Here we are. An era in which spilling a cup of coffee on a complete stranger could cause more panic than accidentally shooting someone. The muted dismay we hear in the voice of volunteer Tulsa reserve deputy, Robert Bates, when he says, “I shot him. I’m sorry,” after firing his weapon into the back of an already immobilised Eric Harris, on April 2nd, is a reaction more reminiscent of a schoolboy being caught sticking chewing gum under his desk. The schoolboy might have even had more use for an exclamation mark. That’s not to say that Bates does not feel remorse and pain at having fatally wounded a man because, he says, he mistook his handgun for a taser. But, the tone that’s evident in the released police video, including the sadistic words of a cop who told Harris, “Fuck your breath,” when the latter protested he couldn’t breathe, demonstrates how little it matters to pull a trigger and shoot someone in the US these days.
Two days after this incident, Walter Scott was also unjustifiably gunned down by South Carolina police officer, Michael Slager. He shot Scott in the back 8 times while he was running away. Slager initially claimed he acted in self-defence, but a bystander’s mobile phone video, released earlier this week, left little room for interpretation and he was charged with murder. It’s true the two incidents differ substantially – at the very least, Bates didn’t forget his manners – yet, Slager’s demeanour in the video and in a an audio recording where he laughs at the fact that his adrenaline is “pumping” is equally matter-of-fact. You could almost picture him defending himself in court with a shrug and a, “Shit happens.”
The stories have many angles; and tacked to the shootings of Michael Brown by a policeman in Ferguson, Missouri, last year or of Trayvon Martin in Miami, Florida, by a neighbourhood watch volunteer gone rogue back in 2012, they can speak of racial bias, police brutality, or the unsuitability of civilian volunteers playing policemen. One angle that has been downplayed by the media – probably because the others provided something a bit more piquant (#BlackLives Matter #HandsUpDontShoot #FuckYourBreath) and a tad less “God, this again?” Or maybe it was just because the body count wasn’t high enough – is gun violence and the lax controls that are still in place owing to an almighty gun lobby whose advocates would defend “the right to bear arms” over their dead and (statistically probable*) bullet-ridden bodies.The numbers are overwhelming and speak for themselves. An average year will see 33,000 Americans killed by a gun, while 80,000 are injured, according to an investigation on the cost of gun violence published by Mother Jones this month. In a country where anyone above 18 can walk into a local Walmart, pick up a shotgun or rifle (you have to wait until you reach a more mature 21 for a handgun)** and walk out, that’s hardly surprising. If you fear that an intruder breaking into your home would have a gun, you might consider buying one to even the playing field. Your fear might even drive you to shoot the intruder (gun in hand or not) or someone else you thought might be an intruder (think Oscar Pistorius). And, if you’re a cop who knows full well any offender might be concealing a weapon, instinct would likely have you reaching for your gun and shooting first instead of finding out what might happen if you waited. Guns require minimal skill and allow you to keep a comfortable distance from anyone you view as a threat. In Slager’s case, they even save you the trouble of running.
But when it comes to tightening gun control, the US seems to be reliving what the 80s and 90s were for tobacco regulation, with such ideological gems as, “Guns don’t kill people, people do,” steering the debate. So, indeed, here the US is: with its nervous parents buying bulletproof backpacks for their kids and the standard reaction to shooting someone evolving to, “I’m sorry man, I shot you. My bad.”
* If death is not related to a medical condition, unintentional poisoning, a motor-vehicle accident, or unintentional fall. Sources: CDC Leading Causes of Death by Age Group 2013 and CDC Leading Causes of Injury Deaths Highlighting Unintentional Injury 2013
** “Does a customer have to be a certain age to buy firearms or ammunition from a licensee? Yes. Under the GCA, long guns and long gun ammunition may be sold only to persons 18 years of age or older. Sales of handguns and ammunition for handguns are limited to persons 21 years of age and older. Although some State and local ordinances have lower age requirements, dealers are bound by the minimum age requirements established by the GCA. If State law or local ordinances establish a higher minimum age, the dealer must observe the higher age requirement.”