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On guns, fear, justice and empathy in the wake of Philando Castile’s death

REUTERS/Joshua Lott
More guns means more violence.

Philando Castile was the cafeteria supervisor at my grandsons’ school. When their mom gently explained what had happened to “Mr. Phil,” the 7-year-old said, “He was special because he helped every single kid, every single day, every single year.”

Rich Cowles

After this admired person and positive influence was suddenly taken away from his family, his students and his community, all we have left is hope for justice. But what does justice look like, really?

While we don’t yet know all the details, as a white Minnesotan, I fully agree with Gov. Mark Dayton when he said he thinks Phil Castile would still be alive if he were white. I’m glad he said it. Every indication is that Castile died because he was a black man with a legally owned gun who followed the gun-safety protocol he was taught. Yet this situation doesn’t appear to fit the pattern of racist brutality that often appears to be at the core of the rash of police killings of black men that’s rocked our nation.

Rather, it appears to be a killing out of fear at the intersection of widely accessible guns and racial stereotyping. Relevant, wide-eyed justice in this case must evoke change in our culture where a young policeman — four years on the force with a stellar record, known as “the nicest, most caring guy” — has a lethal fear of a seat-belted black man with a legally owned gun on his person and a 4-year-old in his back seat.

The Supreme Court’s role

Just eight years ago in District of Columbia v. Heller, with Justice Antonin Scalia writing the majority opinion in a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court ruled for the first time that private citizens may own firearms under the Second Amendment, specifically holding that the District of Columbia’s ban on handgun possession in the home violated the amendment. It was a dramatic reversal of seven decades of gun law guided by a 1939 Supreme Court decision in United States v. Miller that the “obvious purpose” of the Second Amendment was the continuation and effectiveness of state militias.

The 2008 ruling opened the door to mass gun ownership, and the NRA and the gun industry it represents came crashing through. They carried with them a childlike vision of “good guys” with guns killing “bad guys” with guns, a “slippery-slope” belligerence that sees any sensible restriction as a threat to the Second Amendment, and the will to reshape American life around the Second Amendment. It’s as if the right to bear arms trumps all other rights, including the right to life for more and more Americans every day.

Law-enforcement officers are especially vulnerable. They are killed at three times the rate in states with high firearm ownership compared with states with low ownership (American Public Health Association). Tellingly, they’re almost half as likely to be killed in the 18 states that have enacted background checks on all gun sales ( Minnesota is not one of them.

Add to this the fact that our country has discovered — over and over again — that simply turning its back on slavery and Jim Crow doesn’t end the virulent racism that was their fuel. Every time we try to turn the page of history, we find the previous pages have bled through. Systemic racism continues both blatantly and in subtle ways that many of us white Americans don’t even see, resulting in persistent gaps in income, education and health.

With guns easily available to almost anyone and a disenfranchised minority scarred from a past of brutal oppression, police are apt to approach a black man in a stopped car with heightened fears and expectations.

Proper justice

To me, a proper justice is holding accountable the state and federal representatives who allowed us to get into this pickle, giving the gun lobby carte blanche to unload an unfathomable number of instruments of death and destruction on the American public, even as it fights any public safeguards. These elected representatives have ignored repeated evidence of the obvious: More guns means more violence.

Justice is replacing these representatives with people who will put lives ahead of the gun lobby.

A second kind of justice is already beginning — people empathizing with those whom they’ve viewed as on the other side of a very big divide. The heartbreaking live video streamed by Philando Castile’s girlfriend as he bled to death seems to have singlehandedly helped many white people understand that black people have a different set of experiences in this country. In the last several days I’ve heard more and more leaders — including President Barack Obama in his Dallas speech — as well as ordinary citizens speak about the need to come together to talk about our different experiences. The burden of initiating these conversations — of reaching out and understanding and supporting — lies with those of us who live in white privilege. Perhaps it’s never possible to completely empathize with another individual, but we will all be better off for the trying.

Once that occurs, we will finally get justice for — and a living tribute to — Mr. Phil and the long list of brethren whose only major crime was that they live in America with dark skin.

