Curtis Reeves was the quintessential law abiding gun owner; a 71-year old retired Tampa police captain with numerous commendations and a record of leading other agencies in gun safety training. He was a poster child, in other words, for the NRA’s narrative that gun restrictions only impede the likes of Curtis Reeves and not criminals. That is until Reeves shot dead Chad Oulson, a married father of a little girl, in a movie theatre altercation triggered by the victim texting during the previews. Reeves is claiming self-defense after the argument escalated when Oulson allegedly threw a bag of popcorn at Reeves, receiving a fatal gunshot in return.
In early November, Renisha McBride a young (and, reportedly, inebriated) black woman was killed by a shotgun blast to the face in the early morning hours on the porch of a house in a Detroit suburb where she had evidently sought help after crashing her car. The white homeowner is claiming self-defense but has been charged with second degree murder.
Later the same month in Chickamauga, Georgia, Ronald Westbrook, a 72-year old man suffering from Alzheimer’s was shot and killed in similar circumstances to McBride when, disoriented and confused in the middle of the night, he knocked at the door of a house and was taken for an intruder by the fiancé of the homeowner. Again self-defense was claimed. No charges are likely.
Finally, we have the 2012 shooting death of teenager Trayvon Martin in Florida at the hands of a neighborhood watch volunteer, George Zimmerman, who was charged with second-degree murder but exonerated by a jury that accepted his assertion of self-defense.
In the daily grind of gun violence in America these cases are not exceptional other than as clear illustrations of the folly in believing that an armed citizenry makes our society safer. After all, the shooters here were not criminals or gang-bangers, they were not manifestly mentally ill, nor had they snapped as a result of some traumatic event such as a painful divorce or losing a job.
Yet they each shot and killed another law abiding citizen who was, incidentally, unarmed. The cases highlight the way in which the presence of a firearm changes the dynamic of a situation, and the behavior of the one who is armed.
Renisha McBride and Ronald Westbrook, for example, had the misfortune to encounter individuals so scared of the world outside their front door that when faced with an imaginary threat from someone knocking on it in the middle of the night, they opened fire. Unfortunately, fear seems to be especially prevalent among gun owners, which may explain why they arm themselves in the first place.
Chad Oulson on the other hand was the victim of an angry man who also happened to be armed. Anger is another driver of gun violence even, as in this case, when the offense caused is over something as petty as texting.
George Zimmerman is an example of yet another sort of “law abiding gun owner”; the sort who derive false courage from possessing a gun. Does anyone believe, for example, that Zimmerman would have risked a confrontation with the six-foot Martin by leaving his vehicle to follow him had he not been armed? And when Martin confronted his armed stalker he ended up dead.
The common thread in each case was that the presence of a firearm drove the judgment and behavior of the shooter, thereby changing the outcome from what it would otherwise have been had there been no gun.
In the absence of a firearm, common sense would have prevailed, the police called and both Westbrook and McBride would have been returned safely home. An unarmed George Zimmerman would have followed the advice of the police dispatcher and stayed in his vehicle while the police checked out Martin. Who knows what Curtis Reeves would have done but without a gun nobody would have got seriously hurt in that movie theatre.
The Oulson case is particularly disturbing, however, because it explodes the myth that we have nothing to fear from the law abiding gun owner and concealed carry permit holder toting his arsenal around with him in public. After all, if we can’t rely on a Curtis Reeves to behave with restraint, how can we ever trust that we won’t end up like Chad Oulson the next time we piss off someone for whatever reason in a bar, or a shopping mall or a movie theatre and they happen to be armed?