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defensive gun use, police privilege, and the Florida theater shooting

(Prompted by my friend Jason Mankey's Facebook share of David Frum's piece over at The Daily Beast; you can read that for the other side.)

The fatal shooting of Chad Oulson by Curtis Reeves, a 71-year-old former Tampa police captain, over a dispute about texting in a theater certainly illustrates something disturbing about American culture...but perhaps not what advocates of firearms prohibition think.

To be sure, texting and throwing popcorn should not result in someone's death.

And it is true that foolish people sometimes bring guns into situations that would not be dangerous if the fool had not introduced a firearm into the equation.

And it's true that the opt-cited statistic of 2.5 million defensive gun uses per year may be way off -- it is highly controversial.

On the other hand, for example, a woman who carries a gun in her purse for protection because she is frightened of an abusive ex-paramour, should not face jail time for exercising her right to self-defense (which necessarily includes the right to take reasonable precautions against rationally apprehended danger). Because it's also true that guns are used by innocent people to protect themselves or others in legitimately dangerous situations.

How often? The error bars are huge, because many cases are never reported to the authorities. (Why open yourself for possible prosecution from an overzealous or hoplophobic prosecutor?) The lowest figure I've seen in the literature is 64,000 defensive gun uses a year. That's likely an under-count given the methodology: "I'm calling on behalf of the federal government, and I'd like to ask you some questions about crime. Have you ever pointed a gun at someone?" I exaggerate somewhat, but surveys conducted on behalf of governments about behavior with legal implications are going to see an under-report of that behavior.

The next lowest estimate is over 100,000, based on a similar method of questioning.

But on the other hand both these estimates are from a time when homicide and serious violent crime was much more common than it is today. (Yes, despite the sky-is-falling tone of media coverage, the violent crime rate has been generally decreasing since a peak in the early 1990s.)

So to arrive at a floor, let's take that 64k figure and cut it in half, 32k/year. That's almost 88 times a day, over 3.6 times an hour, about every sixteen and a half minutes, that a gun is used in legitimate defense in the U.S. I stress again that that's based on a minimal estimate, taking a low outlier and cutting it in half.

For comparison, there were 14,827 murders in 2012 (the last year for which UCR data is available); about 2/3 of U.S. murders use a firearm; so current homicide rates see about 10,000 murders per year with a firearm.

We can confidently assert that defensive gun use is likely to be more than three times as common as homicide via firearm, quite possibly as much as ten times as common, and by some controversial estimates up to 250 times as common. (Again, those error bars are huge.)

But these defensive cases usually do not make the news. How much coverage have you seen of this senior citizen defending himself with a handgun against a home invasion? There is a heavy selection bias involved here.

And the majority of those homicides are committed by people with criminal records, who possessed those guns illegally -- in Baltimore City in 2011, for example, more than 90 percent of those arrested on murder charges had criminal records. More than half the suspects had previous gun arrests, and about four in ten were already on parole or probation! Now, there may be some selection bias here as well -- cops are more likely to suspect and arrest someone with a record. But even taking that into account, it's clear that laws keep bad guys away from guns about as well as they keep junkies away from heroin.

Laws that forbid gun ownership by people without criminal records, people who are ipso facto unlikely to commit murder, will not have much effect on the murder rate.

Now, how many of those cases of defense are in or near the home, versus in movie theaters? That's another issue. I support the RKBA, but I also support high objective standards of technical competence and training in de-escalation for those permitted to carry loaded firearms in crowded public areas, absent a specific threat to them. In other words: temporary CCW permits for anyone with a clean record who takes out a protective order or signs an affidavit that they've been threatened; permanent CCW permits on a shall-issue basis with requirements for marksmanship, gun safety, and de-escalation skills training (all made available at low cost), to be revoked for any misbehavior.

And those standards have to be the same for police. That's an important issue being missed here: our police are often dangerously under-qualified and under-trained, and thanks to the "blue wall" are held to lax standards of behavior. And the on-going militarization of policing normalizes violent behavior.

Reeves's apparent belief that the disrespect shown by throwing popcorn justified fatal violence resonates disturbingly well with the attitude of Manuel Ramos and Jay Cicinelli, the officers who just got away with beating Kelly Thomas to death. Thomas's sin was trying to run away after the one of the cops threatened, "Now you see my fists? They’re getting ready to fuck you up." Under the usual legal definition that's assault, and any person has the basic human right to flee or use any force necessary to protect themselves from such an act. Yet their attorney successfully argued, "These peace officers were doing their jobs... They did what they were trained to do."

That's what they were trained to do. They threatened a man and then beat him to death when he tried to flee.

We train officers to use lethal force at low levels of provocation. We pass a federal law allowing retired cops to carry concealed weapons in preemption of any state laws. Then we stand around shocked -- shocked, I say -- when a retired cop who's turned into a scared old man, shoots a man over nothing.

There is a direct line from the assault on Andrew Meyer ("Don't taze me, bro") to pepper-spray-happy cops Anthony Bologna and John Pike to Ramos and Cicinelli and Reeves.

It turns out, by the way, that guns were forbidden in this theater by the management. Ignoring that seems to me to be another bit of bad-cop-think -- rules apply to you and me, not to them.

The term "privilege" gets thrown around a lot these days, usually inaccurately and unproductively IMHO. But here we have an accurate and meaningful example. From so-called "professional courtesy" to the blue wall of silence to federal preemption of CCW laws for retired officers to effective carte blanche to use force against fellow citizens with no justification, police privilege means that cops live by a private law, different than the rest of us.

And that is far more frightening than any question of ordinary citizens merely carrying firearms.


This amazingly insightful comment on Slashdot by member "JudgeFurious" from a thread last month says a lot:

As a one time police officer who has been out of that line of work for almost 20 years I have to disagree with you. There are good cops. They are few and far between but they exist. You're on to one thing though and it's something that a lot of people just don't seem to understand. The police (speaking of the whole group and still maintaining that some do not fall into this group) are by and large exceptionally racist, which many people realize but what they don't get is that the police only really see two races. "Blue" and "You". Ok, it's not technically a racial issue but the reason I put it like that is because it's approached the same way by the police. I know because I was surrounded by people like that. If you're blue you're a fellow officer and most of them will tolerate a great deal in another officer. Crossing a line or two is nothing. A police officer has to almost be cornered before he'll hold another police officer to the same standard he'll hold you or I to. Even then it doesn't always end as it should because another officer further up the food chain will head that off if possible once the situation has moved beyond the public eye. I never really thought about it at the time but when I was in law enforcement I rarely kept my registration up to date. I drove one car for over two years without having to get it inspected or paying the registration fee. When I got pulled over I just whipped out "Badge Americard" and was given a pass. I drove as fast as I wanted without a care in the world. That's little stuff but it scales up. I didn't leave the profession out of outrage either. I left because I hurt my back (at home, not work related in any way) and had to move to a less physical career but when I did leave and stepped back I realized that I was part of a system that is almost entirely made up of bad cops. It's just that most of them are bad with a little "b".

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