Rich Cowles was executive director of the Charities Review Council before he retired. Now he’s a part-time volunteer, part-time writer and full-time grandfather. 


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Comments (31)

  1. Submitted by Ray J Wallin on 07/15/2016 - 08:31 am.


    Very well written, well balanced article.

  2. Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 07/15/2016 - 09:05 am.

    If it wasn’t racial profiling…

    …as the cops always assert in these cases, then the only other explanation is that the cop was incompetent. I would like to hear the cops say that. They want to blame the victim always, that somehow Mr.Castile is at fault and that the cop was justified in shooting him and the cop would have shot an old white guy like me in the exact same circumstances. I don’t believe that of course, but if it is true then that cop is incompetent and should at least be guilty of negligent homicide.

    But the cops always, always protect and justify each other to the point that they will slant their reports to cover up what really happened. And as long as there is no third party video they get away with it and if there is third party video they still have excuses and justifications. And the cops walking out on the Lynx the other night prove my point, which is that these armed men refuse to acknowledge any fault of responsibility in any member of any police department.

  3. Submitted by Erik Petersen on 07/15/2016 - 09:41 am.

    yes and no

    Might be fair to say the circumstances of Mr. Castile’s death are in a certain way correlated to the ascendance of contemporary gun culture. Among a few other things as well, of course. I understand Mr. Cowles argument.

    There are some problematic factual errors though.

    Such as: in Heller vs. DC the ‘Supreme Court ruled for the first time that private citizens may own firearms under the Second Amendment.’ This statement might be superficially accurate, but you’d give it about a C- in terms of its expression for the actual legal issues decided. One thing is, yeah, Heller was perhaps the first SCOTUS decision to explicitly state the 2A was an individual right…. But the state in their arguments and most of the minority in their dissent acknowledged this was the proper, prior understanding that we’d all be living under for 200 years, with it just being a question of what constituted reasonable limitations to that right.

    Such as: Miller v US 1939 did not ratify any meaningful government ban of common use weapons among civilians. 1934 NFA act had largely criminalized machine guns and a few other things, like sawed off shotguns. With Miller, SCOTUS affirmed the sawed off shotgun ban because a sawed off shotgun has say no ‘militia utility’. Which is to say, SCOTUS concluded weapons suitable for militia use were appropriate for broad civilian possession. Miller v US had no precedential effect of establishing the 2A as ‘about’ state militias.

    Such as: “The 2008 ruling opened the door to mass gun ownership, and the NRA and the gun industry it represents came crashing through.” We’ve had “mass” gun ownership since probably the civil war / manifest destiny / pioneer expansion, to pick a generational spot. Cowle’s observation singles out 2008 and Heller as a watershed change moment when it is quite really not.

  4. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 07/15/2016 - 11:36 am.

    Sorry. Never in the history of this country have so many millions of guns been owned by so many millions of citizens. I don’t know what you’re reading (except the gun-rights-supporting legalistic arguments in the Supreme Court majority opinion), but it’s a myth that American s always had “mass” gun ownership, or even at any point prior to the 21st century.

    This author has it right: we have seen a veritable explosion of NRA-inspired gun ownership in the U.S. There are simply too many guns out there among us. No controls. Horrendous gun-related violence.

  5. Submitted by joe smith on 07/15/2016 - 03:54 pm.

    Mr Castile should not have been shot

    I agree on that with you. Neither the police officer who shot Castile or Mr Castile are white so were is the racism in this case. If a black officer shots a hispanic person is that also racist? The police officer panicked and shot Mr Castile, he messed up in the worse way a cop can, he took a life. The police officer may be the nicest guy in the world but he shouldn’t be a cop. Instead of reading “The New Jim Crow” & beating implicit racism on them, we should have our police officers trained steady in crisis situations and how to de-escalate situations that happen at warp speed for police when they least expect it.

    As far as guns go, show me a law that will keep guns out of the hands of folks that shouldn’t have them. I have no problem with background checks for gun buyers. I have a sneaking suspicion that a guy with a long history of crime/violence won’t go through proper channels to get a weapon. What law are going to pass for that? Every time there is a shooting that makes national news the “we gotta do something” gang comes out with a lot of talk but no answers to keeping guns away from dangerous folks.

