America is Awash in Guns — And Fear of Them

Guns aren’t making us safe, they’re just scaring us.

What if we’re missing a bigger issue in our musings about Ferguson and race and unarmed black men being shot by white guys, often police officers? Yes, systemic racism and a breakdown in our ability to trust police are serious problems. But are we overlooking something more basic?

It’s a rare day without a story like this one:

A white cop observes a black man cut through a parking lot to avoid a red light. He follows the car and when it starts to pull into an apartment complex, he turns on his cruiser’s lights to pull it over. The black man, 29-year-old Brian Dennison, drives further into the complex and parks in a parking space. When he gets out of the car, the cop shoots at him. Luckily, the shot missed. It was lucky because Dennison had his 6-year-old daughter in the car. And she was having an asthma attack. And her inhaler was inside their home, where Dennison was rushing when he drove around the red light.

So why did Officer J.C. Garcia get it so wrong?

When Dennison got out of his car, Garcia thought he had a weapon, and that’s when he fired one shot, according to [the sheriff’s office].

“I thought he had a gun.”

Even though the cop still found a reason to arrest Dennison, the story had a happier ending than many. It’s hard to imagine a worse outcome than this one:

Someone calls 9-1-1 to report a black kid at a park brandishing what is likely a toy gun. The 9-1-1 dispatcher leaves out the “likely a toy” part. Police officers pull up to 12-year-old Tamir Rice and a white police trainee shoots him within two seconds. The child later dies.

“I thought he had a real gun.”

Every now and then, a cop is held responsible for shooting too soon:

A white state trooper notices a black man waiting in line for a gas pump at a convenience store. He pulls up behind him and later claims the man, who was about to exit the vehicle to pump gas, wasn’t wearing a seat belt. The now former trooper (he was fired for his actions), Sean Groubert, orders 31-year-old Levar Jones to show I.D. When Jones reaches into his vehicle for what you and I might expect is his wallet, Groubert shoots him. Jones survives but even as he lies on the ground bleeding, asks why he was shot.

“I thought you had a gun.”

Everyone remembers the granddaddy of stories of unarmed black guys being shot by white guys:

A white self-appointed neighborhood watch commando follows a black teenager on a rainy night. George Zimmerman accosts 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, who defends himself from the skulking stranger, and the two exchange punches. Zimmerman begins to lose in a fair fight, so he shoots and kills Martin, who was coming home from a convenience store with a bag of Skittles and an Arizona Iced Tea. A trial finds Zimmerman at no fault.

“I thought he had a gun.”

I could go on illustrating this point to infinity. In fact a search for “unarmed black man shot by police” turned up 5.5 million hits, a few of them about unarmed white men being shot by police.

What’s going on when someone thinks someone else has a gun? Fear. Naked fear.

People are right to be afraid of guns. Guns are bad news. And the even worse news is they’re everywhere. Thanks to the tireless efforts of the National Rifle Association and Gun Owners of America, ramped up since the election of America’s first black president, our state and national representatives have facilitated the arming of America. In many areas of the country, not all rural, candidates who advocate gun safety can’t get elected or re-elected.

The result is a country awash in guns: assault rifles, semiautomatic pistols, if bullets come out of it, the sky’s the limit. Police forces attempt to out-gun us with military style arms. We respond with concealed carry permits, open carry demonstrations, and 9-year-old girls with Uzis who accidentally shoot and kill gun range instructors.

The new normal, except for sparse efforts like those of shooting victim former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and her husband, Mark Kelly, is to no longer even try to turn back the tide of gun violence, only to join it. Why? Because we think everyone else has a gun. And that makes us, including trained police officers, very afraid. Add in racial stereotyping, and gun proliferation is turning America into a dystopian nightmare where unarmed teenagers are shot first and investigated later.

One comment

  • Alan Falk
    May 6, 2015 - 9:54 am | Permalink

    Dear Trish Ponder –
    Many thanks for your article.
    I have been making similar arguments for several years and it’s nice to know that I’m not alone. Seems that so many are missing the blatantly obvious point and the real underlying cause of so much gun violence . . . guns. As someone noted, one minute a police officer is a scout helping an old lady cross the street, and the next minute he/she finds themselves thrown in to a war-zone.
    Alan Falk

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