A Gun in Every Seat

A man finally finds a good use for movie theater popcorn, and this is the thanks he gets?  For shame!

As widely reported, there was a ridiculous and horrifying incident in a Florida movie theater at the beginning of last week, in which a moviegoer shot a fellow moviegoer to death for the crime of sending a text message while the coming attractions rolled across the screen.

We all fantasize about doing terrible things to the people in the theater who won’t shut up.  Well, here’s a guy who actually did.

And we can’t say he wasn’t provoked.  According to the official report, 71-year-old Curtis Reeves had asked 43-year-old Chad Oulson to put his phone away, but Oulson refused.  Following an unsuccessful attempt by Reeves to locate an usher, a full-on argument broke out between the two men, which escalated when Oulson launched a mysterious projectile in Reeves’ direction—an object that has since been identified as a bag of popcorn.

Reeves, apparently fearing for his life, squeezed off one shot from the .380 semi-automatic handgun he happened to be carrying.  The bullet, after passing through Oulson’s wife’s outstretched hand, struck Oulson squarely in the chest, and that was that.

What makes this sordid little episode interesting is the way it calls to mind the philosophy of America’s gun rights community, which presumably would look at such an unfortunate incident and conclude that the main problem is that Reeves, a retired police officer, was the only person in that theater who was packing heat.

As far as the National Rifle Association and its supporters are concerned, the ideal scenario in any public setting is for everyone to be armed and to assume that everyone else is as well.  After all, why would anyone ever behave rudely toward anyone else with the sure knowledge that it will result in a firefight?

It’s “mutual assured destruction” on a micro scale, and the logic has a certain simplistic charm:  You can kill me and I can kill you.  Since neither of us wants to die, we’ll try our best to leave each other well alone and co-exist peacefully.

They say good fences make good neighbors.  Why shouldn’t the same be true with deadly weapons?

Having always resided in the Northeast, I have long tried to understand this mentality, precisely because it is so alien to the environment in which I grew up.  I have never so much as held a gun, nor (to my knowledge) have there ever been any gun owners among my family and friends.

Walking the streets of Boston or New York,  I assume that some passersby are wielding lethal weapons of one kind or another—obtained legally, one would hope—but then I don’t often think about it at all.  It’s none of my business and, with a little luck, will never become so.

And so it is with sheer idle curiosity that I wonder whether, and in what situations, this NRA utopia of near-universal gun ownership might work—“work” as in “foster a safer, more virtuous society.”

On paper, it certainly could.  Imagine:  You sit in a movie theater and there’s a guy texting in front of you.  Aren’t you (and everyone else) less likely to start a nasty argument if you assume his weapon of choice is a pistol rather than popcorn?

For that matter, would anyone in that auditorium dare to send a text message in the first place, knowing that it could incite any number of folks in close proximity to whip out semi-automatics and ensure it was the last phone call he ever made?  Sure, he may be armed as well, but also horribly outnumbered.  Would it really be worth the risk?  If his message were really that important, would he not be compelled to take it outside, as basic movie theater etiquette demands?

In a world of rational actors, we could do a lot worse than to conduct our daily lives as if the slightest breach of social decorum could—or rather, would—bring about our sudden and violent demise at the hands of our dear fellow travelers.  To foster a culture in which such offenses as texting in a movie theater were subject to such harsh recriminations that no sane person would undertake them.

It would be nice to live in such a world, and I wish we did, because it might well lead us to treat each other better and truly think before we act.

Unfortunately, the world we actually inhabit is replete with irrational actors who behave in insane ways.  Who mistake a bag of popcorn for a weapon of mass destruction and destroy innumerable lives as a result.

It’s a shame that the social policies affecting so many seem to be dictated by the actions of so few.


Leave Florida Alone

When I was in high school, the concept of self-defense did not exist.

In my high school’s official student handbook, it was made plain that, in the event that two students fought on school grounds, neither one would be granted the presumption of having acted in self-defense.

As a classmate aptly put it, “If someone starts hitting you, the correct answer is to just stand there and keep getting hit until a teacher happens to walk by and break it up.”  Indeed, it seemed that an abjectly passive response to physical harassment was the only way you could be certain not to face disciplinary actions later on.

In the real world, of course, the effective prohibition on defending oneself from harm is utterly unworkable and, in point of fact, morally repugnant.  In practice, it would render one either a sitting duck or an unwitting future prison inmate.  It leaves only the bullies to decide who gets to live or die.

The principle of self-defense is something on which nearly everyone agrees.  The controversy lies only in the details.

There was a great deal of debate about the minutiae of self-defense laws during the trial of George Zimmerman, who last week was acquitted of second-degree murder and manslaughter charges in the shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.

Indeed, self-preservation was the long and the short of Team Zimmerman’s case, which argued that Martin’s behavior on the night of February 26, 2012, caused Zimmerman to fear for his physical well-being to such a degree that he had no choice but to shoot Martin, which he did.

This rationale proved persuasive enough to the six-member jury, which ruled that Zimmerman’s actions were within the boundaries of Florida state law on the matter, and that he was not to be held criminally liable for Martin’s death.

In the meanwhile, the state of Florida has been subject to enormous critical ire.  Stevie Wonder vowed never to perform in the state again, while temporary Daily Show host John Oliver declared it the “worst state” in the union.  A spliced-together clip of Bugs Bunny circumcising Florida from the continent with a handsaw circulated across online social networks, and most applauded the idea.

The basis for all this antipathy is the provision in Florida’s self-defense laws known as “stand your ground,” enacted in 2005, which licenses anyone fearing for his life to use deadly force against the person he perceives to be threatening him.

The prevailing view is that the looseness of Florida’s policy is sui generis and the only reason George Zimmerman is now a free man.

The prevailing view is wrong.  In fact, it’s wrong twice.

For all the press that “stand your ground” has received throughout this ordeal, Zimmerman’s attorneys did not specifically cite it in their argument for acquittal.  Instead, they relied on state laws that existed before “stand your ground” was written—clauses that entitle one to execute deadly force if one is being savagely attacked, as Zimmerman allegedly was by Martin.  If one takes Zimmerman’s version of events at face value, as the jury did, then the case for self-defense writes itself.

What is more, on the matter of “stand your ground,” Florida is by no means the only state with such low standards for what constitutes justified self-defense.  Not even close.

The “duty to retreat” doctrine—an attempt-to-flee-before-shooting statute that used to underlie common law on the matter—has effectively been done away with in no fewer than two dozen states, which have followed Florida’s lead in putting the onus on the prosecution to prove defensive lethal force was not necessary in a given situation, rather than on the defense to prove that it was.

“Castle law,” the 17th century English concept that one can shoot a threatening person with happy abandon should he enter one’s home, has been expanded to include cars and various public places in a similar number of states.  The details are by no means identical from state to state, but the principle is the same:  If you feel personally endangered and you happen to be armed, fire away.

The fact must be faced:  In today’s America, George Zimmerman could have been acquitted of murdering Trayvon Martin in jurisdictions from coast to coast.  It is not simply a problem for one particular state, even one as silly, dysfunctional and backward as Florida.