    Following that logic we will be banning pressure cookers (used to kill race watchers at Boston Marathon) or trucks (used to kill innocent folks Nice, France).

    • Submitted by Russell Booth on 07/16/2016 - 01:05 pm.

      Do we have enough guns yet to be safe from gun violence?

      There is not a way to control whether good people or bad people will have guns when there is a very large supply of guns in the population. I have heard it said that the process of Americans giving up guns would be like us choosing to start driving on the left-hand side of the road, like in the UK, and phasing in the change gradually. But Australia successfully managed to change their gun culture with deliberate steps. It seems the US is looking to become more like Palestine with our current trends.

      When there are two good guys with a gun, both are safe as long as they are both aware that they are good guys.

      When there are two bad guys with a gun both are safe as long as their bad intentions align.

      When there is a good guy with a gun and a bad guy with a gun, or if the good guy is not sure whether the other is a good guy, only the one who shoots first is safe.

      The same cannot be said for culinary devices or other machinery that is not designed to kill.

      A way to de-escalate this particular situation might have been for Officer Yanaz to hastily retreat toward the rear of the suspect’s vehicle as soon as he felt fear. A seat-belted driver would require a certain amount of time to unbelt and open the door to exit the vehicle in order to be able to fire in the retreating officer’s direction, if that was his intent. Meanwhile, Officer Hauser, could have been stationed in position to protect the retreating officer.

      If anybody wants to add this idea to “Bulletproof Warrior” or any other police training curriculum, I claim no proprietary right to this technique. I think I saw it in a movie, or maybe on TV.

    • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 07/18/2016 - 09:20 am.


      Since when is racism a purely white person problem? Remember Trayvon Martin? Tell me that wasn’t fueled by racism. Also, believe it or not, black people can be racist, too. And Asian people. You’ll find racism in people with pretty much every skin tone. Sometimes, people don’t even realize how racist they are, but their actions sometimes out them. I fully believe the Philando would be alive today if he were white.

  6. Submitted by Bill Phillips on 07/15/2016 - 07:07 pm.

    Missing the point

    Well, in response to Mr. Smith’s comment, the fact that the police officer was also a member of a minority doesn’t change the fact that it was largely Mr. Castile’s race that triggered (sorry about that) the officer’s fear and use of his handgun. As a young black man driving in a mostly white community he was subjected to both greater scrutiny and enforcement actions by the officers than a white driver would have been. That seems obvious, and is borne out by the statistics we’re seeing on suburban policing. I would call that minority profiling at the least, if not outright racism.

    While the broken taillight may have been the pretext for the stop, the officer, through his attorney, also is alleging that the officers thought Mr. Castile might be a burglary suspect, so no racism was involved. If that was the case, then the officers didn’t follow standard police protocols for approaching suspected felons, but walked right up to the vehicle, rather than asking the driver to step out of the car. They put themselves in danger, and then overreacted to the situation when Mr. Castile properly informed them that he had a weapon and a carry permit. If they had asked the occupants to step out of the vehicle they would have seen it was a family situation, and, presumably, just gone ahead and issued him an umpteenth citation.

    • Submitted by joe smith on 07/16/2016 - 10:43 pm.


      just to clarify, if a black police officer shoots a black suspect in the same manner as Mr. Castile was shot, is racism involved? It gets hard to follow all the rules now used to get implicit racism inserted into every shooting. Humans are prone to make mistakes especially in high pressure situations. Calling racism in every case whether warranted or not hurts the cases where racism is truly a factor.

      • Submitted by Helen Hunter on 07/17/2016 - 11:09 am.

        Officer panic

        Mr Smith, do police officers (whatever their race and ethnicity) routinely panic when a white person tells them he or she has a gun?
        No they do not, or we would be hearing as many stories of white people killed by police as black and brown people.
        Your statement “It gets hard to follow all the rules now used to get implicit racism inserted into every shooting” shows that you believe someone is “INSERTING” racism into these shootings where it does not exist!
        I cannot adequately argue against that. No one could.
        And this is not an intellectual exercise. People are dying.
        All I will do is repeat your statement and leave it there on its own.

