The Legal Standard for Self- Defense Should Be Consistent for Law Enforcement and Civilians Alike


(image via Microsoft Office)

I watched the video of Walter Scott being gunned down by a North Charleston police officer. It was horrifying. Pure horror, as a man in uniform abused his power and possession of a firearm to gun down someone who appeared to pose no threat at the time of the shooting.

It is difficult to see who was doing what when they were close together; to be sure whether or not Mr. Scott had possession of a taser as the officer claimed wasn’t possible from my vantage point. But it makes no difference. What happened afterward was excessive, unwarranted, and on its face, an evil disregard for life. It appeared to be a reflexive move, tossing the taser on the ground near the body, after yelling at and cuffing the dying man on the ground. But the intent could only be interpreted as an effort to deceive, even as another officer came to the scene.

I love and appreciate police officers for how they serve our communities. I have worked with many great officers in my line of work with children, youth, and their families. However, the circumstances and evidence in some officer-involved shooting cases point to a scumbag cop. I think this is one of those cases. The combination of a gun and an unscrupulous person, without morality and decency, is a dangerous thing.

According to statistics from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 0.8% of victims of violent crime responded by threatening or using a firearm, 235,700 individuals. That isn’t a huge number, but it is 235,700 fewer people that aren’t a part of the 2,277,000 victims of fatal or non-fatal firearms violence incidence. In Tennessee and in other states that issue handgun cary permits, background checks are mandatory so that people who are felons and not entitled to carry a firearm are not legally able to do so. Rightfully so, because the responsibility of carrying a firearm for defense of self, family, and possibly other people is tremendous. It is a responsibility that firearms owners who voluntarily carry a handgun for defense take very seriously. People who aren’t paid to carry a weapon and for the most part train and get to know their firearms very well logically are invested in safety and using that firearm only if absolutely necessary.

So, to the point I’m here to make, in light of the horrendous death of Walter Scott and the need for police responsibility, and my concern for the freedom for citizens to carry and use firearms responsibly, is this: police should be expected to use guns in the same manner in which it is lawful for citizens to use guns.

Charles CW Cooke, writing in the National Review, cited Tennessee vs. Garner, the Supreme Court case that decided police could fire on a fleeing suspect when there is reasonable belief there is “significant threat of death or serious injury” to him or herself or someone else. Citizens are not allowed to fire on someone who is fleeing and poses no immediate threat to self or someone else, even if that person is stealing or damaging property. I can understand this exception for law enforcement officers if an armed-and-dangerous suspect is fleeing and poses a threat to the general public, though this does not appear to be applicable in Mr. Scott’s case.

Additionally, law enforcement officers at all levels may obtain warrants to legally enter a building with weapons drawn in the event a threat presents itself, until the premises is clear. In a hostage situation, a decision might be made to fire on a suspect who is known to be threatening the lives of others. Neither of these are situations that non-law enforcement citizens will find themselves in. Outside of these exceptions, I can’t see any situation where law enforcement use of force with a firearm should be different than what is legal for a lawful firearm-carrying citizen.

Whatever the legal and policy requirements are, state by state, municipality by municipality, there should not be a great difference between what constitutes legal firearms use for law enforcement and non-law enforcement citizens.

Why should the policy standard for law enforcement be set by the laws governing civilian defensive firearms carry? Because ordinary citizens, in addition to the advantages I’ve already mentioned, are governed by these laws out of a demand for safety, decency, and competency that I’m afraid isn’t impressed upon all law enforcement officers. And that is what is really the issue for me in the apparent murder of Walter Scott. There was absolutely no caution, decency, or morality in what that video demonstrated, and public servants should exemplify those virtues.

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