Today’s post was prompted by this story out of Ohio: Police fatally shoot man holding an air rifle in Walmart.
His last words were “It’s not real.” Ironic, because while the gun he was carrying (in an open carry state) wasn’t real, the situation he found himself in was.
He had apparently picked up the toy air rifle in the toy aisle at the Ohio Walmart and was walking through the store talking to his girlfriend on his cell phone. A couple saw him gesturing and “messing with” the gun and heard clicks. They followed him through the store and called 911. The police arrived and shot him apparently BEFORE he said his last intelligible words: “it’s not real.” And before they instructed him to “Get on the ground.” His girlfriend heard the whole encounter.
I imagine things for a living; I don’t want to imagine what she must have felt listening to the father of her children scream in pain and fear before he died.
I don’t know if it’s still on the books or if it was a state or federal law, but it used to be illegal to make a toy gun look just like a real one. My son was a kid when the law went into effect in California, and I remember well the neighbor boy’s maroon Uzi. (Which he tried to get Alex to hold at every opportunity—something my son doggedly refused to do.)
I recall that gun organizations and toy manufacturers protested the law, and it seems the law no longer pertains, at least not in Ohio.
Ohio, as I noted above, is an open carry state. So, presumably people are used to seeing other people with guns in public places. Now, given what the couple who reported this man saw, they construed that he might mean to rob the Walmart. Really? From the hardware department (or toy department—which isn’t clear), while talking on his cell phone? They might just as easily have construed that his lack of concern about the gun was because it was a toy that he had picked up in the store.
One question is, of course, WHY did they feel threatened enough by this young man to assume the worst and call 911? And why did the police reportedly ignore his statement “It’s not real” and shoot him down BEFORE telling him to “Get on the ground?”
There are so many things wrong with this scenario that it’s hard to catalogue them all, but they all beg the question: how do we keep something like this from happening again? There are some logical things that can be done—banning the production of realistic toy guns, for example.
Of course, there’s more to avoiding more of these incidents than just changing the look of the hardware. Even in states where open carrying is supposedly acceptable, peoples’ attitudes towards guns (and who’s carrying them) can have unfortunate effects on their ability to reason. If John Crawford had been mindful of what he looked like strolling through the store gesturing with a toy gun it might not have happened. If the couple who thought he was suspicious (clearly there were others who didn’t) had stopped to think through their assumption that he was intending to rob the store (and took a time out to chat with someone on his cell phone?), it might not have happened. If the police had calmly asked him to put down the gun and had ascertained that it was a toy.
Yeah, all that. But, ultimately, the underlying problems that led to this young man’s death are in places that the human laws can’t reach—they are in the nebulous realm of perception, of which every human being (excepting, possibly, Buddhas, Prophets and Avatars) has only one.
My day job requires that I be able to look at a situation from multiple points of view, so I get practice that most people don’t. In the human world that John Crawford just exited, he was the only person in the scenario who KNEW that the gun wasn’t real, and that knowledge affected the way he handled it. From other viewpoints—at least those of the couple who called 911 and the police who responded to the call—it seemed real. More to the point—John Crawford handling that air rifle in a nonchalant way seemed like a real threat. And that false perception created a life-or-death situation.
Changes to the seeming realism of toys, friends, is low-hanging fruit. It’s something that can be dealt with without infringing on anyone’s Second Amendment rights. But our perceptions and the assumptions we base on them cannot be legislated. They can only broaden and change and become more rational and reliable if we work every day to make them so.