        • Submitted by joe smith on 07/18/2016 - 07:18 am.


          You are 100% wrong on how police act when a gun is involved. Whether a police officer is dealing with a man, woman, white or black with a gun, their adrenaline sky rockets. Bullets don’t know race or gender. Sit down with a group of cops and talk about their job, you may come away thinking differently.

          • Submitted by Helen Hunter on 07/19/2016 - 11:11 am.

            My Name is Ms Hunter

            I addressed you as “Mr Smith”. Address me equivalently as Ms Hunter.
            You did not address the fact that we do not hear even the SAME number of reports of police shooting or otherwise killing white people, even though there are so many more of us than of black and brown people in this country.
            Police officers manage to control their skyrocketing adrenalin when encountering white people — unless the white person is mentally ill.
            You are correct: BULLETS, no more than GUNS, know what color a person is.
            But the person holding and shooting the gun does know. It’s those people who need to change.
            I have talked to police about their jobs. Some of them acknowledge the problem of cops shooting black and brown and I am adding mentally ill people, in situations where white, apparently mentally healthy people, survive the encounter.
            Don’t, please, assume that someone with a different opinion has not thought the issue through.

      • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 07/18/2016 - 09:31 am.


        There’s a hilarious black comedian (sadly, not doing as much right now due to a very, very bad accident) I saw once on a cruise ship. He was making fun of the different cruise lines, which was hilarious. And then he made fun of himself. It was actually very telling. He said he was staying on a cruise ship (I suspect that it might have been a hotel if he hadn’t been on a cruise ship) and he woke up for some reason in the middle of the night, and when his eyes adjusted he screamed because there was a black man in his room and he was terrified. It turned out to be the mirror. It was funny, but it wasn’t funny at the same time. You know that moment you know you’re going to Hell because you laughed? That was it. The thing is, it was funny because it was true. Black men suffer from racism, even from other black people. All jokes aside, when the person has a fear of a group of people and cannot contain himself sufficiently not to act out against a person because of it, he should not be a cop. White, black, Hispanic, Asian, or other. Philando died from racism, no matter the skin color of the cop.

        • Submitted by Steve Rose on 07/18/2016 - 11:30 am.

          The Racism Assumption

          Back in the early to mid 1970s, a friend and work colleague of my father’s was shot and killed during a routine traffic stop in White Bear Lake. He was steering a car being towed by a car driven by his teenaged son. I have unsuccessfully searched online for a mention of this incident. There was no gun present and no words were exchanged prior to the shooting. Both the officer and the man killed were white. Were the man killed black, it would be due to racism. But, the man was white. Why was he shot and killed?

          • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 07/18/2016 - 02:47 pm.


            No one ever said that every incident that results in someone being shot was racism-related. Sometimes, bad things happen for reasons other than racism. Is it possible that your friend did something wrong that endangered the life of the cop or someone else? Or is it possible that the cop did something wrong that resulted in mistakenly killing your friend? Maybe the cop was prejudiced against people in non-functional vehicles. Not every prejudice involves race, but I imagine it’s possible, if extremely unlikely, that your friend was shot because the cop was racist against white guys. Even so, the fact that sometimes stuff just happens that doesn’t have to do with racism doesn’t mean that racism never results in someone being killed, as in the case of Philando. If there’s a point you’re trying to prove, you’re not getting very far by veering wildly from side to side while ignoring what’s directly in front of you.

  7. Submitted by Steve Rose on 07/17/2016 - 12:10 am.

    The Sky is Falling

    While that narrative with respect to gun homicides is popular, it really isn’t so.

    The FBI homicides statistics for the five year period 2010-2014 (linked below) show that homicides and gun homicides continue to trend downward. Gun homicides in 2014 were down 4% with respect to 2013 and down 8% with respect to 2010. Comparing 2014 to 2013, murders only increased in the following categories: knives, blunt objects, explosives, narcotics, drowning, strangulation, and asphyxiation.

