Gun nuts' tragic confusion: Why "open carry" groups don't get police brutality

To their credit some gun groups didn't like John Crawford being shot by cops. The problem: their reasoning (update)

By Heather Digby Parton


Published October 1, 2014 6:58PM (EDT)

A gun rights supporter openly carries two pistols strapped to his leg during a rally in support of the Michigan Open Carry gun law in Romulus, Michigan April 27, 2014.        (Reuters/Rebecca Cook)
A gun rights supporter openly carries two pistols strapped to his leg during a rally in support of the Michigan Open Carry gun law in Romulus, Michigan April 27, 2014. (Reuters/Rebecca Cook)

After finally being allowed to view the video of the police shooting of a man in an Ohio Wal-Mart, it's very hard for any reasonable person to conclude that the authorities acted responsibly. They appear not to have given him any chance to drop the toy gun in his hand before shooting him. It's possible that they were persuaded by the frightened 911 caller that they were entering a deadly situation, but there's no evidence they heard anything but a description and location of a black man with an afro, wearing jeans and a T-shirt carrying a rifle and threatening people in Wal-Mart. An Ohio grand jury seems to have thought that it was reasonable for police in that situation to shoot first and ask questions later.

If you didn't know it was a toy gun, it's easy to see why someone might be afraid. Any time you see people casually carrying guns around you know there's the potential for a deadly accident or some kind of altercation resulting in death. But obviously, the answer to that problem is not for the police to simply shoot them down. In fact, Ohio is an open carry state, which means that it is perfectly legal to walk around Wal-Mart with a real AR-15 much less a toy they sell right there in the store.

And open carry advocates stage demonstrations to "exercise" their right to wear firearms in public all the time. For example, in May a couple of men in Medina, Ohio, walked the streets with such guns slung casually over their backs. Police were called numerous times by people alarmed at the sight of two men carrying AR-15 rifles in the town square. (You can listen to the 911 calls here.) But interestingly, in this case the police didn't deploy a SWAT team or rush in with guns drawn and start shooting:

Their encounter with police was captured on video cameras, carried by both the men and the officers, which showed the men at first refusing to show their identification when approached by officers. The men complied only after an officer told them they would be disarmed if they didn’t. The officers said they were justified in demanding the IDs because of the 911 calls and because one of the men fumbled when asked his age.

The demand for the ID was the key issue cited by several demonstrators. “We have a constitutional right to carry a firearm to protect ourselves,” said Harry Wynn, of Stow, who wore an AR-15 across his chest and also carried a Glock 30. “Nobody should get forced ID’d because they have a firearm — I don’t care how many 911 calls came in.”

They were asked politely for their IDs. And when they provided them they were allowed to keep walking around in public with real AR-15s. A couple of weeks later a local open carry group staged a demonstration and the police didn't ID any of them, much less shoot any of them, as they walked up and down the streets of Medina. A local columnist commented on the event, making what sounds like a reasonable observation:

The pushback from open-carriers comes from a perception that officers are treading on their rights by requesting ID. Sure, if a person is walking down the street and doing nothing more than humming the latest pop song, then of course there’s no legal basis for an officer to get all up in their grill. But the plain-view sight of a firearm prompts officers to request state ID - just to make sure and maybe even celebrate that such a person is following the law. It can be fun! It’s not a “reasonable suspicion” issue; it’s the simple fact that a machine created solely for the purpose of killing things is being introduced into a public setting. Which is fine, per Ohio law, as long as a diminishing list of requirements is met. Police are the people that society grants the ability to check out those reqs, however ill-begotten their methods most of the time.

One assumes that most Americans do not have a problem with police checking to see if armed men walking the streets are on the up and up. That's something only the fanatics would oppose. But nobody would countenance killing them on sight. And at least in this case, even though they scared people enough to call 911, with their real guns (possibly loaded with real bullets), the cops were polite and let them go on their way.

Meanwhile, John Crawford, the 22-year-old man in Wal-Mart was gunned down without mercy for carrying a toy. Besides the fact that one had a real gun and one did not, what was the other difference in these two situations? Not much. Except for the fact that the two men in Medina were white and Crawford was black.

