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The gun is at the center of the case against former Fort Worth cop Aaron Dean.
The gun is at the center of the case against former Fort Worth cop Aaron Dean.
Jim Schutze

The Gun in Atatiana Jefferson’s Hand Will Be Far from Irrelevant

The mayor of Fort Worth says there is no relevance or importance in the fact that Atatiana Jefferson, killed by a Fort Worth police officer Saturday, had a gun. The mayor is wrong.

According to the murder warrant for the former police officer who killed her, Jefferson, 28, pointed her gun toward the window at the police officer moments before the cop shot her. I am not arguing that the cop was within the law. That will be a very complicated question for courts to resolve. But I know this much right now: The gun is everything.

Read the murder warrant for former Fort Worth Police Officer Aaron Dean, as it talks about an interview of Jefferson’s 8-year-old nephew by a police investigator:

“(The nephew, name redacted) told (the investigator) that he and Jefferson were playing video games in the back bedroom. Jefferson told (the nephew) that she heard noises coming from outside, and she took her handgun from her purse. (The nephew) said Jefferson raised her handgun, pointed it toward the window. Then Jefferson was shot and fell to the ground.”


Sure, Jefferson had every right to keep a gun in her house. We do not know yet if she had legal authority to carry a concealed weapon. But this has nothing to do with gun rights anyway. This is about guns.

Her gun is what got her killed. Does that mean the cop was within his rights in shooting her? No, not necessarily. I’m not talking about rights. Rights are abstract. Atatiana Jefferson is dead. Death is not abstract.

Guns have their own cruel logic, no matter who holds them. If I want to survive a gunfight, I need to be one jump, preferably two jumps ahead of the other guy when it happens. Or I’m dead. It’s all about who gets the jump.

It’s not about who has a right to have a gun. It’s about who shoots first. In and of themselves, guns don’t make anybody safe. All a gun does is take you to a gunfight.

Once you’re there, you’re there. You’re in a gunfight. It’s not a conversation. Firing a gun is a process. The gun is not a button to be pushed. It has to be unholstered or removed from a purse or place of safekeeping.

The gun may have to be manipulated to place a cartridge in the chamber ready for firing. A safety mechanism designed to make it impossible to shoot the gun may have to be switched off. Then the gun is aimed. Then the trigger is pulled.

This will be read, I am sure, as a boot-licking, cop-loving defense of Dean for shooting Jefferson. This will also be read as racist, because Dean is a white cop and Jefferson was African American. But I’m really the last person to offer expertise on either of those questions in this case.

As we learned from the Amber Guyger/Botham Jean tragedy, in which a white Dallas police officer shot and killed a black man in his own apartment, the law can be complex and arcane in these matters. The Fort Worth shooting will be even more complicated than Guyger, because the cop in Fort Worth will have a better argument for self-defense.

This also will be a tougher prosecution because the Fort Worth cop resigned from the force before he could be questioned and before an internal affairs investigation could be launched. We should expect to see more of that.

The Guyger/Jean case reminded me that, quite apart from nominal liberalism and conservatism, white people and black people in this country still view social reality through very different lenses based on very different experiences. I believe that, whatever kind of terrible mistake Guyger’s shooting of Jean may have been, it is possible for it not to have been racial.

I don’t think I know a single black person who agrees with me. The ungodly procession of internet videos in the last few years showing white cops shooting unarmed black citizens rips away the curtain, my black friends say, on what really dwells in the white heart.

What is there, they say, is a superstitious tribal fear of the other. That inner fear is what makes white cops shoot black people quicker than they shoot white people, and the unmistakable pattern is the undeniable proof. For that reason, black people must live in fear that every transaction with a white cop may suddenly explode and cost them their lives.

That may all be true, every word of it, but none of it changes the reality of guns. I own guns. Always have. Grew up with a .22 rifle. Never hunted, just because my dad didn’t. I like hunters. They love the forest.