    “Every indication is that Castile died because he was a black man with a legally owned gun who followed the gun-safety protocol he was taught.”

    The author provides no backings for these assertions. What evidence do you have that Mr. Castile died because he was black? Assumptions are not evidence. Did he follow the gun safety protocol that he was taught? During a routine traffic stop in Minnesota, the driver is under no obligation to mention that he/she has a gun nor a carry permit. The presence of a gun and a permit would need to be divulged if the officer stated that he was going to search the vehicle or driver. Safety protocol: Divulge the permit before mentioning the gun.

  8. Submitted by Peter Spooner on 07/17/2016 - 09:39 am.

    2nd ammendment

    Since the Revolution, have Americans ever collectively risen up with weapons in hand, to overthrow their goverment? The way people talk about the 2nd Ammendment is far from its original intent. Now it is about individual rights. Many people want the right to kill each other, for a variety of reasons.

    I urge people to look at their own biases and learn about subconscious attitudes that influence surface behaviors toward our fellow humans –

    Data from millions of these tests reveal that bias against people of color is so deeply engrained, that even people of color show biase against themselves.

    • Submitted by Kevin Vick on 07/21/2016 - 01:43 pm.


      The right of “the people” is cited in the 1st, 2nd, 4th, 9th, and 10th amendments. Please tell me if you believe the freedom of speech, for example, is only guaranteed to the collective?

  9. Submitted by Herbert Davis on 07/17/2016 - 10:28 am.

    pretty common

    The jumping to conclusions and not waiting for all of the evidence seems to be a pretty common phenomenon. I have no idea why seemingly intelligent people spend time writing down and disseminating their “conclusions” without waiting for all of the likely evidence to come out.

    Is it the desire to be first or early? Is it short attention span of the presumed audience? Steve Rose makes the similar point…there is next to nothing to back up most of the assumptions and assertions by this apparently well intended article.

    What are the editors intending? If this article was in ” comments” it might make sense to post it. I’ve seen similar editorial misfeasance in my local paper. Why do editors get paid so much?

    • Submitted by Pat Berg on 07/19/2016 - 07:43 am.

      Community Voices

      You are alleging “editorial misfeasance” on a piece which is posted in the “Community Voices” section. Here is MinnPost’s description of Community Voices:

      “Community Voices features opinion pieces from a wide variety of authors and perspectives. MinnPost welcomes submissions on current topics of broad interest in Minnesota.”

      The Community Voices section is not intended for stories written under an editor’s control, so your criticism is irrelevant in this case.

      • Submitted by Steve Rose on 07/19/2016 - 09:09 am.

        Editorial Control

        As an author of several Community Voices columns, I can tell you that these columns are reviewed and edited, and accepted or rejected, by the MinnPost editiorial staff. This is not the Letters section.

        • Submitted by Jim Million on 07/22/2016 - 12:33 pm.

          See Solicitation Footnote

          This section is placed in the realm of MinnPost’s Managing Editor. We don’t know if the process includes solicitation of topics or just vetting of submissions. Managing Editors customarily control the flow of focus and the allocation within what is called “the budget.” In small shops they may also act as assignment editors.

  10. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 07/19/2016 - 10:49 pm.

    The gun hero fantasy

    Every year, I see one action or cartoon-based film, mostly because one of my brothers will tolerate no other kind of film on our annual siblings’ outing.

    I can’t help noticing that every single film in these genres contains a scene in which Our Hero mows down a legion of Bad Guys with his real-life or fantasy firearms. The Bad Guys are never individuals. They’re just a mindless mass of attackers. They all end up dead.

    I wonder if years of exposure to these genres of films, which seem to be the dominant genres in popular movies nowadays, have planted in impressionable minds the fantasy of being Our Hero and saving…something or someone.. from legions of anonymous Bad Guys (criminals, terrorists, space aliens, whatever) with his firearms.

