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

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. 

More guns means more violence.
REUTERS/Joshua Lott

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.

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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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