A consistent feature of our nation’s long debate over whether and how to combat the ongoing problem of people who shouldn’t be getting shot getting shot has been the argument that our society would be safer if more of us were carrying firearms. While another faction has responded to the growing number of mass shootings in America by working to strengthen laws restricting access to guns, there has been a countermovement toward more permissive concealed-carry and open-carry laws, based on the principles that a) we are all granted the right to bear arms in self-defense in the Constitution and b) more theoretically, that more armed citizens means would-be shooters will think twice before drawing down, as their target very well may be equipped to shoot back. Also, c) what are you, a pussy?
Last week’s matched pair of police shootings, in Louisiana and Minnesota, have once again drawn attention to the apparent tendency of some officers to shoot black people for negligible offenses. It would be very hard to argue that there isn’t at least some racism at the root of these killings, and I don’t intend to. But as a thought experiment, removing race from the equation does help to put the lie to the notion that a more widely armed citizenry would be a safer one.
On paper, both Alton Sterling and Philando Castile would appear to be poster boys for the NRA and the arm-everybody movement. Sterling, a 37-year-old father of five, was selling CDs in a convenience-store parking lot, something he did regularly with the blessing of the store owner, in the hours before he was killed. It appears that Sterling’s criminal record kept him from more traditional employment, but the fact that he was selling CDs as opposed to dime bags suggests he was not a huge threat to society — just a dude hustling.
The exact details of what happened before bystanders captured video of Sterling being dragged to the ground and pinned to the ground by one officer before the other shot him point blank in the chest are a little unclear, but there seems to be consensus that Sterling was accosted by a homeless man asking him for money in the parking lot, Sterling refused, the panhandler persisted, and Sterling showed him his pistol and told him to get lost.
While I’m going to go ahead and assume it isn’t legal to threaten someone with a gun, it was most definitely legal for Alton Sterling to carry it, as Louisiana is an open-carry state. It appears that he bought the gun earlier that same day because he was worried about getting mugged while he was working — an eminently reasonable concern for someone working a cash business in a rough neighborhood. It is also not difficult to imagine a panhandler persistent enough to drive him to end the discussion by showing his piece. (I used to live in San Francisco.)
In any case, the panhandler called 911, the cops came, and we all saw what happened next.
Less than 48 hours later, in Minnesota, 32-year-old school cafeteria worker Philando Castile, his girlfriend Diamond Reynolds, and her 4-year-old were pulled over in Minnesota, ostensibly for a broken taillight. Reynolds says that the officer instructed both adults to put their hands up (the child was in the back seat), and Castile, who had a concealed carry permit and a handgun on him, told the officer as much; the officer told him to show his ID, Castile reached for it, the officer shot him, and once again we all saw what happened next, as Reynolds had the remarkable presence of mind to put the aftermath on Facebook Live.
It seems clear enough that whether or not these cops shot these guys because of racist prejudice, the presence of firearms — legally carried firearms — on both sides did little to calm either situation.
Giving the cops every benefit of the doubt suggests the guns had the exact opposite effect: though Sterling never pulled or reached for his weapon — a weapon that he had every right to carry, though it was the whole reason the police were called in the first place — once the cops caught sight of it, they assumed Sterling meant them harm and got him before he could get them. The very fact that he had the gun geeked them up enough to kill him.
Same with Castile: he did exactly what a concealed carrier is supposed to do when speaking to a cop, telling him that he had a firearm and a permit. This is something that cops in concealed-carry states are supposed to be ready for, but somehow hearing the word “gun” and then seeing Castile reach into his jacket crossed this officer’s wires and he opened fire, presumably thinking Castile was reaching for his gun. Once again, the simple presence of the weapon automatically escalated the encounter from something totally routine (a questionable DWB stop apparently motivated by Castile’s supposed resemblance to a robbery suspect that would likely have ended with some light harrassment) to an indefensible murder that ended the life of a totally upright citizen — and in the presence of loved ones, no less. Even the attorney for the cop who killed Castile told the press, “This has nothing to do with race, and everything to do with the presence of a gun,” Kelly said. “Deadly force would not have been used if not for the presence of a gun.”
It’s obviously far too small a sample size to prove anything, but it’s hard to look at these two incidents and feel that I’d be any safer if I and everyone around me were going about our day-to-day life packing heat. The visceral human fear of getting shot, combined with the knowledge that everyone you encounter could conceivably shoot you, would escalate every little conflict — an encounter with the cops, a dispute over unpaid rent, disagreement over pepperoni or black olives — into a potential shootout, not because either person is necessarily a psycho itching to shoot first, but because neither person would know for sure that other person wasn’t.
And you think law enforcement is tense now? Arm everybody and the cops will be shooting everybody that crosses their path — burglars, shoplifters, speeders, jaywalkers — on the logic that this is an armed criminal, I had to protect myself. That does not sound like an improvement over our current circumstances. Your mileage may vary, but I am going to decline my right as a citizen of Colorado to carry a handgun. Seems like a great way to get shot.