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Guns don't kill people, fear kills people

My last column generated quite a stir. In it I related the story of West Point graduate and veteran Erik Scott, who was gunned down in front of a Las Vegas area Costco store in 2010. Most of the comments posted here, on Facebook, or sent via email, were expressing anger toward the police and Costco employees over the incident, while a few wanted to argue the details of the story with me.

The one thing that was evident from most of these comments was that I had failed to effectively make the point I was trying to make.

My objective in that column was not so much to bring attention to a tragedy that happened 2 years ago, but to highlight how irrational fear of firearms can cause very dangerous situations for those of us who carry guns for personal protection.

The story of Erik Scott is an extreme example drawn from the “worst case” file. It demonstrates how quickly things can go terribly wrong when people, some who arguably should have known better, allow irrational fears and prejudices to dominate their behavior. Anyone who ever carries a gun needs to be aware of the threat represented by bigots and hoplophobes.

Likewise, anyone who might encounter someone carrying either openly or concealed – which is virtually everyone who ever leaves their home – needs to be aware that there are lawfully armed citizens all around. With 49 of the 50 states having some provision for lawful concealed carry, and over 40 states having provisions for lawful carry of un-concealed firearms (open carry), there are now several million people in this country who might be lawfully carrying a gun on any given day – not to mention the thousands of off-duty and plainclothes police. That means the odds of your seeing an accidentally exposed concealed firearm, or someone carrying openly, are pretty high in most states.

The most important thing for everyone to remember is that unless you are wandering inner-city streets late at night, are involved in the illegal drug trade or the person you see carrying the gun is also wearing a mask, it is highly unlikely that a gun you spot is being carried illegally or for criminal purposes.

That being the case, unless the person carrying the gun appears to be preparing for, or is in the act of committing a crime, there is no reason to be concerned or contact the police. Those in law enforcement, particularly dispatchers who take those excited calls about “a man with a gun,” should be especially aware of this and know to ask key questions about what the man (or woman) is actually doing and determine if they are dealing with a serious threat or just an excited hoplophobe.

Many years ago I was the subject of one of those calls. I had stopped in at a convenience store to buy something to drink on my way to a friend’s house. At the time I worked in a gun store in Arizona and carried openly most of the time.

Apparently someone in the store or in the parking lot saw the gun in my waistband and went straight to a payphone (for younger readers, a payphone was how we made telephone calls when we were away from home back in the olden days). The tourists (as I assume they must have been) called the police and told them that the store was being robbed.

Luckily my transaction was quick and the police weren’t, so I was long gone before they arrived. It happened that my friend’s house was just up the street though, so we heard and saw the commotion as the police stormed the little market.

A few hours later I stopped in the store again before heading home, and the girl at the counter told me what had happened. She said the police had scared her half to death when they came charging in – guns in hand – looking for the armed robber. It took her only a moment to recall the skinny kid with the big .45 on his hip and put the officers’ concerns to rest. I shudder to think what might have happened if the police had been able to get to the store just a little quicker.

The officers at the door of Costco on July 10, 2010, were geared up in anticipation of danger. They were under the belief that a jacked-up dope fiend was going berserk in Costco, and they were going to have to go in and get him.

When the crowd came pouring out of the store as employees began an ill-timed evacuation, the officers were faced with the additional concern that the “crazy guy with the gun” might slip right by them or come up on them with no warning – which he did – even though he wasn’t acting crazy, and the gun was safely tucked in its holster.

There might have been some warning that Erik Scott was approaching the exit, which would have served to further elevate the adrenaline flow in the officers. Warning or not, suddenly there was a Costco employee pointing at a man within arm’s reach of at least one of the officers, and declaring, “That’s him!”

Officer William Mosher obviously felt compelled to take immediate action. He confronted the man, ordering him to show his hands and to get on the ground. Officer Mosher’s mind was probably in overdrive at that point, causing tunnel vision and time distortion – shifting the world into slow-motion for him. It is very likely that Officer Mosher saw and heard only Erik Scott, and that to him the encounter seemed to take several seconds, much longer than the actual two seconds that ticked off between Mosher’s first shouted order and his last violent shot.

Under these circumstances it probably seemed that Scott was not responding to orders and was perhaps moving in a threatening way. The other two officers present were probably similarly amped-up and fired simply because Mosher did – in obedience to another mind trick that causes a follow-the-leader response in such situations.

Under the circumstances, it is not surprising that Mosher and the others shot Erik Scott, but the point of the story is not whether the officers’ actions were justified or not, or whether Erik Scott should have done something differently to avoid the confrontation, but rather the way that fear, prejudice and ignorance conspired to create a situation that resulted in Erik Scott’s death that day.

The saga of Erik Scott is not over. New information continues to trickle into the light, and there is still a possibility of litigation in the case, but for most of us, more important than the final resolution in Erik’s death, is what we – carriers and non-carriers alike – can learn from it.

Tragedies like befell Erik Scott should not happen. It is important that those who carry firearms for personal protection be extremely cognizant of people’s perceptions of them, so their actions are not misconstrued.

It is critical that police and security personnel understand that fear and ignorance can motivate well-intentioned, but mistaken, callers.

And it is important that the general public be aware that there are many, many good people among them – of every race, ethnicity and social station – who legally carry guns to protect themselves, their families and other innocents from the predators that occasionally surface in our communities.

If you are afraid of guns, or don’t know anything about them, I encourage you to take steps to correct that situation. Even if you decide that shooting and gun ownership aren’t for you, gun safety is a life skill, not unlike knowing how to drive a stick shift. Knowing a little about guns and their safe handling can give you a whole new perspective and ease your fears. Many local ranges and clubs offer introductory safety programs to familiarize you with firearms and introduce you to the fun and security firearms ownership can provide.

Like anything else, the more you know about guns and gun owners, the less scary they become.

The National Shooting Sports Foundation has a wealth of resources about firearms and their safe use on their web site at www.NSSF.org. I hope you’ll take advantage of what they have to offer, and I hope someday I’ll see you on the range.