Sunday, August 03, 2008

Postcard from the gun show

Comment from a Brit

I went to my first gun show recently–part of my ongoing remedial education in American cultural literacy, which my (American) wife has lately taken in hand–and I have been turning the experience over in my mind these past few days. As a Brit, of course, I was conditioned to expect that the first time I saw an unholstered pistol would be when a mugger stuck one in my face. That is how it works in a civilised country. So for me it was passing strange to see many hundreds of pistols–not to mention shotguns, assault rifles, armour-piercing bullets, laser-sighting attachments and all manner of other lethal weaponry–arrayed for the delectation of ordinary citizens. They let me pick up a gun, for heaven’s sake!

A few moments inside the exhibition hall, I was still puzzling over the perfunctory security check at the door–“Are you carrying firearms?” “No, but why would that be a problem?”–when I gaped as a rotund and cheerful old gentleman with a white beard walked past me to the exit, with what looked like an Armalite and attached bayonet slung casually over his shoulder. (I was pleased to see that the trigger was secured by a plastic tie. Dangerous otherwise.) Trade was brisk. The Supreme Court had just overturned DC’s de facto prohibition on hand guns, upholding the Second Amendment as an individual rather than collective right.

Though a Brit, as I say, I did not bring the default attitude of many Europeans (or East Coast liberals, same thing) to the event. I am by no means an instinctive gun controller. It is not obvious to me what is wrong with the argument that says, “The criminals already have guns; gun control disarms the rest of us.” I don’t know how many times I have heard that view sneered at, or laughed at, or pointed to as an infallible marker of stupidity. But I haven’t ever heard it seriously confronted, let alone refuted. Thought experiment: would I feel safer walking around DC at night if the district allowed concealed carry, so that some fraction of law-abiding citizens on the street would be armed, or would I feel more at risk? Answer: safer. I don’t say this settles the matter: I’m not sure what I think about gun control, and the seeming resistance in some quarters to any and all forms of regulation is ridiculous. But why is this not a legitimate consideration?

I don’t think the Democratic nominee would have felt at home with this crowd. I heard several references to Comrade Obama, and saw one button (which I coveted) that said, “I am a BITTER gun-owner.” They seemed to me an affable, friendly and very courteous bunch (well, you would be, wouldn’t you?). I don’t think you could mix with the show’s visitors for more than five minutes without thinking it was nonsense to attribute their interest in guns to bitterness or disappointment or some form of social pathology. But of course there is a political dimension. Aside from other motivations–sport, self-defence–the gun-show universe is about pride, self-reliance, and resentment at being bossed around. Distinctively American traits, wouldn’t you say? Best in moderation, no doubt–but still, where would the country be without those attitudes? I may get thrown out of Georgetown for this, but I say, good for them.


Aggressive cop shoots kid, blames woman

If it goes to trial, the People vs. Frank White promises to be a fascinating study in the art of lawyering, because of its complexity, its high profile and the fact that it involves a police officer and a victim who also faces criminal charges, legal experts say.

The defense is certain to try and portray Rachel Silva as unsympathetically as possible and to assign her blame for what happened. Silva, 28, was unarmed when she was shot twice by White in an Oceanside parking lot apparently during a road-rage incident. Yet she was the aggressor, was intoxicated and driving on a suspended license from a previous DUI, Oceanside police said. “That is not a situation you want to be in as a prosecutor,” said Jeff Joseph, associate dean and general counsel for Thomas Jefferson School of Law.

But what more sympathetic victim could there be than an 8-year-old boy, Silva's son, who was shot once in the left leg by White as Silva backed her car past his in a shopping center parking lot? “That's something that I would expect the prosecutors to stress,” former District Attorney Paul Pfingst said. “If it was just Ms. Silva inside the car the case would look radically different.”

The fact that White, 28, is a San Diego police officer could make a conviction difficult. Jurors often tend to believe police officers over other witnesses. But officers also can be held to a higher standard because of their training. Jurors can expect them to remain cool, and not overreact like a civilian might in the same situation. “Being a police officer is often a double-edged sword,” said Shaun Martin, a professor of criminal law at the University of San Diego Law School.

White has been suspended from duty and has pleaded not guilty to grossly negligent discharge of a firearm, a felony, and exhibiting a firearm, a misdemeanor. The biggest question facing White's defense is why he fired five rounds into Silva's car, said Alec Rose, a Santa Monica defense lawyer who has defended many police officers. Self-defense, Rose said, has its limits. “You cannot use more force than you need to neutralize the threat.”

Throw into the mix that White was off duty in his own car with his wife, and that he pulled out his personal, five-shot, .38-caliber revolver – and not his badge – when confronted, said defense lawyer George Cretton, a former El Cajon police officer. “There's a fair difference between acting on duty and off duty,” Cretton said. “It just creates additional issues that you wouldn't normally expect to have if you were on duty in a uniform in a police car.”

In White's trial, the ultimate question jurors would have to decide, based on their life experiences, is whether he behaved recklessly, Pfingst said. Should he have withheld fire until he had determined who was inside Silva's car? Would a reasonable person have assumed that the person driving the other car was trying to seriously injure or kill him, and not trying to escape? “What this case is going to turn on is whether the act was grossly negligent,” Pfingst said. “There's no charge that it was malicious.”

An Oceanside police investigation concluded that Silva, who was living in Oceanside at the time, pulled out in front of White on Old Grove Road just after 9 p.m. March 15, forcing him to swerve to avoid an accident. White turned into a nearby Lowe's parking lot, and Silva followed, revving her engine and tailgating. White's wife called 911. In the parking lot, Silva pulled within inches of White's door, and was shouting at him. Court documents say White pointed his gun at her, and then backed up his car.

Silva called 911, saying, “There's a guy who's pulling a gun on me.” She then drove in reverse toward White's car. As the two cars passed, their side mirrors hitting, White fired one round through his window and Silva's passenger window, striking her son, and four more through her windshield. The front of Silva's Honda Accord hit the side of White's Mercury Milan as she turned away. Silva, 28, has pleaded not guilty to one felony count of child endangerment and four DUI-related misdemeanors in the incident. She is being prosecuted by the state Attorney General's Office.

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