25 Years Ago Joel Gonzalez Made A Point That Gained National Attention, Severing A Trigger Finger To Protest Gun Violence (Warning: Graphic Images)

March 8, 1994, Joel Gonzalez, utilizing a hammer over homemade guillotine, severs his left index finger on the steps of the state capitol. Screen shot from video.

March 8, 1994 produced a highly extraordinary moment from an unusual man who made a point in more ways than one: Joel Gonzalez, a future city councilor, chopped off the index finger of his left hand on the steps of the state capitol in Hartford to express his version of justice to violent gun users during a historic violent-crime period in the city and state. A friend videotaped it.

Gonzalez, then a mechanic, amputated his finger utilizing a homemade guillotine.

On that day, the Connecticut General Assembly was debating a gun-control bill. For Gonzalez it seemed a sensible thing to do under the circumstances that set off quite a panic inside the capitol building when word spread.

These decades later, including banter on OIB, Gonzalez’s act is a source of amusement and bemusement. Police found Gonzalez on the capitol steps holding his bloody hand to his chest. Police confiscated the video and later returned it to Gonzalez who recently digitized the grainy VHS tape. I reviewed the video. Gonzalez is not ready to make it public given its graphic content. Gonzalez allowed screen shots of the video for this article, the first such images ever published.

The video captures Joel, wearing a white shirt and tie, showing only mild trepidation as he readies the act. Looking down at the guillotine, he places the base of his left index finger underneath the blade. He gallows into the camera: “I don’t have the guts.” Then he wastes little time. Raising a hammer in his right hand, he thrusts down violently atop the razor covering his finger. The swat provokes a painful gasp, a spurt of blood, his flying digit finds a landing spot on a step above him. Joel looks into the camera and asks his videographer friend Carlos Ramos nonchalantly “You got it? Get closer footage. Don’t get nervous. Come on,” he tells his friend who zeroes in on the severed finger.

Today Joel works as a custodian in Police Headquarters on Congress Street often defending the honor of police in the OIB comments section. What was Joel thinking? Humor comes from pain as he exhibits in this Q&A interview that follows.

Screen shot of Gonzales at point of impact.
Screen shot of Gonzalez after he amputates finger, digit lower right on steps.

Q. What possessed you to take such an alarming act to bring attention to this issue?

A. What possessed me? It was out if my deep concern about how bad the problem of guns in the wrong hands had gotten. The execution of Willie Terron in the Evergreens Housing project by the son of a Bridgeport Police Officer touched close to home as we all knew each other. Had I simply stated my position on this method of punishment, it would have fallen on deaf ears and taken as just another person talking the talk. I had to walk the walk or let the finger do the walking.

Q. Twenty five years later was it worth doing?

A. Was it worth it? It would have been more worthy if the video wasn’t confiscated and I had been able to sell the video–the highest offer was half a million. The action I took opened a line of communication and discussion with many of those involved in gangs and drug trafficking. I was able convince many gang members (mainly Latin Kings) to turn their way of living and thinking. To me it was worth it, but never to the point of doing it again.

Q. Were you charged by police for this act?

A. I was threatened with getting charged. I was immediately transported to Hartford hospital and a State Trooper was stationed by the door of the room I was in. Eight hours later, the Trooper didn’t arrest me when I was released. My assistant and friend Carlos Ramos was charged with causing a disturbance or breach of peace to which he later pleaded guilty. The State of CT refused to give back the video tape even after Carlos Ramos pleaded guilty and deciding not to charge me. Three months later the Judge ordered the state to return the video tape.

Q. How painful was it? You seemed so composed in the video.

A. The chopping didn’t produce the level of pain I was expecting. I was as mentally prepared as I could to deal with and react to what was to come after. While I was waiting for the doctor to stitch me up, I felt more pain on the finger I had accidentally cut the day before (testing the blade). For years, I’ve experienced the ‘phantom effect’–the feeling or sensation of the finger existence or return to its proper place.

Q. All these years later you share a sense of humor about the incident. Did it take you a long time to get there?

A. I’ve always maintained a good sense of humor. Some people make a big deal about my amputated digit while appearing to be less concern or conscious of the fact that everyone killed by a gun loses all their digits.

Q. When you ran for City Council (the following year and won) did the subject matter come up much?

A. When I ran for Council, the majority of the people recognized me. The conversations centered around crime in the district and how I intended to address and tackle the problem.

Q. Do you still have the same attitude about the kind of punishment that should be meted out to violent gun offenders?

A. I never expected the legislature to implement such strong laws or method of punishment. However, I have some ideas or a proposal for gun legislation. Two years ago, Representative Ezequiel Santiago proposed we get together before the next Legislative session to see what gun bill we could put together. No need to tell you what happened.

Q. What happened to your finger?

A. What happen to the finger? The cut was a clean straight one. I spent 8 hours in Hartford hospital. The finger was placed in ice and during all that time doctors tried their best to convince me to allow them to re-attach the finger. At the same time, I was being mentally evaluated by a team of shrinks. I was cleared and they explained to me what all the delay and teams of medics was all about. I had 72 hours to change my mind and re-attach the finger. I never looked back. Legend has it that two days after I left the hospital, the finger went missing as if it had walked away. Years later, the finger resurfaced in a TV commercial for Zip-lock bags.

