What I Wish the NRA Would Say About Philando Castile
Jon Stokes 06.17.17
Philando Castile’s shooter has been acquitted on all counts–not a surprise, and also not a legal verdict I’m interested in weighing in on one way or the other. The debate over police accountability and justice system reform will have to wait for another day.
What I want to talk about is the NRA’s increasingly-awkward silence on this case. When it happened, they refused to comment because there was a trial in progress–and now that the trial is over, crickets.
The NRA has an OFWG (old fogey white guy)-related perception problem, which they understand and are trying to fix. But their silence on the shooting of Castile, a legal concealed-carrier and an African American, doesn’t help with this. So, I’ll try to help the NRA by telling them the minimum I’d want to hear from them about this shooting.
What follows isn’t some statement I wish the NRA would issue. I don’t write press releases and the like, so I’m not going to take a stab at the phrasing and packaging. Rather, it’s a set of points I think NRA could usefully make on this occasion. As I’ll admit near the end, much of this doesn’t necessarily apply to the Castile shooting specifically, but this could be the occasion for making some of these points.
CCW: Not a Magic Shield
The NRA has always been first and foremost a gun safety education and training organization.* And now, with the launch of Carry Guard, it’s specifically in the business of training and insuring concealed carriers.
In talking about the Castile tragedy, the NRA should take this opportunity to teach the broader public one of the first things any halfway-decent concealed carry class teaches you, which is that a concealed carry license is not a magic shield that protects you from legal liability or harm. Instructors in these courses often tell students anecdotes about this or that lawful concealed carrier who got pumped full of lead at a traffic stop because he decided to be helpful and show the cop his piece.
If you took a concealed carry class and you weren’t coached extensively (and by “coached extensively,” I mean provided with a script and walked through every aspect of proper behavior) on what to do in a traffic stop scenario when armed, you should ask for your money back.
Most instructors will tell you something like this:
Pull over, roll down all your windows, put the car in park, and turn off the engine. Then place both hands on the wheel in the standard 9 o’clock and 3 o’clock positions and leave them there until you get further instructions from the officer.
When the officer arrives and asks to see some ID, inform him you’re a licensed carrier and that you’re carrying, and tell him the location of the gun on your person. Then offer to get out of the car and let him remove the gun. Because you’ve done all of the above, he’ll probably take a pass on asking you to get out so he can disarm you, and instead he’ll ask you to produce your driver’s license and registration.
At this point, you slowly and deliberately pull out your wallet and any other requested papers, taking care to remain calm and to keep your hands as visible as possible at all times.
The ultimate point is, if you’re involved in an encounter with police and you’re armed, you’ve potentially increased the level of danger to yourself. The cop is trained and authorized to protect his own life, and the courts will give him the benefit of the doubt in this matter.
Given these realities, if you want to survive the encounter, it’s on you to be proactive about managing your behavior, your level of agitation, and your manners and overall demeanor. You must choose your words and actions carefully. If you aren’t a genuine threat to the officer, there’s no reason you should have any problems if you follow the advice above.
(Note that I’m not weighing in on the broader civil liberties question of how much of this “perception management” an unarmed citizen should be obligated to do in the presence of the authorities — I’m talking only about the extra obligation of citizens who have chosen to go armed.)
Again: If you choose to go armed, you choose to accept an extra level of responsibility for how you act in an encounter with the authorities.
* If you’re anti-NRA and don’t believe me about the organization’s training mission, look it up. You might mostly see the group’s political activity, but the bulk of the organization’s staff and infrastructure are dedicated to education and training.
Carry Guard: Enhanced Edition
Concealed carriers, as a class of people, are folks who have woken up to the reality of just how on-your-own we each are in a dangerous world, and how far away help can be when you need it most. We’re not people who look at the world through rose-colored lenses. We try to face hard, brutal realities about risks and possibilities.
Given that facing inconvenient truths head-on is what concealed carry is all about, concealed carriers of all races should be the first to acknowledge that if you’re black and you choose to go legally armed, you’re potentially subject to a higher level of risk in any encounter with the police than a white concealed carrier.
As an organization, we (and now I’m speaking in the voice of a hypothetical NRA announcement) hate that it’s this way, and we want to do everything we can to change it. But again, concealed carry is about dealing with reality, not fantasy, and the reality is that black concealed carriers right now in our present world accept an increased level of risk of escalation in their dealings with the cops when they choose to carry. Black people know this is true, the police know it’s true, and we know it’s true. So we’re going to face this reality with both eyes open while working to change it.