To their credit, the Ohio open carry organization has been appalled by the Crawford shooting and has people prepared to demonstrate on behalf of the family. If one objects to having to show ID to a police officer when wielding a weapon it wouldn't make any sense to support shooting them instead.  The person who runs their Facebook page has been actively deleting any comments made by supporters who feel that Crawford had it coming or who made racist remarks.  The fact that he had to announce he was doing that obviously means some open carry supporters were making those comments, but that can happen on any Facebook page.

Still, one cannot help wondering why this anger at police harassment only seems to come up when the victim is carrying a gun. This Crawford killing is horrifying on any number of levels, only one of which is that it happened in an open carry state where having a gun on your person in Wal-Mart is legal. The real problem is that the police decided to shoot him down without properly assessing the situation in the first place.

There are no good statistics on police shootings, unfortunately, but what we do know is that police kill far more unarmed black men than anyone else.  And over the past few months we've seen several notorious examples, some of which have been videotaped. There was, of course, the infamous shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The NRA and Gun Owners of America didn't concern themselves with that one. Perhaps if Michael Brown had been armed they might have joined the protests. As it was, their local adherents just bought more guns to protect their homes from rioters. Some open carry enthusiasts maintained their anti-government position, others revealed a depressingly familiar reason for their desire to own guns --- and it isn't fear of police:

During the LA Riots, it was said that liberals were shocked when they were told that they would have to wait 15 days before they could get a gun for protection!

"As far as I recall, the issue was that liberal types were shocked that in order to purchase a firearm to protect themselves, a wait time of (I thought it was 14 days) would ensue before they could take possession. Obviously if you lived in the most affected affluent areas say Hancock park and the Beverly Wilshire areas that actually saw damage, fires and looting, This would have come as quite a shock to the unknowing types. And that's the way it was(and of course still is) albeit now for 10 silly days."

And in that case, the Korean shop owners used AR-15's to keep the looters from their stores.

Now if people ask why we need "those" rifles (AR-15's) ...the LA Riots and now the Ferguson Riots are two good examples.

A few days later a video revealed another young black man named Kajieme Powell was mowed down by police within seconds of their arrival on the scene. He was carrying a knife. And was mentally ill. They didn't ask him for his ID, which I'm sure would have inflamed the open carry people. The shooting itself doesn't seem to have caused them any concern --- he wasn't carrying a gun, after all. And then there was this poor man in North Carolina, Levar Jones, stopped for a seat belt violation and then shot for reaching for his driver's license in the front seat of his car. Again, this would be a big problem for the gun proliferation folks if he actually had been exercising his constitutional right to bear arms. But he didn't actually have a gun so it's not a big deal.

The John Crawford incident in Wal-Mart is horrifying because the tape shows that he picked up the gun from the shelf as easily as if he'd picked up a hair dryer or a kid's baseball bat and was carrying it around the store, absentmindedly playing with it like a kid with a toy while he was talking on the phone. Because it was a toy! It's fair to question why Wal-Mart sells such realistic facsimiles of deadly weapons to kids but they do. However, it's also fair to wonder whether the police would have reacted the same way if the call coming in had said the man with the gun in Wal-Mart was a white guy. Who knows, they might even have taken a big chance and asked the guy for ID before they started firing.

Black men are routinely shot down by police in the country, that's the bottom line. And while it's certainly admirable for open carry advocates to stick to their principles and defend John Crawford's right to carry a toy gun around Wal-Mart, it's failing to see the forest for the trees. John Crawford, Michael Brown, Kajieme Powell, Levar Jones were all unarmed black men killed shot by police in the last few months. It wouldn't have helped them to actually be carrying guns, real or otherwise.

Surely these open carry people, however well intentioned, should realize that nice white men and women openly carrying firearms on the street aren't being gunned down on sight by police officers. The worst thing that happens to them is they are forced to show their ID. It's unarmed black men (and unarmed mentally ill people of all races) who are being gunned down on sight by police officers. Are they agitating for their right to shoot cops? I doubt it. Nor should they be.

The problem isn't that people don't have enough guns. The problem is that police are too often using the guns they have. That won't be solved by a bunch of average suburban white people wandering around public spaces with their rifles slung over their backs. Those aren't the people most likely to be shot by police --whether they're armed or not. They're missing the point entirely.

Update: Initially, this post indicated that "John Crawford, Michael Brown, Kajieme Powell, Levar Jones were all unarmed black men killed by police in the last few months." Jones survived his shooting, and this post has been updated to reflect that fact.

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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