action. Guns are inanimate; they don't assault. It's the intent of the person behind the gun. ...
"It doesn't matter how many bullets are in a magazine. If the person has murderous intent, he's going to use a gun with three bullets or 30 bullets – it doesn't matter. And if he can't get a gun, he'll use a car – or as we saw in New York, an airplane."
He said Merhige, the man who murdered his family, brought two different guns to the scene, "so he didn't have to change magazines."
Sitton said lawmakers and the media don't want to listen to victims who are gun-rights advocates.
"As you can see in the media, no one really wants to hear from the victims who don't blame the guns. They just want to hear from, and take advantage of, the parents who look at the easy way out and just blame the guns because that seems like the easy solution."
He then asked, "Will the government and criminals be the only ones with guns? Or will we also have the right to protect ourselves from those criminals?"
Three-and-a-half years after the murders of his loved ones, Sitton and his wife, Muriel, have a new baby girl who just turned 1.
"That's one of the reasons I'm really dead-set on having a right to protect my family," he said. "I have another little girl, and I don't take kindly to folks who are trying to get between me and my right to protect my family."
Sitton said the death of his daughter Makayla was a dark moment but one that was ultimately hopeful when viewed through the prism of his Christian faith.
"We're doing the best we can. We're Christians. We know that Makayla, my little girl, my 6-year-old daughter, is in heaven. He didn't abandon her. She was on loan to us from God. … I know where she is and that she's OK."