Because we value our black members, we’re launching a special version of our Carry Guard training tailored specifically for them. Of course, though it’s tailored for our minority members, anyone of any color is welcome take this enhanced version of the class, which will be designed by and taught by our minority instructors in cooperation with law enforcement.
The class will feature a number of role-playing scenarios involving uniformed officers and patrol cars, including an outdoors segment in which we will simulate a real-world police stop in a vehicle, and coach the student through the entire encounter.
We’ll also include a unit on how to de-escalate a situation in which an officer is unduly agitated and is behaving aggressively and unprofessionally. Our law enforcement partners will teach you how to spot cues that you’re about to get shot, and how to turn the situation around from there. This should never happen, but police are human and sometimes their training fails them, as it does all of us on occasion. Also, there are always a very small number of “bad apples” out there, and it’s possible you may encounter one while carrying. So these are encounters we’ll prepare you to handle and to survive.
We hope for a fairer, more peaceful world; one so safe that nobody would have any reason to carry a firearm for self-defense. But until that better day arrives, we’re going to offer an extra level of training for anyone who believes they’re likely to come under increased scrutiny in a police encounter, because we want the practice of concealed carry to be safe for all citizens and for the police who protect them.
Conclusion: Not Gonna Happen
I realize most of the above is never going to happen, because people from both the left and the right will hate it.
The NRA, and many pro-gun folks who live in a fantasy world in which a young black man and an old white woman are treated exactly the same during the average traffic stop, would never go for this because it amounts to explicit acknowledgment of the reality of systemic racism (see addendum below). Furthermore, they’ll see it as an indictment of the police (which it isn’t… again, see below).
Many on the left will hate it for the same reason they hated, say, a proposed rape-detection nail polish technology–because it doesn’t solve the Big Problem, and it puts the onus on the potential victim to behave differently.
To this latter objection, I’d answer: Yep, it does indeed leave the burden on the potential victim, but “the onus is on the potential victim to protect herself from unjust and illegal aggression” is the entire rationale for concealed carry. I didn’t have much use for this objection when it was applied to the rape detection nail polish, and I have even less use for it when applied to concealed carry. Everyone who carries has already bought into the mindset of “I’m a potential victim and I need to behave differently until the state of the world improves,” even white males.
I speak only for myself, and not for AllOutdoor.com or for gun people in general in proposing any of the above. I value the lives of my African American friends and I want them to feel safe carrying. But the simple reality is that they’re in more danger than I am when they’re carrying during a police encounter, and as a concealed carrier myself I acknowledge that danger and would love for them to get extra training and support until such a time as the world improves and they don’t need it.
Finally, I want to point out that the above should not be construed as blaming Castile. In fact, Castile was by all accounts a Good Guy With A Gun who should still be alive today, and from what we’ve seen of the trial he did everything exactly right and still got shot. So most of the enhanced training proposed above probably wouldn’t have helped, because there’s a good case to be made that this was a panicked officer’s fault. Some sort of unit on dealing with an agitated cop and spotting when he’s about to shoot you might have made a difference, though.
I think the system failed both Castile and the officer who shot him, and I think it’s likely that both men’s training and preparation failed them to different degrees, as well. The NRA can’t fix the system, but it can definitely do something about the training failures that condemned one of these good men to death and the other to forever bear the burden of that tragic death on his conscience, so fixing the training part of the equation is what I would want to see happen.
Addendum: It’s Not Always the Police’s Fault
What I meant above by “systemic racism” is this: each individual cop isn’t necessarily racist, but rather the system in which they must operate, is.
Cops are trained to do pattern matching. Did the suspect put the car in “park?” Did she turn off her engine? Is her demeanor calm? We put these professional pattern-matchers to work in a system where the consequences of not matching patterns effectively can be fatal, and where African American males are incarcerated at a rate many times higher than their white counterparts. Then we act like we expect individual cops to ignore race and gender markers entirely while engaged in this life-or-death pattern matching exercise many times per day.
My point is that the disparity in the way cops approach people of different races and genders is not typically the fault of the individual police officer. Rather, we have put them in this impossible situation as a society, and things won’t get better until we fix the underlying injustices and inequities that result in “young African American male” matching with “criminal” in the brains of police (and the public, for that matter).
I used to think police accountability was the major issue to address here, and I still think it should be part of the solution, especially in a case where an individual cop was negligent with someone else’s life. But punishing cops for a) doing the pattern-matching that we train them to do, and b) operating daily at the perilous intersection between an unjust system and a diverse public, is not the first (or even fifth or sixth) place to look for an answer. The real answer is to change the underlying patterns we’re asking these cops to match.