Florida popcorn shooting: Are concealed guns about self-defense or power?

Curtis Reeves, the defendant in the Florida popcorn shooting, carried a sidearm throughout his career and 'should have known better,' raising questions about whether carrying a gun affects decisionmaking.

Brendan Fitterer/Tampa Bay Times/AP
Curtis Reeves appears via video conference before Circuit Judge Lynn Tepper in Wesley Chapel, Fla. on Jan. 14. Tepper ordered Reeves, 71, held without bond on a charge of second-degree murder in the death of 43-year-old Chad Oulson on Monday. An argument over texting in a movie theater ended with Reeves, a retired police captain fatally shooting Oulson, authorities said.

How is it that Curtis Reeves, a well-regarded former Tampa, Fla., police captain, allowed a mundane argument over cellphone texting in a movie theater to end in bloodshed and tragedy?

That has become a riveting question in the wake of the death Monday of Chad Oulson, a 43-year-old husband, father, and former Naval petty officer who threw a bag of popcorn at Mr. Reeves as the argument escalated.

Reeves, who carried a sidearm throughout a long police career, “should have known better” than to open fire, says former Florida prosecutor Bob Dekle.

Florida prosecutors have charged Reeves with second-degree murder, citing at least one incident in the past where he confronted a theater texter. He was refused bond in a preliminary hearing on Tuesday where he wore a bulletproof vest for, police said, his own protection.

Both texting and gun carry are against the theater rules at the Wesley Chapel, Fla., multiplex where the killing took place.

Some have suggested that Reeves, 71, may have felt legitimately threatened and bullied by the younger Mr. Oulson, and that the thrown popcorn could qualify as an assault on an elderly person, a felony worthy of self-defense in Florida. That tack toward a possible “stand your ground” defense has already been dubbed the “popcorn defense.”

But in a country in which the number of permits to carry concealed weapons has skyrocketed, Oulson’s death has also become one more piece of evidence of what some see as the sinister and frightening side of expanded gun rights. In that view, the act of carrying a hidden gun in public is as much about wielding power over fellow citizens as self-defense.

“There are a lot of people dead today who would be alive but for [a gun carrier] who gets angry and accelerates an argument to a homicide,” says Kristen Rand, legislative director at the Violence Policy Center in Washington. “It’s very clear that carrying a concealed gun creates a mindset among some people that, ‘I’ve got a gun, the state sanctions it, therefore I have a right to use it’ ” in public.

The number of guns in the US has exploded to more than 300 million, and about 40 percent of all US homes contain sidearms. As many as 8 million Americans have concealed-carry permits today compared with 1 million in the early 1990s. No one knows how many of those people are actually carrying a weapon on their person regularly, though some estimates put the proportion of armed people at no more than 4 percent of any given crowd.

This month Illinois, following the passage last summer of court-ordered legislation, became the last US state to allow citizens to apply for a permit. In one poll, 20 percent of Illinois residents said they want permission to pack a concealed weapon.

Push for an armed society

As gun rights and gun-carry have expanded during the last two decades, murder and violent crime has declined steadily. Whether that’s due to the dictum “an armed society is a polite society” or whether it’s a natural decline that began with the end of the violent inner-city crack wars in the 1980s or from some other socioeconomic factor is not fully understood.

Citing what Independence Institute researcher Dave Kopel once called the “unalloyed social good” of legal gun-carry, gun rights advocates led by the National Rifle Association and state gun rights groups, often attribute that crime decline to the emergence of idealized “law-abiding citizens.” By right of constitutional law and common sense, the thinking goes, these people deserve near universal access to weapons in order to protect themselves and others in public.

That push for a more fully-armed society, including a new class of quasi-deputized civilians policing the streets, has been fanned by laws pioneered largely in Southern states like Florida. Such laws give prosecutors far less leeway in prosecuting those who claim they killed or hurt someone else in self-defense, even if it’s firing a gun in a public place.

In Pasco County, police quickly shot down suggestions that Reeves acted in self-defense, though Florida law will allow him to argue the topic at a special hearing before a trial and also at the trial. So far, the defense has only hinted that it will argue that Reeves acted “in fear,” as he told police.

The trend toward stand-your-ground laws has been accelerated by national alarms such as 9/11 and hurricane Katrina, where TV images of lawless mayhem in flooded New Orleans struck Americans hard.

On the other hand, the Trayvon Martin shooting and subsequent murder trial of George Zimmerman in 2012 and 2013 revealed some of the psychological, racial, and societal blowback to concealed carry. Mr. Zimmerman, whom prosecutors described as a wannabe cop patrolling his gated middle-class neighborhood for “punks” who “always get away,” felt emboldened enough by his legally concealed gun to follow a hooded stranger into a dark condo courtyard.

Trayvon, who had done nothing wrong, attacked, and was killed by Zimmerman, according to testimony. The decision by police to originally not charge Zimmerman with any crime caused nationwide protests and an eventual indictment by a state prosecutor. Last summer, Zimmerman was acquitted of second-degree murder by a six-woman jury which cited his right to self-defense under Florida law. Upheld by some Americans as a hero who fought back against the “thugs” and won, Zimmerman has since had a number of brushes with the law, several involving firearms.

Guns necessary for survival?

The explosion in numbers of concealed weapons carriers is widely seen by gun rights advocates as a natural expression and extension of the Second Amendment, and even a necessity for survival in a troubled nation.

According to a Reuters poll conducted after Zimmerman’s arrest, 3 in 4 Americans support concealed-carry laws. Quinnipiac University released an in-depth study this week that showed that states that have more restrictions on concealed-carry actually have higher gun-related murder deaths than states with more lenient stances toward public gun-carry.

“People have always thought in this country that they have the right to defend themselves from danger or from harm,” pollster Chris Jackson told The New American after the Reuters poll came out. “We still see that even in public places … with deadly force if necessary.”

In that light, many gun rights advocates argue that the shooting of Oulson by Reeves on Monday in Wesley Chapel is an anomalous incident, not representative of concealed-gun carriers in general. Florida State University criminologist Gary Kleck once put the odds of a defensive gun user killing an innocent person at less than 1 in 26,000.

But others see a more disturbing pattern highlighted by the popcorn shooting. The Violence Policy Center has used press accounts and other sources to compile a database of deaths attributed to non-self-defense instances where concealed-carry permit holders fired their weapons. Since 2007, 555 people have been killed in 33 states in such instances.

“With alarming regularity, individuals licensed to carry concealed weapons instigate fatal shootings that have nothing to do with self-defense,” the Violence Policy Center's Ms. Rand said in a statement commenting on the Florida shooting.

To some commentators, the former SWAT team leader’s decision to shoot and kill Oulson after he threw popcorn suggests that Reeves’ impulse is more widely shared than gun rights groups are willing to admit.

Gun rights advocates “insist that only a few poorly trained, mentally unstable or criminally inclined gun owners give all the millions of God-fearing, Constitution-defending firearms enthusiasts a bad name,” writes commentator and editorial cartoonist David Horsey in the Los Angeles Times on Wednesday. “But can anyone think of a person more well-trained and responsible than a retired police captain, SWAT team leader and security guard?”

Meanwhile, some permit holders acknowledge that carrying a gun around in public can tweak a person’s decision matrix in the face of potential trouble, primarily by imparting to the gun-carrier a greater sense of responsibility and urgency in avoiding conflict.

That’s because of an understanding among responsible gun owners that, as one concealed carrier told the Monitor, “if it gets ugly, you know it can get ugly on an amazing scale.”

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