    I’d like to point out the recent coup attempt in Turkey. This was a part of the Turkish army that mutinied, not just random guys with guns, and yet the mutiny failed, because the rest of the Turkish army stayed loyal to the president, who, by the way, has strong dictatorial tendencies and has been conducting mass purges.

    So what chance does a Hero in His Own Mind have against the forces of a government? Ask the people of Hungary, Czechoslovakia, China, and Franco’s Spain.

    The only successful armed revolutions have had broad national support as well as armed fighters. The Viet Cong, as hard as Americans find it to believe, had a lot of popular support, as did Fidel Castro and Mao Zedong.

    If some of the self-styled freedom fighters launched an attack against the U.S. government, they might find support in some parts of the country, but the majority would just roll their eyes and say something dismissive and cheer when the authorities cracked down.

    • Submitted by Steve Rose on 07/20/2016 - 07:34 am.

      What is to fear?

      Any examples in the 20th century? Stalin, Mao, Hitler, Pot; they all disarmed their own populace before proceeding to kill millions of their own people. Presently, we are all free to decide whether or not we will possess firearms. Make that decision for yourself and not for me.

      Sadly, history’s only lesson is that we never learn from history.

      • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 07/20/2016 - 03:12 pm.

        No, many of these populations never had guns in the first place

        Certainly not in China or Russia. Those were societies of peasants with small urban populations. Russian peasants may have had the occasional hunting rifle, but the idea that there was a time outside of Wild West dime novels when everyone owned guns until they were confiscated is a gun worshiper’s myth.

        Hitler actually relaxed the gun controls that had been enacted during the Weimar era. He banned gun ownership for Jews but made it easier to “Aryan” Germans to own them and lowered the age for legal gun ownership. For all their ease of gun ownership, I cannot think of any cases where Gentile German gun owners used those firearms to protect their Jewish neighbors.

        • Submitted by Steve Rose on 07/20/2016 - 04:04 pm.

          So, in Germany it was Just the Jews?

          How did that work out for them? History shows why they were disarmed and why they were prohibited from owning any weapon.

  11. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 07/22/2016 - 10:31 am.

    Don’t be silly

    Personal and institutional racism are obviously elements of police violence and have been since our Nation was created. If you think that the concept of racism is limited to white people you simply don’t understand the concept. It’s not “minoriticism”, i.e. prejudice against minorities. So yeah, one minority can be prejudiced against another “minority”… duh. Anyone can be racist because racism is a set of assumptions and stereotypes that any human brain can contain. Again… duh. So if a black person relies on racist assumptions against some other black person it’s still racism, and such behavior has been documented out the proverbial ying yang. So when a black cop shoots a black guy because he’s made the same racist assumptions that a white cop would have made… that doesn’t get the white cops off the racist hook. Do I have to say it again? Duh.

    Obviously we have a combination of issue here, police militarization, training, combat mentalities instead of policing mentalities, too many guns, assault weapons that have created an arms race between the population and law enforcement, Law and Order policies going back to Nixon, Lack of accountability, and racism.

    The one thing ALL of these issues and initiatives have in common is the fact they were ALL brainchildren of conservatives and republicans. So when the people who created this mess tell us they’re going to fix it we need to remember that when the hole your in is the problem you have to stop digging. Yes, the Clinton’s bought into the Law an Order initiatives but all that proves is that conservative policies are a bad idea no matter who implements them. Again, stop digging.

    • Submitted by Steve Rose on 07/25/2016 - 10:48 am.

      Keeping Digging, the Truth Can Be Found

      Reported on by the Washington Post, the findings of a study by a Harvard professor for the National Bureau of Economic Research:

      “But when it comes to the most lethal form of force — police shootings — the study finds no racial bias.
      “It is the most surprising result of my career,” said Roland G. Fryer Jr., the author of the study and a professor of economics at Harvard. The study examined more than a thousand shootings in 10 major police departments, in Texas, Florida and California.”

      Why was professor Fryer, who is black, so surprised? Because quite the opposite (of the truth) is stated, parroted, and tweeted until it is accepted as truth. And, preconceived notions are easily reinforced.”

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