The Dallas Morning News editorial page took a blindfolded backward step off the diving board Monday in an editorial asserting that police have an “obligation of deference” to armed homeowners in terms of who may shoot first.
As its predicate for this insane suggestion, the paper exploits the horrible case of Atatiana Jefferson, who was shot to death in her own home Oct. 12 by a Fort Worth cop in a catastrophe that should never have happened. Jefferson was at home in the wee hours playing video games with an 8-year-old nephew when police showed up in response to a dispatch for an “open structure,” which could have meant a break-in.
Police did not announce themselves. The nephew told police later that her aunt heard noises outside and pointed a gun at the window. A police officer outside that window shot and killed her.
The paper said this in its editorial: “Some might argue that the cop saw a gun and therefore that should partially explain his actions. We see it differently. As supporters of the Second Amendment and the individual right to self-defense (within reason), we support Jefferson’s right and decision to have a gun (for which she reportedly had a license) and any decision to arm herself as she checked the backyard.”
The broken logic is here: There is no connection or relationship between the possible (and as yet undetermined) role Jefferson’s gun may have played in what happened and Jefferson’s right to have that gun. If the officer saw her gun, he didn’t shoot her because he thought she had no right to have a gun.
The paper says, “America is unique in that, here, law-abiding citizens are afforded rights of self-defense, of protecting ourselves in recognition that the authorities cannot always stand between those with evil intentions and innocent lives.” I don’t think I have an argument with that.
But then paper says this: “It’s not too early to say that Jefferson did not have an obligation of deference to an unidentified person skulking around her backyard. There was, however, an obligation of deference. In this case, it was (the police officer) who had an obligation to be deferential to Atatiana Jefferson’s rights.”
Whoever wrote this editorial must have skipped school in college on the day his or her instructor was explaining “Leviathan,” a seminal work on this topic by the 17th-century English philosopher and scientist, Thomas Hobbes. The topic is violence and who or what has a right to use violence legally.
Hobbes said only the state has a “monopoly of violence.” Since Hobbes, no thinker important to the laws of this nation has questioned his basic premise, though some have pointed to exceptions, mainly in the area of self-defense, which is what Atatiana Jefferson would have been doing if it turns out to be true she pointed her gun out the window and the cop saw it.
Her story is legitimately and painfully difficult. She was an upstanding citizen in her own home, doing no harm. The police did not announce themselves, so she had no way of knowing who was making prowling noises outside her window. The police officer has been charged with murder. The issues in this case will go to a jury, where they belong.
I guess the Morning News thinks twisting the issues and hammering the logic here is a way for the paper to display its distress over Jefferson’s death. I think it’s a grotesque way to remember her and a garish exploitation.
But the more important thing is that the truth is exactly the opposite of what the paper suggests. It is the citizen gun owner who has an obligation of deference to the police. Always.
I’m not talking about Jefferson. She had no way of knowing the figure outside her window was a cop. That goes to the jury. I’m talking about you and me in a situation where we know the cops are on the scene.
Then it’s entirely on us, the citizen gun owners, not to go out on the porch and get ourselves shot to death by showing a gun. And this isn’t just a legal argument. However unwittingly, the News’ editorial page walks straight into one of the most egregious cultural and moral errors of our times, a plague of bad thinking.
In these times, it is neither benign nor without larger significance to suggest that the government’s right to exert violence is somehow subordinate to the individual’s. By proposing a doctrine of “deference” owed by police to citizen gun-toters, the News flatters the whole phenomenon of camo-wearing, over-the-hill, arm-chair commandos preparing for their unlikely one-man show-downs with the federal government.
And how would it work, exactly, this “deference” the police must pay to citizen gun-holders? I hear some guy working my front door at 3 in the morning. I want the cops to show up on a lightning bolt and save me. So do they now have to call me from around the corner to do the deference thing first?
“Sir, we are a few doors down, but we want to be sure to pay deference to your right as a homeowner in Texas (I hear the front door smashed open) under the castle doctrine, which is actually Texas Penal Code 9.31 governing the justified use of non-deadly force (he’s in the hallway approaching my locked bedroom door) and Texas Penal Code 9.32 governing the justified use of deadly force (the bedroom door bursts open), guaranteeing your right to protect yourself in your own home, a right which we wish neither to abrogate or impede (oh, man, forget it).”
My point is that we want the cops to crash in fast with guns. That’s why we give them guns. That’s why we call them cops.
In the wake of the Atatiana Jefferson and Botham Jean shootings, there has been a predictable and appropriate surge in calls for doing something about “bad cops.” Jean is the man killed in his own apartment by a Dallas cop who since has been convicted of murder.
And nothing could be more obvious. We do need to do something about bad cops, as we need to do something about bad Catholic priests, bad Boy Scout leaders, bad Hollywood producers and bad proprietors of hot-air balloon rides.
But almost unique to the subject of police, some people leap easily from the single bad cop to all cops being bad, from one racist cop to all cops being racist. I never hear anybody calling all hot-air balloon ride concessionaires pigs.
Allow me to repeat something I reported here a couple of weeks ago. A federal magistrate has recommended that a lawsuit brought by the family of Botham Jean be kicked out of court. Lawyers for the family wanted to make the case that Dallas consistently breeds bad cops with bad training, that the police department is racist and corrupt. But the magistrate found that the lawyers had come to court with nowhere near the evidence the courts would require even to let the lawsuit proceed.
As proof of corruption and racism in DPD, Jean’s lawyers didn’t even have the price of admission. So how bad can Dallas cops be, and when do we start looking at the profit motive in some of the more persistent accusations?
By suggesting all police must hang back and put themselves at risk in deference to private gun owners, the News editorial page exploits a single terrible instance to slur and endanger all cops. In the same breath but not coincidentally, the editorial page panders to the couch potato far-right by trying to find a gun rights issue where there is none.
Somewhere in our tribal past, the right to exert violence did lie principally with the individual. But individuals eventually ceded that right to the state in order to achieve this thing we call civilization, not to mention the rule of law.
That’s where things stand. The primary right to exert violence resides in the state, and the individual has only a subsidiary right to use violence to protect himself against wrong-doers, never against the state.
We, you and I, through the government that we control with our votes, deputize the police to carry out our state violence for us. And in the physical world, that works out according to some simple laws of physics.
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The cops are first in. They’re supposed to be. That’s what we command them to do for us with our votes. First in is fast. Terrible decisions must be made in less than split-seconds. Not much time for deference.
I believe in private gun ownership. I believe in the right of a homeowner to protect himself or herself with a gun. But if the cops show up — and if I know it’s the cops — then I need to put my gun far away and out of sight and do whatever else I can, even if it’s putting my hands on my head, to show that I am not a problem.
The obligation to show deference is on me. For me, it’s not even a question of right. It’s not a question of my honor. It’s a question of my not wanting to get shot. I want the cops here on a lightning bolt with guns, and I do not want to get shot, if I may say so again.
Please. If you are a homeowner and you have a gun, and something like this ever does come up, God forbid, do not take your tips on how to handle it from the editorial page of The Dallas Morning News. They’re mainly just goofy, and they will get you shot.