Here’s how the Hartford Courant covered story.

Gonzalez assembles guillotine at his home day before cutting off his finger.
Gonzalez showcases his finger and homemade guillotine on his Facebook page.
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14 comments

  1. Joel, you say, “I was being mentally evaluated by a team of shrinks. I was cleared. REALLY?There are those among us that say either you weren’t mentally evaluated, you weren’t cleared or that they didn’t do their job very well.

    1. Donald Day, I was not aware that I was being evaluated by the group of shrinks. The reason they don’t tell patients that they are being evaluated is to avoid any attempt to deceive the shrinks. The goal of such evaluations is to make sure the patient doesn’t harm themselves or others in the future. It’s been 25 years and I haven’t hurt myself or anyone else with the exception of once in a while hurting the egos of some OIB readers and posters and some politicians along the way.

  2. Wooooow 25 year ago I remember that day! I was at the capital someone said Rep Newton someone from Bridgeport Cut his finger off. I said OIB so I should get some of the Royalty From Only In Bridgeport Lennie lol.

  3. Joel, we have had serious conversations in the past decade. And we have had a few humorous situations where we were able to look at the situation in similar fashion and revel in the absurdity of it.
    When you raise your left hand, you command more than an instant to be heard about something in the moment. You are forever calling attention to the public for your serious concern about fellow humans. You have a scar, purposely inflicted, that makes a point to others about guns and violence. You represent a rare brand of “someone acting on behalf of others. Is there a documentary opportunity still? The problem is still with us. Time will tell.

  4. *** Clearly a low moment in time that brought more “negative attention” to the city of Bpt. than “positive” attention towards gun violence in urban city’s & the lack of better control & universal checks for anyone trying to buy a gun or rifle, etc. in America. *** Wrongs very rarely help in making a right, no? ***

  5. JML, please notice the subtotals from 2013-2017 as far as Murders, Robberries, and Aggravate Assaults with Firearms are concerned. One would think that with numbers like these, Connecticut would have been keeping better records in regards to such alarming numbers. For example, how many of the 233 Murders where resolved (arrest and conviction) and most importantly, was the firearm used recovered?

    I pose the same question in regards to Robberies and Aggravated Assaults with Firearms. I feel that gun laws aimed at those illegally possessing firearms must be tightened as opposed to stringent laws that affect legitimate legal gun owners. If a legal gun owner is involved in a domestic dispute, all guns possessed by that gun owner must be turned over to law enforcement authorities. If I rob JML and I ‘m arrested but the firearm is not recovered, short of law enforcement asking for the firearm, not much is done.

    Laws must be passed in which Judges, Prosecutors, and law enforcement officers can work in tandem to do everything possible to compel those charged with the above types of firearms violation to give up the firearm/s used, or else. Trust me when I tell you that those guns will not show up in a gun buy back event.

    1. Thanks for the referral to these sets of data compiled over a period of recent years. It looks like Bridgeport is in the middle of a pack of larger cities in CT as far as the gun data indicates. Need some time to study more. And perhaps begin the posting of such data on a regular basis so that citizens, beyond those with a specific interest and unquenchable curiosity, can have a view fortified by history. Peace. Time will tell.

  6. While I can’t presently imagine inflicting physical damage on my person by my own intent/action to advance awareness or action, with respect to any given cause, however worthy, I certainly understand and respect the sacrifice of others that might feel compelled to do so — although I would undoubtedly discourage them from doing so if I were aware of such intent (if for no other reason, than to not have a situation occur that might be imitated by a young person, or someone not in a proper mental state for making such decisions…)

    But; while there are reasonable persons that might take a negative or otherwise condescending view of persons who might use self-arm to call ameliorative attention and action to a given, serious (life-and-death related) political/social cause, there are many examples of rational persons from various walks of life/backgrounds using self-harm to deliver others from probable or possible harm. I would cite the examples of those volunteering for hazardous jobs/military duty, in the face of probable death/injury, in order to prevent innocents from being harmed (this is usually known as “courage”/”bravery”)… I would also cite specific examples, such as the self-immolation of Buddhist monks (Saigon, Vietnam, life Magazine, June 1963) seeking to end the injustices of the US-backed Diem government of South Vietnam…

    In any event, I believe that Joel’s finger-amputation has to be regarded as a high, rational act of self-sacrifice… (But I really hope that he’s made the decision to keep his remaining 9 fingers for the duration…)

  7. Joel and I have had some online disagreements. However,it was very interesting to read about this (in)famous incident. In my faith(Roman Catholic) we recognize martyrs who gave up many things and up to their own life to communicate a deeply set belief. I get the sense that Joel was trying to give a message about guns etc. Maybe we need less trigger fingers in “the big picture?” Interesting read,interesting thoughts.

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