When the Law Shoots First and Asks Questions Later

How can we convince citizens not to use guns as a first resort if those charged with keeping the peace keep doing so?

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Composite image of Ibragim Todashev after his arrest for aggravated battery in Orlando and police blocking the entrance to the apartment complex where he was was fatally shot.
Composite image of Ibragim Todashev after his arrest for aggravated battery in Orlando and police near the scene following his shooting.

There's a disturbing Wild West mentality out there when it comes to guns, where the right to own firearms has been challenged by the horrifying use of them in certain celebrated cases. Aurora, Sandy Hook, the attempted assassination of Rep. Gabby Giffords – all have become shorthand for gun violence that is out of control. 

Perhaps more troubling, those who want restrictions on gun ownership have themselves become targets of attempted assault and even murder. Both President Obama and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has spearheaded an effort to get rid of illegal guns, have been sent letters laced with deadly ricin.

While this is surely not a solution favored by the vast majority of gun owners, it doesn't help the cause of gun enthusiasts when someone uses violence to show why people should be trusted with deadly weapons.

And as for personal protection? Leave that to legitimate law enforcement agencies, we are told. They know how and when to use guns to protect lives and not to take them.

That very legitimate argument (witness the thorough and restrained use of Boston's modern, well-regulated militia during the search for the Marathon bombers) is losing some steam as well of late. In two unrelated cases, law enforcement has shot and killed supposedly disturbed or agitated people – neither of whom actually had a gun himself or herself.

In Florida, a suspect who had ties to one of the accused Boston Marathon bombers was shot and killed by an FBI agent. At first, we were told that the suspect lunged at the agent with a knife. More recently, several news organizations have reported that the man was unarmed – though perhaps going to another part of the room to retrieve a sword. The suspect, according to the latest version, was alone in the room with the agent when the shooting happened.

[See a collection of political cartoons on gun control and gun rights.]

There are too many unanswered questions, but the questions themselves are already damning. Why, in the suspect's home, did the FBI allow the man to be interviewed with a sword across the room? Why was he alone with an agent? And most importantly, if the agent was not in immediate danger of being shot himself, was deadly force really necessary? Surely, a trained law enforcement officer knows how to shoot to wound, and not to kill.

In northern Virginia, meanwhile, a woman employed at a local Costco was shot and killed by a sheriff's deputy after she reportedly threatened fellow workers and deputies with a knife and scissors. Another deputy was wounded in the melee. It indeed seems that the woman was disturbed in some way, as well as dangerous. But she had blades, not a gun. Was killing her the only way to stop her?

Law enforcement officers may be understandably nervous when dealing with aggressive or troubled people, and may over-react. But how can we convince citizens not to resort to guns as a first resort if those charged with keeping the peace shoot first and ask questions later?

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