I worked on ranches and farms as a young man, carried some kind of rifle in the jeep or pickup for varmints. Never shot a varmint. I like varmints.

Shot clay pigeons with shotguns with my son when he was a kid. Keep a few guns in the house for protection. So I understand why people keep guns in their homes. I do it.

But I know this. If a cop comes to my house and I meet him with a gun in my hand, I stand a really good chance of getting shot dead. I don’t want to get killed, so, if I see a cop coming, I’m going to put down my gun and probably put both of my hands on my head.

For Atatiana Jefferson, it wasn’t that simple. She didn’t have that option. It doesn’t look as if either person, Jefferson or Dean, had enough time to perceive who and what the other was. She didn’t have time to see that he was a cop. He didn’t have time to see that she was in her own house.

All of that goes to the dismal algorithm of guns. Things will go wrong. A welfare check gets dispatched wrongly as an “open building.” To the cop, that means break-in, which means bad guy inside, probably armed.

Does the cop announce himself at the door? Of course not. Why would the cop do that? If the bad guy is in there with a gun, the cop who announces himself at the door is just giving the bad guy time to get two jumps ahead of the cop in the process of shooting. The cop, by practice and by instinct, always wants to be at least two jumps ahead. The cop always wants the advantage. It’s not a sport.

Should cops go around fearing that every bad guy they encounter has a gun? Of course they should. Because we have flooded our society with guns.

Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price says Jefferson's gun is irrelevant.The mayor is dead wrong.
Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price says Jefferson's gun is irrelevant.The mayor is dead wrong.
City of Fort Worth

According to The Washington Post, the United States crossed a line of demarcation in 2008. In that year, the number of guns in the country exceeded the population.

In 1996, there were fewer than 250 million civilian firearms in the United States. By 2017, the number of guns was approaching 400 million.

According to the BBC, America is by far the most gun-owning country in the world, with two and three times more guns per resident than the runner-up countries of Yemen, Serbia and Montenegro. If those other three look like lawless, violent places to you, and if civilian gun ownership is any indicator, then we must be the most lawless, violent society in the world.

Doesn’t feel that way to you? Perhaps you think of this country as a relatively peaceful and secure place. That probably depends a lot on where and who you are.

In 2016, the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation published a study of global disease, injury and risk factors. It found that six nations accounted for half of the world’s total gun deaths that year not related to war or terrorism. The United States was second after Brazil. Mexico was third.

The same study put us much lower on the ladder for gun deaths per capita. We were No. 20 on that list. So that could mean our gun deaths are evenly distributed everywhere, from Minnesota farm country to the nation’s major cities, or our gun deaths are concentrated in places that must be among the most violent and dangerous in the world. I think we know the answer.

When cops go into our cities looking for bad guys, they go looking for bad guys with guns. While that may make police training all the more important, it also pushes training to a certain human limit.

Former Dallas police Chief David Brown, one of the most respected police officials in the country and a lifelong cop himself, told me he believes escalation of force and diversity awareness training are indispensable elements in any effective, responsible police academy curriculum. But he also told me something else.

He said he knows that the minute a freshly minted rookie from the academy climbs into a patrol car with a veteran trainer, that trainer tells him to forget everything he was taught in the academy. Brown told me the trainer will tell the rookie that the academy training will get the rookie killed, which may be OK with the trainer, but it will also get the trainer killed, which is not OK with the trainer.

What does that mean? I think you and I can answer that for ourselves by putting ourselves in the position. We are approaching an open house where we have reason to believe there may be an armed intruder (because in this country intruders must be presumed to be armed).

Do we announce ourselves to the intruder? No. We already have our guns in our hands. The safeties are off. The rounds are chambered.

What happens when we suddenly see the muzzle of a gun looking back at us?

That moment is not about rights. It’s not about training. It’s about guns and basic survival instinct. It’s about staying alive in a world of guns. There’s only one way to change that. Make it a different world.

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